On the eve of another highly anticipated Winter Festival Chili Cook-off, we turn to chef Bob Kascik for an assist with our own.
Is there anything more enticing than a cushy couch, a roaring fire and a “Ray Donovan” binge session on a dead-of-winter Sunday afternoon? For hundreds, the last several years, the answer is yes: craft beer and a bottomless bowl of pro-made chili. And they’re just the ones lucky enough to get their hands on tickets.
The Lambertville, New Jersey-New Hope Winter Festival is a week loaded with concerts, tastings, walking tours and ice sculpting staged throughout the neighboring river towns during what is otherwise one of the bleakest stretches of the year. (January 23 through Jan. 31, this year.) But its most-inspired event (and most-popular draw) is saved for last (and the indoors): an increasingly competitive chili cook-off that pits several local chefs against each other.
On the eve of this year’s edition, the 19th, we visited the kitchen of bitter Bob’s BBQ + Comfort Food, in New Hope, to ask its owner-chef, and longtime cook-off participant, Bob Kascik for some pro tips that would translate to our own chili.
Much like snowflakes, no two are alike, but there are universal treatments, like the use of peppers. Kascik uses five kinds: habanero, scotch bonnet, jalapeno, Thai and chipotle. Why five? Because he also uses five kinds of meat—pork, brisket, chicken, turkey and sausage—and he likes the symmetry. His first year in business, Kascik was over-ordering, and, out of necessity, he started developing recipes around the leftovers, from which his Double Nickel Chili eventually emerged.
The nuance comes not necessarily from the variety of meats—not just, at least—but from their preparation. “It’s the burnt ends, the stuff that’s been cooking in its own juices for hours, refining its flavor,” says Kascik, whose demeanor is the very opposite of bitter. The nickname, apparently, was doled out during a game of Uno, and it stuck. “And the blend of peppers allows for a really nice heat, not just up front but in the back of your throat, a warm glow that levels out and blends with the smokiness of the barbeque.”
Tried and true as the formula seems, Kascik is vulnerable, just like the rest of us, to chili’s pull to riff, even with bragging rights on the line at the cook-off. “It’s such a great day to hang out with other chefs, people from the community, have a few beers,” he says. “And as long as I’m doing it, I might as well try to be innovative, put out some new ideas.”
And therein lies the lure for both the maker and the eater: the potential for revelation. The base and the appearance may be relatively standard, but there’s a broad spectrum of flavor lurking within that thick, chunky, orange-red stew.
“People tend to get hung up on heat levels, but you can always add heat at the end. It’s far more important to achieve a balance of flavors and get the texture right,” Kascik says. “Once you get that down, you can start to innovate with lots of things you have around your own kitchen.”
The 19th annual Lambertville-New Hope Winter Festival Chili Cook-off, Jan. 31, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Triumph Brewing Company, New Hope.
Photos by Matthew J. Rhein