, Duluth News Tribune

When it comes to chili, at least this year, the people wanted a bowl with a mole-based ideology — sweet spices, ground nuts, hot peppers. They wanted tomatoes and onions fresh from the garden at Duluth East High School. They wanted it topped with cilantro and two shades of shredded cheese.

Food For Thought Restaurant’s black bean chili fared well in the United Way’s Chili Cook-Off last week, taking both the People’s Choice Award and top prize in the amateur division in a room where chili ranged from traditional to traditional-ish, buffalo-style to verde, beer-based to soupy to thick-thick-thick.

There was even a SPAM sighting.

Some of the top finishers from the annual event shared their brainstorming sessions, secret ingredients and must-have garnishes — a bit of chili inspiration for the chillier season.

Spoiler alert: pepita, anyone?

WHAT THEY MADE

Glenn D’Amour, the certified executive chef who teaches the culinary arts program behind the student-run restaurant Food For Thought, had mole on his mind: chocolate, ground peanuts, cinnamon, chipotle and a smoked jalapeno.

Students from Duluth Public Schools picked the fresh ingredients from the school grounds and did the chopping and seasoning. D’Amour tasted and improved: another can of chipotle, another teaspoon of cinnamon.

“If someone asked me for the recipe, I wouldn’t be able to give it,” he said and laughed.

Green Mill served Southwest lime chicken chili — a spicy recipe by Casey Gibbs, who has worked at the restaurant for more than 20 years and also created the award-winning pizza-flavored chili a few years ago.

The first-place pick — which also tied for the title of hottest: white chili, included shredded chicken, cilantro, jalapenos, peppers, seasoned with cumin and chili pepper and topped with crunchy tortilla chips.

Whole Foods Co-op had the top vegetarian chili and also won the spicy spirit award with its Emerald City chili verde — a mix of tomatillos, green chili, roasted poblanos, cannellini beans, assorted green vegetables and spices.

“It’s very complex,” said Faith Koenig, the deli manager who had the idea of leaning green, while Justin Hemming, assistant deli manager, came up with the recipe.

WHAT THEY TOPPED IT WITH

Famous Dave’s started with a traditional chili, but stayed on brand by incorporating a mix of the shop’s signature barbecue flavors.

But the big hit in the bowl: a toasted cornbread crouton with a touch of cinnamon.

“I did it to balance out the heat of the chili, smooth it out, so it was an even mouthful — a sweet heat,” said owner Greg Toon. “I was joking that our chili was a little spicy, but you didn’t have to shave your tongue afterward.”

At Valentini’s Vicino Lago, the third-place pro division chili was topped with pepperoni, and the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, which tied for second, had a dollop of seasoned sour cream.

Whole Foods Co-op topped its chili verde with feta cheese, shredded radish and toasted pepita.

“It was unique,” Koenig said. “It made us stand out.”

WHAT THEY MAKE AT HOME

Just because they won awards at the cook-off doesn’t mean this is the style the chili plotters and chili makers create in their home kitchens.

Koenig, of Whole Foods Co-op, will go the gamut of chili styles — from white chili, to straight-up ground beef.

“I’ve made them all,” the self-described purist said. But nothing too spicy. “My heat level is about two.”

When Doug Smith is at home, he makes an Iowa-style beanless chili filled with peppers.

“I like it so hardy you can stand a spoon in it,” Green Mill’s general manager said.

WHERE TO FIND THE BIG WINNERS

The DECC’s traditional chili with seasoned south cream appears on its catering menu, but not at Amsoil Arena — at least for now.

Soon after their victory, Green Mill’s great chili minds decided to at least make a few vats as a special at the restaurant. At the Co-op, Koenig said, they had planned to start selling the Emerald Chili in the deli.

And Food For Thought already had its menus printed for the start of the restaurant season.

“Maybe for the winter I would put it on there,” D’Amour said. “Then I have to figure out what the heck I did.”

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