Chili, Competition and Community

By Kelly Visser

As beans boiled, chefs chopped and samples were served, the 53rd Annual World Champion Chili Cook-Off ignited friendly competition and community spirit in The District at Prairie Trail in Ankeny.

The three-day event (Sept. 6-8) united hundreds of qualifying “chiliheads” vying for a $25,000 grand prize. The competition included entries from 41 states in traditional red chili, homestyle chili, green chili and vegetable chili categories, as well as youth categories.

“There’s a fellowship in these competitions. It’s much bigger and deeper than chili. There’s something special about preparing food from the heart and sharing it with others,” says Scott Toland, owner and CEO of the International Chili Society (ICS) and World Champion Chili Cook-Off.

Toland estimates the world championship event had around 5,000 attendees in addition to the nearly 500 ICS members and competitors. The event was sponsored in part by the Iowa Soybean Association, The Soyfoods Council, Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa Beef Industry Council and Iowa Corn Growers Association.

The annual event is hosted by ICS, an organization founded in 1967 with a vision to bring people together to enjoy healthy competition and continuously improve chili while raising money for charities and non-profits.

All year-round, “chiliheads” nationwide organize sanctioned cook-offs on a local level, and winners are invited to compete in the world championship. Local cook-offs can be standalone events or tied into community festivals or sporting events and are required to donate a portion of proceeds to a charity.

To date, ICS events have made nearly $100 million in charitable donations to organizations, such as the American Cancer Society, American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, United Way and many more. Please note, by clicking the links you will be leaving a partially funded checkoff site.

A Spoonful of ‘Iowa Nice’

After years of being headquartered in California and moving the championship from city to city, ICS decided to find a new permanent home in 2019.

With a long list of criteria in hand, the team searched the nation – first narrowing to 17 locations, then to four. Ultimately, it was decided to make central Iowa the organization’s new home and The District at Prairie Trail in Ankeny the site of future World Champion Chili Cook-Offs.  

“It felt right from the moment we visited, and that was even in December,” Toland jokes. “People here hold the door open; they are anxious to help and they smile. It’s overwhelming what a great fit this community is for ICS.”

After the world championship debuted in Ankeny, the decision to move to Iowa was praised by the hundreds of “chiliheads” participating in the event.

“So many participants told me they were thrilled that ICS is making Iowa home,” Toland recounts. “They were so impressed by how friendly, courteous and appreciative the visitors were and really enjoyed the interaction and intelligent questions.”

Beyond the Chili Pot

In addition to the move to Iowa, Toland is focused on expanding the program’s roots in agricultural awareness.

“It’s not just chili,” says Toland. “Chili brings people out to have fun, but it ultimately gives us a platform to teach people about the farming, food safety, nutrition and community that goes into a beloved bowl of chili.”

One example of how ICS is furthering the farm-to-fork conversation is the brand-new “Pop-Up” Chili Cook-off Rig. The first-of-its-kind truck and trailer is fully equipped with kitchen space for 30 cooks to compete in a pop-up competition.

“This lowers the barrier of entry for youth and adults to join in the friendly competition,” Toland explains. “We supply the cooking space, ingredients, spices and know-how – all the participants have to do is bring a recipe.”

And while the chili simmers, there’s opportunity for education.

“During these pop-up events, we can teach participants about food production, safe food preparation and healthy nutrition,” says Kylie Peterson, marketing director for the Iowa Beef Industry Council (IBIC). “Iowa Beef is proud to partner with ICS on this project because it is a great way to reach Iowans at the grassroots level and help make the farm-to-kitchen-to-mouth connection.”

To date, ICS has held six “Pop-Up” Chili Cook-off Rig events in Iowa communities. It plans to host pop-up community and corporate competitions in all 99 counties, with a goal to cover at least half by the end of 2020.

These competitions are made possible by partnerships with 4-H, Future Farmers of America, Boys and Girls Club, IBIC, Iowa Pork Producers Association, Tones Spices, Hy-Vee and others.

Iowans interested in joining a pop-up competition or coordinating a sanctioned cook-off are encouraged to visit chilicookoff.com for details.

Want to make an award winning batch of chili? Find previous World Champion Chili Cook-Off award-winning chili recipes here.