Dining With Denise Neil

Chili Cookoff will take up more space downtown this year

Members of the Wichita Wagonmasters prepare a vat of chili at the festival.
Members of the Wichita Wagonmasters prepare a vat of chili at the festival. File photo

The annual Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff has grown into such a popular event, drawing crowds between 8,000 and 10,000, that it’s become difficult for attendees to sample all the beefy, beany goodness with any degree of personal space.

So this year, the 31-year-old event’s organizers are changing the way it’s being set up.

When the cookoff opens at noon on Saturday, people will find a different layout than in previous years, when booths lined both sides of Douglas and turned the middle of the street into a chili congestion area.

Instead, the closed-off area downtown will stretch an extra block to the west, starting at the railroad bridge at Santa Fe and going to Topeka, and the chili booths will spill into the side streets. They’ll be arranged in L-shapes, with the points at the northwest and southeast corners of Douglas and Emporia and at the northeast and southwest corners of Douglas and St. Francis.

“This year, we are trying to widen the footprint of it,” said Chris Highfill, a member of the Wagonmasters who is this year’s chairman (also known as “head chili dipper”). “It’s always so congested, so we are trying to get it where people can move around a little easier.”

Other than that, he said, the festival will operate exactly as it has in the past.

This year’s event will include around 70 competitors who are either serious chili cooks, vying for a spot in the World Championship Chili Cookoff next month in Las Vegas, or less-serious groups of co-workers or friends cooking for fun. They can make chili in a variety of categories, from no beans to green to red, and there’s a salsa competition and an award for the team with the booth that exhibits the most chili spirit.

With a $5 tasting kit, attendees can sample all the entered chili dishes and vote for which one they think is best. The kit also entitles them to one full bowl of chili plus all the fixings, prepared by the Wichita Wagonmasters and served in the old Spaghetti Works parking lot.

While there, people also can watch a pepper-eating contest, see who wins the “Mr. Hot Stuff” and “Ms. Chili Pepper” contests, listen to live music from popular local cover band Lucky People and eat free ice cream. They also can stroll around sipping beer available at several beer gardens.

Children can participate in a beefed-up kids area, which in previous years had just face painting and a firetruck. This year, organizers have added a mobile game den, a bouncy house and more.

Among the competitors will be several entering under the cookoff category called “Chili for Charity.” Those teams are made up of people from local charities who will spread the word about their organizations and compete against each other for prize money. Wichita Children’s Home has a booth, for example, as does Envision and the local Ronald McDonald House.

Several local restaurants also are entering the competition this year, including Public at the Brickyard, Scotch and Sirloin, Larry Bud’s and Emerson Biggins.

This year’s chili “potentate,” who serves as the event’s figurehead and lead judge, is Ann Keefer, who for years helped organize and promote the cookoff in her role as vice president of marketing for Downtown Development. After she took a job at Wichita Festivals Inc., she hasn’t been as involved with the behind-the-scenes work.

As a chili fan, she said, she’ll enjoy a chance to see the festival from the other side.

“Who doesn’t love good chili in the fall?” she said. “And a lot of cooks say that this is one of the best-run chili cookoffs they’ve ever been to, and that’s good coming from the contestants.”

If You Go

Wichita Wagonmasters Downtown Chili Cookoff

What: An annual chili competition that includes a public tasting, beer garden, children’s activities and wacky contests

Where: East Douglas between Topeka and the railroad tracks

When: Public tasting starts at noon Saturday, and those who want to try the most chili should arrive on time.

How much: Tasting kits are $5 per person.

Information: wagonmasterschili.com