My friends and I have a tradition every fall of welcoming the colder weather by having a huge chili cook-off party. Party guests each bring a pot of their favorite homemade chili recipe and everyone samples them all and chooses their favorites. We always plan the party for the same time of year that Oktoberfest events are traditionally held, and we lovingly call our cook-off “OctChiliFest”. Whenever you have it or whatever you call it, a chili cook-off is a unique way to get together with friends and have a fun, food-filled party that everyone will love.
Having held this party for about 10 years in a row now, I’ve gathered quite a few tips and ideas that help make it run smoothly, and I’d like to share them with you.
- Invite everyone, but pressure no one. Because all your guests will bring the food for this party, your costs as party host are minimal, so make the guest list contain as many people as you have room for. The more the merrier with this kind of party. Encourage your guests to bring a pot of chili to enter into the contest, but don’t make it required or pressure them to participate. As long as you end up with at least 6 or 8 chili entries, you’ll have a great contest, so don’t worry if not everybody brings some. And don’t forget our free chili cook-off invitations that you can download and print!
- Equipment is key. Ask each participant to bring his or her chili in a slow cooker for easier serving. Have a couple of power strips and/or extension cords on hand so that you can easily plug in all those cords so that all the pots of chili can stay hot during the evening. And if you expect to have more than 5 or 6 crockpots going, you probably want to split the electric load onto two extension cords that are plugged in to two different circuits in your house. Otherwise you might overload the circuit and trip the breaker (we learned that lesson the hard way!). Keep in mind, too, that some guests will bring a ladle to go with their chili, but have some extras on hand for those who forget.
- Have the party outside if possible. If weather permits, have the party outside. Get a couple of long folding tables (or several card tables) and line them up along the house or deck for people to put their chili on. Having the tables outside will let you have more room for all those slow cookers, and give everyone plenty of space. The best part about having the chili outside is that it will keep the inevitable dropped ladles and chili drippings off your carpet and on the grass instead!
- Keep the entries anonymous during tasting. Your guests will find it much more fun if you keep the entries as anonymous as possible, so label them with numbers instead of names. Our downloadable chili labels make this super easy to do. Everyone will chat about how chili #5 is too spicy or chili #2 has a great flavor. It’s much more exciting when you don’t know who made what!
- Have lots of sample cups and spoons. You want to encourage everyone to sample as many chilis as possible, and the best way to do that is to have a bunch of 2-ounce plastic portion cups.. Combine that with plenty of plastic spoons and you’ll see that everyone can easily get one or two bites of each chili and be able to sample them all without getting full.
- Have some regular bowls, too! Once the sampling is over, many people want to go back and have a real serving of the chili they liked the best. So, I always keep some regular plastic bowls on hand for bigger servings later in the evening.
- Decide on your voting system. This isn’t just a party — it’s a contest — and you need people to be able to vote! The simplest approach to take is to have people sample all of the entries, select their favorite, and write that number on a slip of paper and put it in a bowl. However, this approach requires that everyone who votes must sample every chili in order to be fair (how can you say this is the best if you haven’t tried them all?). For smaller groups, that might work well, but when you get more than 10 chili entries involved, not everyone will be able to sample them all, and if they do they might not be able to remember which one they liked best! In this case, you’ll need a voting ballot that allows you to sample one chili and then score it individually, then move on the next chili and the one after that, and sample as many as you can. The winner will then be the chili with the highest average score for each category. Later in this post, I’ll give you details on my personal voting system, as well as a downloadable voting ballot template you can print out and a worksheet that will help you with scoring. If you like options, we also have a second chili cook-off voting ballot set that is a bit simpler and more colorful.
