Dining With Denise Neil

Beefed-up list of restaurants competing in downtown chili cookoff

Bob Thompson, left, serves as head cook for the Wichita Wagonmasters, and Kevin Steckley is chairman of the downtown chili cookoff.
Bob Thompson, left, serves as head cook for the Wichita Wagonmasters, and Kevin Steckley is chairman of the downtown chili cookoff. The Wichita Eagle

The Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff is returning for its 33rd installment on Saturday, and this year, restaurants get to play too.

The event’s organizers have added a new category – and a giant new trophy – to the list of prizes it will distribute. This one is just for restaurants, and more of them than ever will be among the nearly 70 teams competing on Saturday.

“We’ve never really made a big deal out of the restaurants in the competition, and we decided to take it that direction this year,” said Kevin Steckley, a Wagonmaster serving as chairman of the event. “It’s just for the fun of it, just to encourage a little friendly competition.”

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Though usually no more than three or four restaurants enter the event, those that do are serious competitors. Two years ago, local sports bar Emerson Biggin’s was the event’s grand champion.

Restaurants vying for the new trophy on Saturday will include Emerson Biggin’s, Garden of Eatin’, River City Brewery, The Monarch and District Taqueria. Others will likely be added to the list before the start of the event, Steckley said.

The festival will open at noon on Saturday, and attendees who buy $5 tasting kits will be able to sample chili prepared by serious competitors vying for a spot in the World Championship Chili Cookoff next month in Reno, Nev., as well as less-serious groups of co-workers or friends cooking for fun. Competitors produce chili in a variety of categories, from no beans to green to red, and there’s also a salsa competition and an award for the team with the booth that exhibits the most chili spirit. Each category winner will earn a cash prize.

Another new emphasis at this year’s event – fun for the littlest chili eaters.

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As chairman, Steckley decided to bring back and expand the cookoff’s Kid Zone, which was absent at least year’s festival. It will be on Emporia south of Douglas and include face painters, arcade-style basketball games, a beanbag toss game and a section where kids can get an up-close look at a fire truck, a police car, a concrete mixer and more. Kids also will get free ice cream from Hiland Dairy.

“We’ve got tons of stuff for the kiddos to do,” Steckley said. “We want it to be a family-friendly event, and one of my focuses this year was bringing the Kid Zone back and making it bigger and better.”

Attendees who purchase a kit can vote for the chili they think is best. They’ll also get one full bowl of chili plus all the fixings prepared by the Wichita Wagonmasters, a group of local businessmen who help promote Wichita and organize charity events throughout the year.

People can watch or participate in several contests, including a pepper-eating contest at 2:45 p.m., “Mr. Hot Stuff” at 2:15 p.m. and “Ms. Chili Pepper” at 2:30 p.m. They also can listen to live music from popular local band Lucky People and buy and sip beer within the boundaries of the festival.

The Wagonmasters usually sell around 5,000 tasting kits and donate proceeds from the cookoff to local charities. This year, Steckley said, they’ve managed to raise more sponsorship money than ever before.

Steckley encourages people to arrive early. For the best chance of getting the most chili samples, plan to line up a little before 11 a.m., he said.

WAGONMASTERS DOWNTOWN CHILI COOKOFF

What: An annual chili competition that includes a public tasting, beer garden and contests

Where: East Douglas between St. Francis and the railroad overpass

When: Public tasting starts at noon Saturday, Sept. 24. People begin lining up before 11 a.m.

How much: Admission is free, but tasting kits are $5 a person.

Information: wagonmasterschili.com

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