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Annual Old Saybrook Chili Fest Offers a New Twist

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Quinly Farrow and Maria Rougeot, shown in the 19th annual Chili-Fest, show some of the spirit attendees can expect at the Old Saybrook Chamber of COmmerce 23rd annual Chili Fest on Saturday, March 2, from noon to 3 p.m. Photo by Gary Komoroski/Harbor News

Quinly Farrow and Maria Rougeot, shown in the 19th annual Chili-Fest, show some of the spirit attendees can expect at the Old Saybrook Chamber of COmmerce 23rd annual Chili Fest on Saturday, March 2, from noon to 3 p.m. (Photo by Gary Komoroski/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)

When the Old Saybrook Chamber of Commerce says its annual Chili Fest is going green this year, it’s not talking about chili verde.
On Saturday, March 2, the more than 20 contestants will serve their chili in biodegradable, compostable cups made from sugarcane fiber. And each participant will be handed a ballot and a metal spoon, which they’ll re-use for each tasting, rather than pick up a new, disposable plastic spoon at each location. They’ll return the spoons with their ballots.
The effort to make the festival eco-friendly was helped by two partners: The Rockfall Foundation, a non-profit organization in Middletown that promotes environmental education and conservation in the Lower Connecticut River Valley, which is underwriting the cost of the cups; and Penny Lane Pub, also competing in the Chili Fest, which will apply its industrial dishwasher to the task of cleaning the spoons for next year’s event.
This is Old Saybrook’s 23rd Chili Fest, which grows more popular each year. In 2018, the chamber sold 1,500 ballots, a 74 percent increase over 2017, when 860 were sold. Not everyone who turns up participates in the chili tasting—the chamber estimates that a total of 3,000 people attended last year.
For 2019, the chamber has asked participating chefs to increase the amount of chili they make from 10 to 12 gallons up to 15, as some have run out in previous years.
As always, the event raises money for charitable causes. The chamber uses proceeds to fund its scholarships for graduating Old Saybrook High School seniors, and the winners’ designated charities receive donations.
An event that’s been going for 23 years carries a bit of a history. Saybrook Hardware has participated every year save one since the event started. For many years, its chef, a two-time winner, was Richard Wilcox, who passed away suddenly in 2006. His son, Rick Wilcox, took on the mantle for many years after.
“Then life just got too busy for him so he just hasn’t done it in the last couple of years,” said Saybrook Hardware manager Brian Toolan.
Two years ago, Saybrook Hardware played host to Saybrook Point Inn for the festival. Last year, the hardware store didn’t officially participate, and Toolan got to enjoy the festival for the first time.
For 2019, Saybrook Hardware is back in the competition: Toolan’s wife, Katie, has offered to step up to the challenge.
“My wife makes a mean pot of chili,” Toolan said.
Penny Lane Pub has been on Main Street for 16 years and has probably participated “every year or close to that” and has won several times, said co-owner Alex Foulkes.
“It is a lot of chili,” he said. “We ran out last year with an hour to go. It really depends on the weather—it’s always a popular event but if the weather’s good it brings a lot of people out.”
Despite the work and the cost, participating makes good business sense, Foulkes said.
“It’s a lot of chili, and obviously people don’t pay us for it, but it’s a partnership with the town and it brings people directly in” to the restaurant, he said. “They’re not necessarily getting something to eat, but they’re coming in for a drink. And they’re seeing how cute and vibrant Main Street is, even in the winter. [Old Saybrook is] known as a summer town, but we have a lot going on all year.
“It’s an opportunity for us to network with people who live within a certain proximity of us,” he added.
Old Saybrook newcomer Little Pub hadn’t even opened its doors in Old Saybrook when it participated last year, said Douglas Grabe, who owns the restaurant and four others in southwestern Connecticut with his wife, Daneen.
“We thought it would be a great way to introduce ourselves to the neighborhood,” he said.
They were awarded third place on their first try, which wasn’t a great surprise, Grabe said, because “we have really good chili.”
The recipe Little Pub served last year was the one that’s on its menu, Topstone Mountain Chili.
“It’s just the right combination, the right balance of heat and sweet. It’s not super spicy but…everything works well in it and you end up with a very well-balanced chili,” he said. “Sometimes chili is too spicy or too bland or too beefy or too beany.
“There is a secret ingredient in there, but we don’t divulge that,” he added.
Grabe wasn’t sure whether Little Pub would stick with its mainstay or try something new this year.
“We’ve done creative chilis before for different chili fests,” he said. “Our approach to these events is we’re proud of our chili. We don’t have to do something special—we sell it every day. To let people taste the stuff that they can get every day of the week [at the restaurant] is probably the best use of everybody’s time.”
Penny Lane, on the other hand, likes to try something new each year. The cooks have learned from their successes as well as from those that didn’t go over so well, Foulkes explained.
One year “we tried to go exotic and we made rabbit and bison chili,” he said. “Everyone was so turned off by the fact that they were eating bunnies that lots of people wouldn’t even try it.”
This year they’ll collaborate with Old Saybrook’s 30 Mile Brewing Company. Foulkes has instructed the chef, Mike Nuñez, to use 30 Mile’s brown ale.
“We are starting early next week playing around with the recipe,” Foulkes said, noting that Nuñez is “already thinking about what he’s going to do with it. He asked how exotic he can get. I told him, ‘Not too spicy, not too exotic, but you want it to stand out a bit.’”
The competition should be fierce.
“I want to win. We want to win,” said Grabe. “We’re going to put our best chili forward and let the chips fall where they may.”
Old Saybrook’s Chili Fest will be held on Saturday, March 2, from noon to 3 p.m. Tasting ballots are $10 and being sold at the Old Saybrook Chamber of Commerce at 1 Main Street and will be sold at ballot stations along Main Street during the event.

Aviva Luria covers news from Old Saybrook and Westbrook for Zip06. Email Aviva at a.luria@shorepublishing.com.

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