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JAUNTS : Serious Cooks Spice Up Competition : Chefs from throughout the Southland will gather Saturday for the fifth annual Port Hueneme Chili Festival.


Making chili may not sound like a spectator sport. But if you come around to a sanctioned chili competition, you'll get a whole new perspective on that zesty concoction.

You can do just that Saturday when chili chefs from Ventura County and the Southland face off in a gastronomical contest of secret spices during the fifth annual Port Hueneme Chili Festival.

For those of you who thought that chili was just, well, chili, this has all the serious competitiveness of professional sports. First of all, the top prize is $500, but more importantly, the winner moves on to a regional competition sanctioned by the International Chili Society. From there, who knows, maybe a shot at the Chili World Championship in Reno in October, where the top prize is $25,000.

"These are serious chili cooks," said Don Leach, a Thousand Oaks attorney and chili judge the last 14 years. "Some of them are putting out $100 just for the ingredients."

Leach knows his way around a chili bowl. He judges about 20 chili competitions a year and has been chief judge for the Port Hueneme cook-off since its inception.

Last year, about 6,000 people attended the festival at Hueneme Beach Park, sampling chili and other goodies, listening to live music and taking in the beach scene.

But the chili scene is something else entirely. The chefs may be serious about their grub, but they have a sense of humor and a flair for shtick. Their cooking booths are sometimes duded up in zany themes, like an Old West motif. They dub their creations names like Crazy Horse Chili, Big Dog Kibbled Chili, Cactus Jack Chili and Gas, and one dubious concoction called Road Kill Chili.

The festival runs from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. The chefs must prepare and cook their chili there, Leach said. They can't use precooked ingredients, and beans of any kind are a no-no. The chefs simmer their chili on Coleman-style propane-fueled stoves for 3 to 3 1/2 hours. The judges--more than 20 in all, including some celebrity judges--make their selections about 4 p.m.

What makes for a winning bowl of chili? According to Leach: "If you could only eat one food the rest of your life, which bowl of chili would you choose?" Hot is not necessarily good, he said. It all comes down to the perfect blend of spices--cumin, garlic, Tabasco, maybe some oregano, and who knows what else.

"You want them all to come together," Leach said. Some chefs are so fussy about their spices that they go out of state for them. "But if the chili tastes unusual and odd, it doesn't win."

Meat is another issue. Some chefs prefer tri-tip, while others go for chuck steak, rump roast, sirloin or good old hamburger.

The quest for that prize-winning chili has taken Joel Erickson to at least 20 competitions a year. The Thousand Oaks software engineer has even simmered his chili in North Dakota and Minnesota in hopes of winning a berth in the Chili World Championship.

"I'll probably quit if I go to the World," he joked. He took fourth place last year in Port Hueneme and he's entered again this year under his banner, The Dorset Gulch Chili Gang.

His recipe is one that has taken him a long time to perfect. He uses good tri-tip and his own blend of seasonings. He doesn't tinker with it much.

His advice? "If you get a good recipe, stick with it."


* WHAT: Fifth annual Port Hueneme Chili Festival, with proceeds to benefit Kiwanis youth charities.

* WHEN: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

* WHERE: Hueneme Beach Park, near the pier off Surfside Drive.

* COST: Admission is free; 50 cents to sample each chili.

* FYI: Call 984-8728.

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