- Have prizes for the winners. People will be much more compelled to participate if you offer some great prizes for the winning chili. In the past I’ve had prizes such as gift certificates for local restaurants (Chili’s is a fitting selection), chili-themed serving platters or sauce bowls, a mini Crockpot, or cooking equipment like a cutting board or mini food processor. I’ve even played up the Oktoberfest side of the party and given customized beer steins that declare their owner the chili champion of the year. You can also design a custom T-shirt for the winners that they will be proud to wear for the rest of the party.
- Don’t forget snacks and kid food. As great as chili is, your average person doesn’t want to eat chili all night long with nothing else. To help cleanse the palate and keep everyone’s interest, offer a few snacks like a veggie plate, cornbread, crackers and cheese, cookies, or cupcakes. And if you’re going to have kids at the party, remember that they won’t all like chili, so a platter of hot dogs and fries or tater tots will go a long way towards making them happy.
- Have a variety of drinks on hand. Of course you’ll need to provide soda, water, and juice to your guests. If you think you might have a lot of really spicy chili entries, you might even want to have some milk on hand, for calming those fiery tongues! My friends and I tend to play up the Oktoberfest aspect of our party once again by having a wide variety of unusual beer on hand, which is also fun to sample throughout the evening.
Those are my general tips for having a successful cook-off. If you want to go the extra mile, here are a couple of mini projects that I did for the party this year, which had a huge impact.
Voting ballots and scoring worksheet
For this year’s cook-off, I created a voting ballot to be filled out once for each chili sampled. The ballot has three voting categories on it, allowing the voter to rank the chili from 1-5 on how traditional and classic it was, how new and different it was, and how good it tasted.
Just download our template and print however many copies you need. Cut each sheet of ballots apart so that they can be used one at a time. Be sure to print enough of these for each guest to vote on each chili.
After all your guests have cast their votes, it’s time to tally the scores!
Take the ballots to your computer and enter the scores into our worksheet. Once you enter each vote for each chili, the worksheet will automatically calculate average scores and then identify which entries have the highest. There will be two winners identified. The “Best Traditional and Classic Chili” will be the one with the highest combined scores for “traditional and classic” and “tastes great”. The “Best New and Different Chili” will be the one with the highest combined scores for “traditional and classic” and “tastes great”. This result will properly reward entries that are either strong and steady or new and clever, but only if they taste good, too!
Voting / sample boards
We have the same problem every year while trying to vote: How do you hold your sample cup, spoon, voting ballot, and pen all at the same time, AND be able to mark your score on the ballots? This year Jo and I decided to create a sort of tray for each person to use that would make this all easier.
We started with some simple, inexpensive clipboards. If you time your purchase right, you can find these really cheap at back-to-school supplies closeout sales!
I then took three of my 2oz sample cups and positioned them on the board in a way I liked, then drew around them with a pencil.
Next I got out my hole saw set and found the one that was the right size for my sample cups — it has to be big enough for the cup to fit into but not so big that it would fall through. Just put a cup into each of the graduated saw blades until you find one that fits just right, like this:
I then attached the saw blade to my drill and took it all outside, where I cut out the three holes in each clipboard.
When all the holes were drilled, I tested to make sure my cups fit and the result was great!
I then took some 24″ lengths of ribbon and tied one to each clipboard and tied a pen on the end. I used a different pattern of ribbon for each board, so that people could remember which board was theirs during the evening (as in, “mine is the one with pink polka-dots!”). The voting ballots fit nicely in the clip and the hard surface and attached pen made score keeping so much easier for everyone.
This year’s party
This year we had 15 chili entries in the cook-off and the slow cookers filled two long tables outside. I put plenty of sample cups in front of each slow cooker and everyone had fun sampling the chili and voting with their handy boards and ballots. It was a pleasantly cool evening, and the warm chili and fun environment kept everyone smiling all night. My entry was a “Roasted Garlic White Chicken Chili”, which didn’t win but was really tasty!
Have you ever had a chili cook-off? We’d love to hear any tips you have to make it easier or more fun!
Here are some of the decorations I am ordering to use for our party this year. Thought you guys might like a sneak peek!