Annual Chuck Wagon Chili Challenge brings new competitors, secret recipes |

Annual Chuck Wagon Chili Challenge brings new competitors, secret recipes


— Chili recipes are an astonishingly personal thing.

Ask anyone who has a "secret" family recipe to share their favorite ingredients, and they are reluctant to do so.

"It's all about what tastes good and that is based on personal taste," said Lee Schoeneman, who has been one of the judges for the Chuck Wagon Chili Challenge the past three years. "People love being creative and coming up with their own recipes and they include ingredients they like."

Personal preference differs from person to person, and perhaps that's why it's such a personal endeavor.

Whether recipes are passed down from family memory or crafted on a whim, the ninth annual Chuck Wagon Chili Challenge will feature them all. With 22 chili varieties ranging in style and flavor from red, green, white and even vegetarian, the event will surely get attendees’ mouths watering.

Ten years ago, the event started as a way to celebrate the Western roots Steamboat's culture derives from.

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"The impetus of the event was to keep some of the character of Steamboat Springs alive and at the forefront," said Tracy Barnett, manager for Mainstreet Steamboat Springs and main organizer for the event.

Competitors had to apply to be in the challenge and voice which category they wanted to be in. For the challenge, they are required to bring their own materials to set up the booths and food. Speaking of food, each competitor faces the challenge of concocting about 5 gallons of chili.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Kathy Nerney said the aroma of her husband's FDNY Red Chili wafted through the house in a mesmerizing manner.

"The house smells amazing right now," Nerney said about her husband and son perfecting their recipe a few days before the competition.

This will be the first time the Nerneys have entered the Chili Challenge, and they are confident their New York family recipe will take a prize.

"It's been a lot of fun working together with my son and playing around with different recipes," said Kevin, who went to culinary school in 1996. "We haven't had too many bad ones; we try to avoid those expensive mistakes."

Basing judgments on aroma, color, taste and overall impression, the nine judges will decide whose chili is best. The attendees of the event also will have a say in who wins the best chili. The coveted People's Choice Award is based more so on popularity and requires participants to cast votes in each of the chili categories. The categories for the competition include red, green and other chilis along with cornbread and salsa categories.

Representing Cannonbolt chili, Sam Bolton and Mark Cannon started traveling to Steamboat for the holiday weekend just for the cookoff and thought they could make a better chili than the ones they tasted. For the past six years, they have participated in the event and have won a number of times. For them, it's the camaraderie and chili that bring them back each year.

"You really have to make a good, hearty chili to succeed," Bolton said. "But we just love interacting with the people and being there then, seeing some of the attendees come back year after year."

Not only will the event have a plethora of chili, but there will be live music, beer and sodas, along with children's activities. The first music act will begin with Trevor G. Potter and Rural Wreckage, then transition to another local band, Ragweed.

Events like these are part of the reason Barnett fell in love with Steamboat 39 years ago.

"I think these kinds of things make memories and bring people to downtown," she said. "It's where our heart and soul is, and this event is about how the community began and it's where the community celebrations pretty much have happened since 1875."

To reach Audrey Dwyer, call 970-871-4229, email or follow her on Twitter @Audrey_Dwyer1

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