Heated Competition: 4th Street Arts’ Chili Cook-Off will Spice Up Spring

Last year’s crowd enjoying the 4th Street Arts Annual Chili Cook-Off 

It’s springtime at Grove Street Plaza, and what a feast for the senses: the laughter of children, the welcome warmth of the sun, and that unmistakable scent of… chili? Yes, people of Jersey City, brace yourselves, for the Chili Cook-Off is again on the horizon.

Saturday, May 3, is the date of the fifth-annual fundraising event, presented by the non-profit 4th Street Arts organization. (Interested contestants have until April 11 to enter; the fee is $40 for individuals and $75 for restaurants. Visit the 4th Street Arts website for complete details.) From noon until 5 pm on May 3, the plaza will be filled with devoted chili-cooking teams, shrewd judges, and throngs of eager tasters. For $5, attendees can sample all the chili offerings and vote for their favorites.

“You really get to chill out and have fun with so many people from your neighborhood,” says Christopher Silk, who won the People’s Choice award at the inaugural Cook-Off back in 2010. “It sounds silly, but I felt like a local celebrity for a couple of months.”

Thirsty, legal-age chili fans can also indulge in a home-brew sampling at the Cook-Off, courtesy of the Jersey City Brew Club. JCBC members craft handmade ales, stouts, ciders, and wine, and several of these brews are being created especially for May’s event. The club will host two sittings, each for $20, which includes the chili-tasting fee. Brew-sampling tickets must be purchased in advance, as participation will be limited to 200 people.

Official vendors on-hand at the Cook-Off will be Lucky 7 Tavern and the Milk Sugar Love organic ice-cream truck. With chili, brews, and treats around, music can’t be too far away. The bands Big Wake and the Jeremy Wallace Trio will be performing throughout the afternoon. And for the younger set, Jersey City’s own Bambino Chef will operate a children’s area with fun food-themed art activities.

Chili Cook Off 2013

Chili Cook Off 2013

Cook-Off’s Kickoff

The Chili Cook-Off was originally inspired by 4th Street Arts’ successful Macaroni & Cheese Bake-Off, first held in the late summer of 2009. That competition was dreamed up by the group’s Marc Caterina to raise money for their then-signature event, the 4th Street Art & Music Festival. The first Chili Cook-Off was held five months later at the former 58 Gallery on Coles St. Though only about 150 people attended, the event certainly created some buzz.

“The second year [at Parlay Studios on 2nd Street] at 10 am, there was a line of people waiting,” remembers Max Michaels, who is on 4th Street Arts’ Board of Directors. “When we opened the doors, it was like a Black Friday midnight rush into the place of mostly hungry-looking big dudes!”

To accommodate the growing crowds, the Cook-Off migrated to Grove Street Plaza last year, and attracted more than 1,000 people. “That’s a great venue for a family-friendly, inexpensive event like this,” says Mike McNamara, co-founder of 4th Street Arts. “It’s so nice when downtown is chock full of people. It creates a real life to the city.”

Con-Carne Contestants

Though the event has expanded and moved around a bit, there are many familiar faces at the Cook-Off from year to year. Returning restaurant entrants for 2014 include the Lamp Post Bar & Grill, LITM, and PJ Ryan’s, hoping to defend their “Best Restaurant Chili” title. Meanwhile, the Hamilton Inn and Gia Gelato are among the eateries entering the fold for the first time.

The individual competition will see returning favorites such as Alana Puentes, the Manning Brothers (no, not those Manning brothers), and Kelly Deal (who is not Kelley Deal of the Breeders). They’ll have to keep an eye on some hungry young challengers. “The Lincoln High School Culinary Program has two student-teacher teams this year,” McNamara says.

All the contestants will try to impress the esteemed panel of judges, in hopes of being awarded one of the coveted Golden Spoons (for Spiciest; Most Creative; Best Vegetarian; and Best Student Team), and of course to be crowned Best Individual or Best Restaurant. Meanwhile, the public’s votes determine the People’s Choice awards for both top individual and restaurant.

Just as there are many returning contestants, the judges also bring much Cook-Off experience to the table. Leading the way is none other than the honorable Mayor Steven Fulop. As Ward E Councilman, Fulop not only judged all the previous Chili Cook-Offs, but all the Mac & Cheese Cook-Offs too. Joining Hizzoner as a chili judge for the fifth straight year is Peter Genovese, the legendary Star-Ledger food writer and man behind the Munchmobile.

Back for a second year as judges are Princeton Club chef Will Lustberg and Jersey City Independent publisher Catherine Hecht, the vegetarian specialist. (JCI is also one of the sponsors of the Chili Cook-Off and has proudly sponsored the event  since 2010.) Making her debut as a chili judge will be current Ward E Councilwoman Candice Osborne. Rumors that Ms. Osborne previously competed in the Mac & Cheese Cook-Off have not been confirmed.

2010 Chili Cook-Off

2010 Chili Cook-Off

Fun and Funds

After an impressive 10-year run, the 4th Street Art & Music Festival bid a fond farewell to Jersey City in October. So without this flagship event, what will the funds raised by the Chili Cook-Off benefit now? “We’ll continue to run our yearly grant program,” McNamara explained. “This usually covers tuition for a local student to attend an arts-related education program in Jersey City.”

In addition—and in keeping in the spirit of its popular festival—4th Street Arts plans to hold more live music events. McNamara would like to put on another show at the J. Owen Grundy Park pier at Exchange Place before the end of the coming summer. “We love the location,” he says, “so hopefully that will take off.”

It sounds like 4th Street Arts is alive and well—and ready to serve up some chili!

The Chili Cook-Off will be held on Saturday, May 3 from noon to 5 pm at the Grove Street PATH Plaza. Admission is $5 to sample all the chili or $20 for the chili + home-brew samplings. To participate you have until April 11 to enter; the fee is $40 for individuals and $75 for restaurants. For more information, visit 4thStreetArts.com.

Check out our photos and a recap from last year’s Chili Cook-Off!

The Jersey City Independent is a proud media sponsor of this event. © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

Top photos by Mickey Mathis bottom photo courtesy Mike McNamara

Jack Silbert

is a writer, editor, internet-radio DJ and occasional emcee. He is the author of several books and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, New Jersey Monthly, Weird NJ, and other publications. Jack’s humorous ramblings can be found at Salt In Wound.