Advice for Judging a Chili Cook-off

I have had the honor of serving as a food judge for many cooking competitions including The World Food Championships and Culinary Fight Club, but the 4th Annual Brookhaven Chili Cookoff  in Brookhaven was an entirely new experience. I arrived early to the sight of a tent village with chili-scented steam billowing overhead. With no further ado, I was shown to a table and asked to rate the chili (and Brunswick stew) samples of 18 of Atlanta’s top restaurants including There Brookhaven, Smokebelly BBQ, Seven Lamps, and Farm Burger from 1 to 10 with ten being the best. I was quite happy that I had done some homework before my stint. According to the experts, chili should be judged on the following criteria:
  • Color – The chili should look appetizing. 
  • Aroma – The chili should smell good. The aroma is usually a good indicator of the taste.
  • Consistency - Chili should have a good meat-to-sauce ratio.  It should not be too thick, watery, grainy, lumpy, or greasy.  
  • Taste – The chili should taste, well, like chili. And, it should taste good. This is THE most important factor. The taste should consist of the combination of the meat, spices, etc. with no particular ingredient being dominant. And, contrary to what most Texans believe, it should not be so hot that you cannot taste the other flavors.
  • Aftertaste - The aftertaste or bite is the heat created by the various types of spices and or peppers.
While judging by taste is always going to be subjective, the goal of any judging process is to limit that subjectivity as much as possible. The Brookhaven Chili Cookoff also gives a “People’s Choice” award for the crowd-selected favorite. Each attendee is given a token to vote for their chosen chili.

The following insights might be helpful in selecting your favorite chili or on the off chance you are ever asked to judge an informal cookie bake-off in your friend’s kitchen or ribs at your neighborhood cookout.
  1. Consider taking a Gastric Acid Secretion Inhibitor. Many OTC antiflatulents (e.g., Beano, Gas-X, Zantac) need to be taken in advance of eating so be sure to read the label carefully.

  2. Eat Before You Judge. This sounds counterintuitive, but it is easy to confuse being famished with genuinely liking something. Have a light breakfast or lunch before the judging begins.

  3. Pace Yourself. This is easier said than done. Take a small bite of each entry. If it is forgettable with no chance of making it to the winner’s circle, abandon ship and move on to the next. Judge each chili on its own merit.

  4. Cleanse your palate. After each tasting take a sip of water, beer, or milk (best for neutralizing the effects of the capsicum in chilies). Plain saltine crackers are good cleansers as well. 

  5. Be candid, be consistent, and be decisive. Don’t be ashamed or intimidated about giving your honest opinion. You were selected to be a judge, so your impressions count. Make notes in the margin to help you remember if needed. No one else is going to see them accept the guy tallying the scores.