It may not be stamp collecting, but Steve Falkowski doesn’t really think his hobby of choice is that atypical.
As he put it, “Some people taste wine; others play golf. I travel around cooking chili.”
It turns out Falkowski isn’t alone in his quest for that perfect mixture of meat, spices and — of course — chili peppers. The International Chili Society sanctions hundreds of cookoffs a year, each of which doubles as a fund-raiser for local nonprofit agencies. Connecticut’s cookoff has been organized for the past 11 years by Community Action Agency of New Haven, or CAANH, which dubs the event “Chilifest” and holds it to benefit the city’s Meals-on-Wheels program.
At this year’s Chilifest on Saturday, Falkowski spent seven hours standing in his booth in East Shore Park, keeping a careful watch on his “Gold Miner’s Chili” and doling out samples to passers-by. He said he and his wife have been doing pretty much the same thing every weekend for the past 13 years. Their reward for hours upon hours spent hunched over a portable stove finally came in 1997, when Gold Miner’s Chili was awarded first place at the World’s Championship Chili Cookoff.
“I won — $25,000, a bronze pot with my name engraved on it, and bragging rights for the rest of my life as the best chili in the world,” Falkowski said.
At Chilifest, Falkowski’s concoction competed not only for another invitation to the World’s Championship in Reno, Nev., (decided by a panel of judges), but also for the designation of “People’s Favorite,” (decided by the crowd).
Few of Falkowski’s competitors at Chilifest — of which Yale was a sponsor — were professional chefs, but most said they spend every year touring the East Coast and competing at state cookoffs for an invitation to Reno.
They were as diverse a group as you can get: a dentist from Stratford (his chili was the aptly-named “Doctor’s Choice”); Falkowski, a former miner who now works in home improvement; and Jerry Buma of Northbridge, Mass., who said that although he hopes “Booma’s Revenge” will win at Reno in two weeks, he cooks chili only “because it’s fun.”
Sharon Willard, chairperson of Chilifest and assistant programming director at CAANH, said she considers all of the competitors to be “one big, happy family.”
“I’ve made so many wonderful friends while doing this event,” she said. “They would do anything for me, and I would do anything for them.”
When Willard was given the job of organizing the first Chilifest, her only qualification was having once attended another chili cookoff in New Jersey. But her outfit at Saturday’s festival — chili pepper vest, chili pepper earrings, and a bright red sombrero — testified to her conversion into true chili aficionado.
In more than a decade as the event’s chairwoman, Willard said she has seen the festival become one of CAANH’s most successful fund-raisers. Chilifest now generates between $14,000 to 15,000 in one day, she said.
As Willard talked chili with one of the judges, Michael “Mad Mike” Freedman of “Mad Mike’s Killer Chili” was receiving favorable reviews from a man in a Harley Davidson T-shirt.
Quickly finishing his sample, the man gave Mad Mike’s Killer Chili his endorsement.
Mad Mike let out a loud whoop, aiming it in the direction of three women cooking up Paesano Chili a couple booths down. Then, for added measure, he loosened his pants and mooned them.
Noting the gesture, an onlooker nodded assent.
“That chili has attitude,” he said.