I was reminded recently that there can be disadvantages to being a chef. I belong to one of our local Kiwanis groups. The other week, another Kiwanis group, in a town a few miles away, decided to hold a Chili cook-off and invited a number of other Kiwanis groups from around the area. I was asked to represent our group in the cook-off as I was a chef, and should have no problem winning it. Needless to say, I didn’t win, or even come in second. My problem; I am a chef at heart, and I over thought the whole thing. I have cooked in a number of Chili cook-offs, in the past, geared my chili more towards those “sanctioned” events rather than the crowd that I would be feeding and who would, ultimately be also judging. Sure, I strayed outside the bounds of a sanctioned event by adding beans to my chili, but I knew that we wouldn’t be following the “professional” rules anyway and up here, in Wisconsin, it is unthinkable that Chili wouldn’t contain beans. But other than that, I made a chili that I felt confident could win any major Chili cook-off.

So what happened? What went wrong? It’s simple. I feel into the trap that many chefs fall into at sometime in their career. They forget who they are cooking for, and instead, let their ego take over, at which point they often determine that their guests are “clueless” and need to be educated about “real” food. Sometimes this can work out for chefs, but for the vast majority of us, the reality of the business side of the restaurant world slaps us in the face, and reminds us that it isn’t about feeding our egos but about creating something that our guests will enjoy and want to come back to time and again.

There are many chefs out there that like to think of themselves as “artists” and I would bet that every chef goes through that phase at one point or another. Sure for a small handful that thought process works out for them, but for most of us those thoughts eventually lead to failure as we alienate many of our guests, slowly shrinking that pool of repeat customers until our business can no longer be sustained and we have to shut our doors, putting numerous people out of work, and adding to the statistics of yet another failed restaurant.

I’m not saying that what we chefs do doesn’t have an element of artistry, or at the very least, craftsmanship to it, but once we start buying into the hype that we are artists, we start taking what we do way too seriously and give ourselves too much credit. Nor am I saying that chefs should not pour their heart and soul into their food, which will always engender a bit of ego on our part. But we can never forget that what we do is cook food for people and the people should be our main focus at times. Sure we can attempt to “educate” our customers, and should do so, but it needs to come from a genuine place, not a place filled with our ego, demanding that they understand our food or get out. Yes, food is our job, but we can never forget that our real job is people, and the serving of those people. Chefs can, and should, have a passion for food, but more importantly they need a passion for serving people. If you just have the passion for food you can get by as a chef, and maybe even gain a bit of notoriety for yourself, but while your flame my burn hot, it will die out rather quickly. But couple that passion for food with a passion for serving people and not only can that flame burn bright, but it can burn long.

So back to my Chili story; yes I lost and it was a rather humiliating loss in my eyes. The chilis that took 1st and 2nd place were soupy concoctions full of ground beef, chunks of tomato and onion and just the faintest hints of chili powder and cumin in them. And the only complaints about them were that they would have been better with noodles in them (and yes, that is a big thing up here in Wisconsin). In other words the exact opposite of what mine was; thick, hearty, with the heat of 4 different kinds of chili peppers powering it up. No ground beef in my chili, but rather a mixture of diced chuck and sirloin. While I might have found the winning chilis laughable I was obviously in the minority as these dishes readily beat me. And why, did they beat me? I could go on and on about what “real” chili is, how good mine was, and how bland theirs was, but the truth of the matter is, I didn’t think about my audience. If I hadn’t let my ego get in the way and I took a couple of minutes to really think about it, I would have realized that there was no way my type of chili would win up here in Wisconsin with the type of crowd I was cooking for.

That being said, how about a recipe for a non-winning chili? In all honesty, I think that this recipe is pretty damn good, and I shared some of the chili with a few friends that are chili fanatics like me and it has gotten good reviews, so I am going to share it. I mean, come on, it’s loaded with bourbon. What’s not to like?!

Bourbon Barrel Chili
makes approximately 1 1/4 gallons

3 cups Water
4 each Guajillo Peppers*
4 each Ancho Peppers*
3 pounds Diced Beef (stew meat, chuck, roasts, inside round, sirloin, etc.)
2 Tbs. Vegetable Oil
5 each Jalapenos, diced (more or less depending on how hot you like it)
4 cloves Garlic, minced
3 medium Onions, peeled and diced
2 tsp. Ground Cumin
1 tsp. Dried Oregano
1 Tbs. Ground Chipotle pepper
1 ½ cups Bourbon or whiskey
¼ cup Brown Sugar
1 Tbs. Cocoa Powder
1 can (6oz) Tomato Paste
1 can (28 oz) Diced Tomato (with the juice)
3 cans (15 oz each) Pinto Beans, drained

Heat a dry pan (no oil) over high heat. Meanwhile bring the water to a boil. Toast the chili peppers, on each side, until just starting to brown and add to the water. Turn off heat and allow the peppers soften for 10 minutes. Drain off the water but reserve. Open up the chilis and remove the seeds. Place in a blender with just enough of the reserved liquid to make a thick puree. Set aside.

Heat a large pot over high heat. Add the oil. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Working in batches so as to not overcrowd the pan, sauté the meat until nice and brown.

Set aside. Add the onions and jalapenos to the pot, reduce the heat to medium high and sauté the onions until soft and starting to brown, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 2 minutes longer. Add the cumin, oregano and ground chipotle pepper and sauté another minute. Add the chili paste you made earlier and sauté another 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and sauté for another 3 minutes. Add the Bourbon, brown sugar and cocoa powder. Cook for 5 minutes to remove most of the alcohol. Stir often to keep the mixture from burning.

Finally add the diced tomato and pinto beans, along with the meat, stir, cover and cook for 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, or until the meat is nice and tender. Stir often to keep chili from burning. Season with salt and pepper. If chili is too thick use reserved water, from softening the peppers, to thin it out.

If you want to increase the heat use more guajillos or anchos, or use cayenne. Do not use more chipotle as the smoky flavor will start to overpower all the other flavors.

*Guajillo and Ancho peppers are dried Mexican chili peppers and can be found in Mexican markets are stores with larger Hispanic food aisles.