CCC meet the UK Chilli Cook-off Association
When we travel across the UK attending chilli festivals, we sometimes encounter an enticing smell of up to 20 pots of simmering chili cooking. No, it's not from a food vendor, it's from the competitors working hard to win the regional heat of the UK Chilli Cook-off. We wanted to know more about this competition so we caught up with UKCCA head honcho Jon Doody and asked a few questions...
Q. You set up UKCCA in 2012. What was the inspiration for doing this?
I’ve been cooking chilli for around 30 years now. It was a staple weekly meal in our household. I’d been honing the recipe over the years to the extent that it was getting seriously good! My family thought the same too! We had talked at length about selling it commercially, but unfortunately the timing wasn’t right to do this. I had known about Chilli Cook-offs for some years, having been given various books for Christmas presents featuring them. In 2010 I had tried to find local cook-offs for me to compete in but I simply couldn’t find any being organised. But it wasn’t until I saw The Simpsons Chilli Cook-off episode (which just so happens to be one of the best the ever made), that I had an epiphany! Organise a cook-off in my local pub, inviting like-minded people to come along too. I made the choice to organise and not compete as I didn’t think it was fair to other competitors. I put an advert in the local paper, who were hugely supportive. I managed to attract 10 teams on the day! It was a huge success! Everyone had a great time! I was then encouraged to organise another cook-off in 2011, this time at the Tilehurst Festival. Darth Naga had heard about this and not only helped as a judge but put me in contact with Alex Duck who asked if we would run a cook-off at the Upton Cheyney Chilli Festival that year. Once again, both event were a great success. At the end of the Upton event, Miles from the Dorset Chilli Festival approached me to organise a cook-off at his show in 2012. It was then I realised that we had started something special. It was at that point the UKCCA was formed. The rest, as they say, is history.
Q. Chilli cook-offs are well known in the USA, so you think us Brits will ever embrace this event as much as our friends over the pond?
Chilli is so engrained into the American culture that I think it would be impossible for our events to be anywhere near the scale of our American friends. Over 500 events are run in the US each year. The UKCCA are physically able to run around a dozen or so events at the moment, simply due to the number of committee members and weekends we’re all free! What is needed is for communities, clubs, pubs and other organisations to start running their own events, supported and sanctioned by the UKCCA. We need to get the message out to the country that Chilli Cookoffs are great fun and easy! IF we can get people organising their own events, then we can go some way in making chilli cook-offs a really popular pastime in this country.
Q. You run the UKCCA events all over the UK & which includes a number of chilli festivals. Where will you be this year & any plans to head in to Europe & beyond?
We’ll be at all the old haunts this year as well as a couple of new events. Events include Reading, East Midlands, Gower, Dorset, Essex, London, Hertfordshire and of course Upton Cheyney. We have a sanctioned event in Chester this year, but we’re still on the lookout for a northern cook-off venue.
We are currently in talks with the Annual Munich Chilli Cook-off to see if we can bring some teams over and compete in a European Cook-off! Watch this space!!
Q. Describe the typical events leading up to UKCCA event. When & how do you decide where to go? How much advance planning & administration is there? Etc.
At the moment, our mission is to raise the profile of chilli cook-offs. The best way to do this is at chilli festivals across the country. We are somewhat limited in our reach, due to our physical locality, hence why the majority of events are based in the southern part of the country. We would very much love to recruit new committee members to be able to take cook-offs and run them at events that we simply can’t get to. We will be launching a recruitment drive soon!
IT actually doesn’t take an awful lot of work to plan and run a cookoff. We have a great relationship with all our event organisers who are happy to make sure everything we need is available on the day (Electricity for our PA, tables for the competitors Etc). We try to keep our events as fun as possible, so as long as you can cook a good chilli, all you need to do is register on our website for a competition, come down on the day and have a good laugh with like-minded people.
Q. You seem to have a good team of people with you. Are they as passionate about UKCCA as you are they in it for all the free food?!
I am incredibly lucky to have such a wonderful team! They are extremely passionate about ensuring each cook-off is run smoothly, efficiently, but above all, is fun for all our competitors. Yes, there will always be an element of seriousness about the events as we are looking for people to represent our country at the World Chilli Championships in America, but ultimately, we want people of all ages and levels to come down and experience cook-offs. Each member of the UKCCA brings their own very unique skill set ensuring people have a great time at our cook-offs.
