Dining With Denise Neil

Gallons of chili will flow through downtown Wichita this weekend

Dining with Denise and crew will be back serving at the Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff this weekend.
Dining with Denise and crew will be back serving at the Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff this weekend. The Wichita Eagle

Saturday is the big day for chili in Wichita.

But if you go looking for the popular Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff at the corner of Douglas and St. Francis, where it’s been staged for years, all you’ll find is a bunch of construction equipment.

This year, the chili cookoff — one of fall’s most affordable downtown events — is moving. Instead of taking up three blocks of Douglas between St. Francis and the railroad overpass, the festivities will be in the Wichita Riverfest’s familiar footprint: on Douglas between Waco and Main, right in front of Century II.

Construction at Naftzger Park and on the site of the future Spaghetti Works District have made the usual layout impossible, said Ron McEwen, this year’s head “chili dipper.” So the whole production is moving westward.

The festival will open at noon on Saturday, and attendees who buy $5 tasting kits will be able to sample chili made by the 75 teams who entered this year. Some are serious competitors vying for a spot in the World Championship Chili Cookoff later this month in St. Louis. The rest of the teams will be less-serious groups of co-workers or friends cooking for fun. (Shameless plug: For the second year in a row, Dining With Denise will have a booth at the cookoff. I’ll be serving a smoky pork green chile.)

Competitors will 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.

There’s another big change that early birds will like.

In previous years, volunteers would not start selling tasting kits even a second before noon. This year, they’ll start selling at 11 a.m. to avoid creating long lines that delay people from reaching the chili while it’s still plentiful. (Some booths start running out of chili after about two hours.)

The Wagonmasters will have beer and pop ready to sell at 11 a.m., and many of the activities will be running, too. But don’t get any ideas about early chili sampling.

“The teams won’t be able to serve chili until noon,” McEwen said. “They’re not even going to give the teams their tasting cups until noon.”

Attendees who purchase tasting kits 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. The Wagonmasters will be set up on Kennedy Plaza, and that’s also where local cover band Epic also will perform.

People also 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.

The cookoff also will have a kids zone, and The Wells Fargo Stage Coach will offer free rides to those wearing wristbands from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. Proceeds from the cookoff will be distributed to charities around Wichita.

The tasting kits will be for sale on site the day of the event, and the tents where they’re sold will have red balloons flying on top of them.

The event usually draws between 9,000 and 11,000 people, McEwen said, but last year was a “perfect storm” of good weather and a calendar light with other activities in town. At least 15,000 people crowded into the festival last year, eating every last drop of chili the teams prepared.

“Everybody loves chili, and everybody loves a good time,” he said. “We put the two together.”

WAGONMASTERS DOWNTOWN CHILI COOKOFF

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

Where: Douglas between Waco and Main and on Kennedy Plaza in front of Century II

When: Public tasting starts at noon on Saturday

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

Information: wagonmasterschili.com

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