Chili cookoff champions Karen and Jim Watson are headed for a world championship cook-off after winning a regional contest.
Held in Tustin, the Pollock Pines couple came in first out of 25 contestants and took home a purse of $1,000 for their efforts in the Chili Cook-Off.
Because of their win, in October they will go to Palm Springs for the International Chili Society World Championship where they will compete in the red chili and chili verde contests.
The two-day event features contestants vying for first place in the categories of red chili, chili verde and salsa with substantial prizes for first place wins. The top prize for red chili is $25,000, for chili verde it’s $5,000 and for salsa it’s $1,000. The Watsons said they expect to compete against as many as 150 other chili champs with some 25,000 spectators on hand to watch and sample the goodies.
The Watsons said they won’t be competing in salsa because they’ve already won in that category. “We won a world championship for salsa in 2009 as well as the Nevada State Championship for chili verde in 2008,” said Karen.
The couple say they began competing in chili contests because of a next-door neighbor who was a member of the International Chili Society. That got them started and for 30 years they’ve been perfecting their recipes.
“I enjoy the fun, camaraderie and challenge of creating something competitively,” Jim said.
At the Palm Springs event, all the contestants will have three hours to prepare and cook their chili. A panel of judges do the tasting using sour cream, grapes, celery, beer or water to cleanse their palates in between samples. By 4:30 p.m., they announce the winner.
Watson said he uses one-fourth-inch cubes of tri tip and separately makes the sauce using California, New Mexico and Anaheim chilis along with cumin, salt, garlic and tomato sauce. One gallon of his prize-winning chili costs him about $100 in ingredients.
“The secret of good chili is it’s not too hot, not too mild, not too thin,” said Jim. “If it’s the only bowl you’re ever going to eat. That’s the one you want to make.”
And contrary to what many of us put in our chili, beans are not included in competition chili. “That’s what really makes it difficult,” said Jim. “It really is the sauce, although the texture of the meat is sometimes the tie breaker.”
The Watsons said they have perfected their chili recipes over the years by becoming judges themselves and by listening and reading the comments from the judges.
“We cook for the judges and not ourselves,” Jim added, saying that at every competition, “you go off experience and hope you got it right.”
The Watsons came to the chili competition with an advantage as they previously owned and operated the Hoosegow Restaurant for 16 years. But last October they sold it to Aaron Harter, who continues to have chili on the menu. Before that, the Watsons owned a paint, interior design and wallpaper store in Newport Beach for 16 years.
Jim says he’s meticulous about measuring everything going into his chili and makes it the same way every time, just like he used to make paint. “It’s about quality control and chemistry. I write down every recipe so even if we stop competing for a while, when we start again we just pick up where we left off.”
The Watsons say they have competed all over the United States in chili contests but they are not chili contest gypsies. “There are people who follow the circuit,” they said, “but we have other things to do.”
Aside from the contest in Palm Springs, they are also qualified to compete in a world food contest to be held in Las Vegas in November. With a top prize of $50,000, they will be competing against 400 other cooks.
“It’s prestigious representing Tustin in this one and we will give it our best shot,” said Jim.
Asked if they cook chili at home, they both replied with a resounding “No!” But their three daughters do.
His advice in making the perfect chili: “Start with what you want to do and then figure out what people like.”
In Palm Springs, he’s counting on that winning recipe to land him in first place.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.