Q. Do you have a favourite location to run a UKCCA event?
That’s a tricky one. Reading will always be very special. It’s the birthplace of the UKCCA. Upton Cheyney is our spiritual home as this year will be the 4th year we’ve held the finals. My personal favourite venue is the Grand Union at Brixton. Is it just perfect for a cookoff!! The beer garden is LUSH!! We can fit 20 teams very comfortably and it’s just a great pub! So glad to be returning this year!
Q. Who can compete in a UKCCA competition?
Absolutely anyone can compete! As long as you can cook a good chilli, that’s all you need to do to qualify! You can compete on your own or as part of a team (of any number!). We find teams of 2 or more have the most fun though! What could be more fun than cooking chilli for 4 hours with family or friends whilst enjoying a few drinks and listening to good music in the sun!!
Q. How is the competition judged?
At the end of the cooking period, judging samples are submitted by the head chef to the main judging table. The Chilli will be assigned a number which is then placed on the sealed lid. The head chef of each team will sign a master record to confirm that the number on the Chilli sample matches the team name on the master record. After all judging samples have been collected, the nominated judges will score each Chilli on it’s merit. Judging is done completely anonymously. IE they will not know which team’s chilli they will be marking. This is to ensure judging integrity. Judges score each Chilli out of 10 points using the following criteria:
Appearance - Chilli should look appetising. Reddish-brown is generally accepted as good. Garnish is permitted will not gain extra points.
Aroma - Chilli should smell good. There should be no overpowering smells, but a combination of the various ingredients.
Consistency - Chilli must have a good ratio between sauce and meat/vegetables. It should not be dry, watery, grainy, lumpy, or greasy.
Taste - Taste is obviously the most important factor. The taste should consist of the combination of the meat/vegetables, spices, etc. with no particular ingredient being dominant.
After-taste - The after-taste or bite is the heat created by the various types of spices and/or peppers. The heat should work well with the flavours. Overbearing heat that spoils the tasting experience is not recommended.
Judges are allowed only one spoonful of each chilli so it’s best to make sure he chilli packs a punch in that one spoon!
Q. What do the winners get?
Heat winner s receive £150. Second place receive £75 and 3rd place £25. Winners and runners up from each of our events qualify for the grand final.
The winners of the grand final win £1000 and qualify for the World Chilli Championships which in 2016 are to be held in Alabama! The winners can use their prize money to get flights and accommodation to the USA finals, should they so want, but it’s not compulsory. The prize purse for the Chilli finals in America is $25000!!
Q. Ever fear for your health when trying the competition chillies?
All of our competitions are run within strict health and safety rules to ensure the preparation and cooking of the chillies are done safely. As far as heat is concerned , we aren’t looking for the hottest chilli, but the best tasting!!! Although that doesn’t stop some competitors testing the limits of some of our judges!!
Q. What makes a perfect chilli in your opinion?
A good balance of spices, gravy and meat, with no individual ingredient overpowering the senses, but a nice lingering zing at the end!! We have also had some absolutely amazing veggie chili that have really impressed me!
Q. What is the worst chilli you have ever tasted & what made it so bad?
I think it was possibly the team at London in 2012 in which the lads in the team decided to add the entire contents of a bottle of Tequila to the finished chilli. In hindsight, even the team agreed that it was a particularly bad idea!
Q. …and the best?
That is a real tough one, which I don’t think I can answer. The standard of chilli being cooked by our teams still amazes me. All of our heat winners have been outstanding! As a country we can cook some of the best chilli in the world, proven by the fact that our 2013 winners, the Wonky Donkey Monsters beat scores of American teams at the World Chilli Championships in Vegas to win the people’s choice award!! Just fantastic!
Q. What’s your favourite part of running a UKCCA event?
Spending time with like-minded people, having a good laugh and enjoying the sun whilst raising a bit of money for charity! Perfect!
Q. One of our friends is convinced that Kimchi will become popular. Do you have any food predictions for the year ahead?
With a demand for healthy, yet tasty/spicy food, I can see both Ramen and Vietnamese food, especially Pho making a strong impression in the next year or so.
Our thanks to Jon for his time. You can find out more about the UKCCA & how to take part by visiting their website: http://ukchillicookoff.co.uk/