Three chefs sat Saturday at a long table with small bowls of rival chili stretching before them. Carefully, they inhaled the aroma of each chili, took a bite, chewed thoughtfully and scored it for texture, color, spice, aroma and taste.
Their votes determined the winners of the first-ever Steamboat Mountain Chili Cook-off in the professional judging category. The task was not trivial: first-place winners received a weekend ski vacation at The Canyons Resort from Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp., who hosted the event.
Outside the Bear River Bar and Grill, hundreds of other chili connoisseurs voted for their favorites. With cornbread as a palate cleanser, they sampled chili from 14 contestants arranged in booths around the restaurant's deck. The winner of the People's Choice Award received two roundtrip airline tickets anywhere in the continental United States.
People attending the event didn't have an easy choice, however. From buffalo chili to green chili to cashew chili, almost every breed of bean vied for attention. Some even held hidden dangers.
"That one over there was really spicy," 11-year-old Haley Patrick said.
But one person's hot is another person's heaven.
"That was the one I liked the most," Haley's companion, Cindy Bender, said.
Bender, who owns a home in Steamboat Springs, came to the cook-off with her children and friends.
"Everyone's having a good time, and my saying is if the kids are happy, Mom is happy,'" Bender said.
One of the hotter chili dishes competing was the New Mexico Spice Girls Silly Chili.
"People keep asking me if it's hot, but it's hard for me to answer. I didn't taste it because I didn't want to curse it," said Steamboat's Melissa VanArsdale, who made the chili. "I'd be my own worse critic."
For her chili recipe, VanArsdale combined elements of other recipes with her own special touches, she said. As for the name "silly chili," that came about for several reasons.
"One, because my kids came up with the name, so that's their input. Two, I never know what I'm putting in the chili because I don't measure, and third, it has hominy in it, which is a silly-sounding word," she said.
Along with chili, VanArsdale served honey-smothered sopaipillas. In New Mexico, where she grew up, sopaipillas are served as part of the meal rather than just for dessert, a custom she sorely misses, she said.
Next to the Spice Girls' stand stood the Doc Willett's Steamboat Special Cure Chili booth. Residents Jerry and Pam Nettleton ladled out their chili while dressed in late 1800s garb. Because they wanted to add history to their booth's theme, they named their chili after the late 19th century Steamboat doctor F.E. Willett.
"He was a doctor for 50 years here and would make calls to ranches in the wintertime through the snow. He was pretty well-respected," Jerry Nettleton said. "And since chili makes you feel warm and good, the name made sense."
At least one person at the cook-off was a fan of the Steamboat Special Cure.
"It's not as spicy as the others, and it's really good," 8-year-old Maggie Schroeder said.
While Maggie was pleased with the chili, event organizers were pleased with the turnout.
"It's going really, really good, beyond our expectations," said Nicole Bargren, summer activities supervisor with the Steamboat Ski Resort.
She said several hundreds people attended the event.
Next year, organizers want to expand the cook-off and join the International Chili Society. Through the society, cook-off winners could advance to compete in state, regional and national competitions, Facility Director Audrey Williams said.