Eight judges sat along a table with a silver fringe backdrop while a live band pumped out ‘80s tunes. Styrofoam cups piled up as the volunteers rushed to whisk the cups away from judges.
Fayetteville mayor Lioneld Jordan, Rick Katzfey, the meteorologist for KNWA, the six other judges and the people at the Washington County Fairgrounds had one thing in common: They were ready to devour some mouth-watering chili at Chilirhea, the ultimate cook-off.
The Chilirhea competition has benefitted Alzheimer’s Arkansas since 2010 when founder Cory Scott decided to use the annual gathering to support a cure for Alzheimer’s, Chilirhea board member Robert Bridewell said.
The first year that Chilirhea officially began charitable giving it raised $6,000, Bridewell said. This year, the competition raised $100,723 for Alzheimer’s research, exceeding the annual $100,000 goal that the organizers established in 2017.
Alzheimer’s Arkansas employees provide aid to caregivers of those with Alzheimer's as well, Bridewell said. Chilirhea also donates money to the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging and the Broyles Foundation.
“It’s exceptionally gratifying to give that amount of money to these very worthy beneficiaries,” Bridewell said.
The first cooks arrived at 6:30 a.m. Feb. 16, Bridewell said. Each team had to prepare four - five gallons of chili.
“You can chop, prep, season and do all that stuff the night before— that’s fine. But any cooking, browning, smoking or anything has to be done on site,” Bridewell said.
Eight judges tasted more than 30 chilis. Each judge took only one bite of each chili. Judges graded the teams on taste, texture, appearance and aroma, Bridewell said. There was also a people’s choice component. According to the rules of the competition, each chili must be red so that all chili’s are able to be judged the same, and cannot have beans because beans have been judged harshly in the past, Bridewell said. Walking through the room, chili eaters loaded their cups up with chili, topping it with Fritos, jalapenos and many different kinds of cheese.
As for prizes, there were wrestling championship belts for the winners, Bridewell said. One table proudly displayed two of those golden and bejeweled championship belts, which belong to the team from The Amendment. The Amendment is a bar on Dickson street. The Amendment has won Chilirhea the past two years and Zac Wooden, one of the cooks for The Amendment team hoped they would win again this year, he said.
In this year’s competition, the first place winner was Culpepper Family Dentistry, the second place winner was the Scott family and the third place winner was Simmons bank.
The losers of the competition received a prize as well.
“We also have a special prize for the last-place winner. There’s a couple dozen rolls of single-ply toilet paper for the last place team,” Bridewell said.
Local companies and organizations made up the majority of teams, Bridewell said. Grubs, Culpepper Family Dentistry and J.B. Hunt were just a few of the Northwest Arkansas companies that participated in this year’s Chilirhea. Alzheimer’s Arkansas was the original beneficiary of Chilirhea donations and has continued to benefit from the cook-off every year since, Bridewell said.
Fayetteville Firefighter Association Local 2866 was one of the organizations that participated in Chilirhea for the first time this year, firefighter Irving Macias said. Macias was one of the three cooks participating this year.
Some teams decided to take a more daring route and go all out on presentation. Kevin White, a cook on the United Underground LLC team, said that by pairing his team’s chili with hash browns, he hoped to replicate Sonic Drive-In’s classic chili. Culpepper Family Dentistry constructed an elaborate chili presentation by sticking bacon into a makeshift cornbread bowl and topping it with chili, cheese and Fritos.
If there were any vegetarians or vegans at Chilirhea, they could amuse themselves by perusing the silent auction room. The silent auction room offered many items and experiences that cater to Northwest Arkansas locals, such as a night out with a free dinner from Noodles Italian Kitchen, a signed Steve Atwater Razorback football helmet or a two-day boat rental and cabin stay from Buffalo River Outfitters.