Too Hot to Handle: Chili Cook-Off Sizzles

Jessica Bourse

Seven high school teams armed with aprons, school spirit and vats of simmering chili, were well-equipped for the battle that lay ahead. As they prepared their booths, they anticipated the spicy taste of victory and the pride in bringing their school the grand prize, the Golden Ladle.

Last Friday, the culinary arts, nutrition and hospitality management departments hosted the second annual “Too Hot to Handle” high school chili cook-off, which kicked-off at the Los Robles patio area at noon.

Teams from local high schools competed in the cook-off: Burbank, Crescenta Valley, Daily, Glendale, Hoover, John Burroughs and La Canada.

In last year’s chili cook-off, Crescenta Valley High won and took home the Golden Ladle, but now it was time for them to defend what they won or pass it on to the next school.

The five awards to be given out at the end of the event included: showmanship, hospitality, people’s choice, first runner-up, and the grand prize. Five awards, seven schools. Who was to determine the winners?

The panel of judges included: Marsha Ramos, mayor of Burbank; Betty Porto, vice president of Porto’s Bakery; Benson Lee, general manager of Glendale’s Hilton Hotel; Mark Forde, executive chef of the Windsor Manor; Luis Vega, executive chef of the Oakmont Country Club; Tory Topjian, chef of the La Crescenta Presbyterian Church; Michael Seaton, director of instructional support services from Glendale Unified School District; Sue Boegh, director of educational support services from Burbank Unified School District; and Steven Mora, executive vice president from MCS Burbank.

“This is my first cook-off,” said Porto, “Raul (Porto), my brother, was a judge last year and told me how great it was. the chili here was excellent. The students did a great job. It’s wonderful to see kids out of the classroom and engaging like this in a large-scale event.”

The chili was judged with the following criteria: aroma, consistency, appearance, flavor, aftertaste, nutritional content, sanitation and product description. The team with the most points, on a 50-point scale, would win the grand prize, and the team with the second-highest score would win first runner-up.

The showmanship award was to go to the school which had the best theme, costumes, energy level and creativity. The hospitality award was to go to the school which had the best team attitude, service level, punctuality and spirit. A panel of judges determined all but one award, the people’s choice award, where the public tasted and voted for their favorite chili.

At noon, large crowds of people lined up to try the chili, scrapping the bottoms of their sample cups with their spoons, as they traveled from booth to booth. In this crowd was Glendale Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Michael F. Escalante.

“I loved them all,” said Escalante “Even though I have a preference to Glendale-stewed chili, they were all the best. I love to make chili myself. In fact, I made it two nights ago. My secret to great chili is the meat: lots of pork sausage and a variety of meats.”

The suspense thickened like stew as the time to announce winners finally closed in. Michael Lao, instructor of hotel/restaurant management, stood at the microphone and thanked everyone involved and who made the cook-off possible. Andrew Feldman, culinary arts department chair, thanked all the judges and announced that all high school students participating would receive a certificate that acknowledges their efforts.

A makeshift drum roll, composed of the sounds of stomping feet and beating hearts, gave way to the award ceremony.

Daily, with its “balanced” and “natural” theme and eye-catching display, took home the showmanship award. Burbank, with its complementary basil lemonade and two varieties of cookies, took home the hospitality award. The people’s choice award went out to La Canada, with its “good-down-home” chili and their accompanying blues band.

Awards for first runner-up and grand prize were saved for last. The crowd stood silently and waited for the verdict as all seven teams held their breath.

First runner-up went to Glendale, with its “life of the party” chili. The grand prize went to Burbank, with its “Chili #33.”

Judy Shalhoub, culinary arts instructor at Burbank, explained the process it took to create the perfect chili.

“We were very restricted on sodium because the chili had to be healthy and nutritional,” said Shalhoub, “so we had to be creative with our salt flavorings. For three to four weeks, we went through seven recipes until we found the perfect one.”

For Chef Forde, “Chili #33” was so good, he plans to put it on the menu at Windsor Manor and credit Burbank High School for the recipe.

The chili cook-off is much more than a simple competition. It is a way for schools to collaborate and “bring out interest into the culinary arts. This event introduces students to the culinary arts department and program, the facilities and to the school itself,” said Yeranui Barsegyan, culinary arts counselor.

Last year, Andrea Morales, 19, culinary arts major, competed in the cook-off as a senior representing Arcadia High School. This year, she is attending GCC and is enrolled in the culinary arts program.

“After I had attended the chili cook-off, it got me familiar with Glendale College,” said Morales, “It opened my eyes to a new area and field. The professors were very warm and welcoming. This competition is what got me hooked on GCC.”