Chicago native Doug Downing is the creator of Double D’s Sauces, a line of homemade hot sauces, spices, and salsas. His current products feature the intense heat and smoky sweet flavor of bhut jolokia (or ghost pepper), the hottest pepper in the world. He has judged more than 10 chili cook-offs, including the Illinois State Cook-off.
Gina: What are your favorite peppers with which to make chili?
Doug: Jalepeño and ghost for my “homestyle” chili, but for competition, your main heat comes from powders, such as hot chili powder, cayenne, and chipotle. On the competition circuit it is all about repeatability and that is not something you can get from fresh produce. A good example is a jalepeño pepper–sometimes they are very mild and others can be very, very hot.
Gina: What are the important criteria to consider when judging chili?
Doug: Color, consistency, aroma, and taste. Chili needs to be a deep red color. If it is true competition chili, there should be no fillers (beans, rice, etc)–only meat, preferably steak cut into quarter inch cubes. It should have a great fragrance, a hint of cumin, that makes you want to taste it. Once you do taste the chili, after letting it linger on your tongue, does it have the right heat? Flavor? Not too much cumin, which comes across as bitter.
Gina: What makes the difference between a good chili and a great one?
Doug: The right blend of heat and flavor. Cumin in the right quantity is what makes a competition chili. You can be first place one month and with the same recipe the next month you might come in dead last. There are nuances to different regions. Some like it hot and salty, some with more sweet, almost like BBQ sauce you just have to experiment.
Gina: What does it take to be a good chili judge?
Doug: An open mind and attention to detail. You have to weigh the color, aroma, and consistency with what you find appealing. Place even weight on each element so as not to exclude a great looking, smelling and textured chili just because it is a little sweeter than you like.
Gina: Do you have any tips for chili judges?
Doug: An open mind and consistency. Consistency brings credibility.
Gina: Do you have any tips for chili cook-off contestants?
Doug: Practice and hold true to your tastes. It takes a while to figure out how to cube the meat correctly and how to make a nice, deep red gravy (what the liquid is called). You have to make something that tastes good to you, because you cannot make everyone happy. Produce a product you feel is great.
Gina: You’ve participated in a lot of chili contests. What are the logistical details that need to be thought through? What elements make for a great chili cook-off?
Doug: Have a good reliable cassette burner. You have to bring and prepare everything on site with you (pots, spices, meat, measuring cups, spoons etc.). Be sure to do a run through so you know you can prepare it all with no outside help. I once forgot olive oil and my wife drove frantically around some small Chicago neighborhoods to find it for me in a nick of time. You can never be too prepared.
Gina: Why do you love chili?
Doug: It was a staple growing up and brings back great memories of fall days and family gatherings. We weren’t eating competition chili, but when doing competition chili the other cooks become a small family. It really is fun and relaxing.
Doug: I hate to show my age, but anything heavy metal, 80s hair bands really says chili to me.