Chili cook-off experts reveal what it takes to make a winning bowl

By: Sherri Kolade | C&G Newspapers | Published January 16, 2019

  People’s Choice Award winner in 2018 Mike LaFever serves his Chestnut Chili with a Twist. LaFever, who lives in Fenton, is a barber at Korner Barbers in Farmington.

People’s Choice Award winner in 2018 Mike LaFever serves his Chestnut Chili with a Twist. LaFever, who lives in Fenton, is a barber at Korner Barbers in Farmington.

File photo by Donna Agusti

METRO DETROIT — What does it take to make the perfect chili? Is it the spice?

Could be. Even the experts aren’t sure.

Michelle Weiss, the marketing and events coordinator for the Mount Clemens Downtown Development Authority, organizes the DDA’s annual chili cook-off. Creating “a chili they can be proud of” is the magic ingredient in a cook-off contender, she said.

Weiss has seen it all in her years running the chili cook-offs. Venison wasn’t particularly up her alley, and she remembers various vegetarian varieties, as well as the overflowing, cheesy, crunchy and creamy condiments atop chilis that complement the main dish.

“We had a restaurant that did a jalapeño cornbread, and they cut it into squares. … That was, I mean, heaven, and with their chili it was just amazing.”

She said the rules are off the table when it comes to making a winning chili — it’s anarchy, and the 13th annual Downtown Mount Clemens Fire & Ice Chili Cook-off Pub Crawl from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Feb. 1 is the perfect place to let your taste buds play.

Three Blind Mice Irish Pub will try to defend its 2018 title of Best Downtown Mount Clemens Chili. Tickets cost $15 each, or $25 for two. Tickets are available at all participating establishments, including Abbibo, Bath City Bistro, Buffalo Wild Wings, Gumbo’s, Madison’s Pub, Orleans Sports Café, O’Halloran’s Public House, The Rec Bowl and Your Mothers Food & Spirits, according to a press release.

Weiss, who happens to make a mean chili herself, said she likes any type that lets the spices unfold.

“It is not just, you have a mouthful and that is kind of it,” she said, adding that she can tell when there is a hint of cinnamon or other distinct flavors. “I like a chili that kind of elevates, and you can taste the different spices.”

Mike LaFever knows how to bring the heat. He brought it last year for Farmington’s 23rd annual chili cook-off at John Cowley & Sons in downtown Farmington. He won the People’s Choice Award with his Chestnut Chili with a Twist.

LaFever, a barber at Korner Barbers in Farmington, said last week that to him, what makes a great chili is not an ingredient but a feeling.

“I think it has to do with how much love and tender care you put into the sauce, and how many days it takes to build,” he said of the flavors.

LaFever, who has participated in chili cook-offs across the country, said he likes the element of surprise in his chili.

“I use chestnuts as a protein — I live on a chestnut farm. I have 250 trees. In the fall, we open up the farm,” he said of his property in Fenton.

He invites the public to learn about roasting chestnuts, which range in flavor from sweet to nutty, he said.

“When they are cooked, they have a meaty texture,” he said. He has tweaked his chili recipe and perfected it, adding some sweetness here, some touches of heat there, “added some spices in there to give it more flavor,” he said.

He has even gone as far as putting pears, apples and peaches into his chili.

“It always tastes better a week or two after you first make it — you make it and take (from) the freezer.”

He puts his chili in the oven and lets it simmer at 200 degrees overnight.

Weiss said that true chili is not, technically, supposed to have beans in it. That rule has not been enforced.

“I’ve never not had a chili with beans in it,” Weiss said.

She tells the competitors at each stop to not give her a bowl of chili, but rather a “portion of a ladle,” because she doesn’t want to get too full. “I do want to taste them all.”

She encourages the competitors to “deck out” their serving tables to increase their appeal.

“You can do whatever you want that is going to make people vote for your chili. That is how you win the chili cook-off.”

To Weiss, a bad chili has the consistency of minestrone or looks off-putting. She prefers her reds over white chilis.

But at the end of the day, when making a chili, especially for a chili cook-off, just make it your own, she said.

“They are trying to come up with making theirs unique,” she said.

Proceeds from the Downtown Mount Clemens Fire & Ice Chili Cook-off Pub Crawl will benefit the Anton Art Center and the Mount Clemens Goodfellows.

For more information, go to or call (586) 469-4168.