Nothing says “home” more than the welcoming scent of spicy, taste bud-warming chili, bubbling gently over the stove.
And although Sherman Hall may not look much like a home, 17 chefs transformed the room on Friday into their own kitchen for the annual East Falls Chili Cook-Off, put on by the East Falls Community Council.
Claire Stilley, EFCC volunteer, said the event does more than raise money for the EFCC; it’s a night for neighbors to catch up.
“What tonight is about is just having fun and seeing your neighbors, meeting your neighbors,” she said. “The first year that I came I met so many people, and I’m still friends with a lot of them.”
It may be a competition, she added, but it’s all about socialization.
Paul Camillo, owner of Franklin’s Pub and Grill, said he opened his restaurant on Bowman Street just six months ago and hasn’t spent as much time getting to know locals as he’d like.
“People are beginning to get to know me and I didn’t realize I needed to do as much marketing as I need to do,” he said, in between conversing with passersby coming up to his stand for a cup of chili.
Camillo added that although he needs to focus on marketing, the real reason he decided to compete was to better immerse himself in the area.
“I like the neighborhood, I like the feel,” he said. “I hope they come in, but this is more of a neighborhood event.”
Karen Melton, an East Falls resident of 20 years, after commenting on the unique flavor of Camillo’s chili, added that she comes to the event every year to support the EFCC and visit with old friends.
“Sometimes I talk to and meet people that I haven’t met before,” she said. “I mostly attend to catch up.”
Amateur chili-chef duo Tom Novak and John Lavoie are also new to the neighborhood. After moving to the area in January, the two thought they could combine their love of cooking together with community and family.
The father and son-in-law team brought their wives and Novak’s infant daughter to the event.
Novak’s wife, Megan Lavoie-Novak, said her father and husband share a special bond through cooking.
“Tom has a partner to eat meat with and a partner to cook with,” she said, adding that she’s a vegetarian. “They destroy the kitchen while my mom and I just stay behind and try to stay out of the way.”
But although the day was ultimately about family and friends, Lavoie and Novak proved that there was still a competitive edge.
When asked if they were competing against each other, Lavoie burst out a “yes,” while Novak simultaneously answered “no.”
Although the two didn’t win any of the seven categories, they said their potato salad side dish with avocados was a hit.
James Mitchell, chef and owner of Cafe at the Mills, came to the cook-off ready to compete. He said he’s been testing out a new twist to his recipe for two weeks. As a result, he took home the title for Best Professional Vegetarian Chili—for the second year in a row.
“I sell over 20 pounds of chili a day, seven days a week,” he said. “But I feel good [winning]. I’ll hang [the award] inside my last year’s title and just keep on competing.”
Alex Crujeiras, who won the amateur meat category, said he knew his chili recipe was a winner when friends raved about it.
“This is actually only the fourth time I cooked it,” he said. “[When I made it] at my Super Bowl party, people were leaving with Tupperware.”
Crujeiras said the secret to his recipe was including ingredients completely from scratch—he even made his own chili powder from organic dried chilies.
But even though his concoction was declared best meat amateur chili, Crujeiras said he enjoyed being able to try other residents’ recipes.
“My favorite was the one next to me,” he said, adding that it tasted very similar to his.
The winners for best chili con carne were amateurs Alex and Heather Crujeiras, and professional chef Diane Floyd. Honors for best vegetarian chili in the amateur category went to Elana Benamy, while Epicure Cafe won in the professional category. A special award for Best Side Dish went to Trolley Car Café for jalapeño and cilantro cornbread with honey butter. This year, the People’s Choice Award was shared by two teams, Falls Flowers and Café at the Mills.
Judges for the event included Jason Rego of Tir Na Nog, Stephanie Rowe of the Falls of Schuylkill Library and Dr. Doris Bartuska.