Chili cook-off at Shaare Torah brings the heat

Chili cook-off at Shaare Torah brings the heat

Pre-pandemic competitors prepare chili in the kitchen at Shaare Torah.  Photo by Adam Reinherz
Pre-pandemic competitors prepare chili in the kitchen at Shaare Torah. Photo by Adam Reinherz

In Texas, chili has no beans. In Pittsburgh, chili has all heart.

On Thursday, Feb. 4, 10 cooks — equipped with carrots, coriander, cumin and even chicken — crammed the kitchen at Shaare Torah for the congregation’s fourth annual chili cook-off. The event, which culminated with Judi Wasserman’s winning chili, featured an array of culinary concoctions. The cook-off is the brainchild of Arielle Avishai.

With pots clanking on the synagogue’s stove and smoke billowing above, Avishai’s husband, Avram Avishai, explained the origins of the annual event.

“It started off four years ago when my wife planned a chili cook-off for her office,” he said. “I thought it was the dumbest thing ever; turns out, she’s smarter than me.”

The now-popular event, which brought 200 people to Shaare Torah on Saturday morning for taste testing and judging, is a perfect brew of hurry up and wait.

Although on Thursday night the competing cooks furiously cut, chopped and cubed ingredients, upon completion, the chilies were transported to a refrigerator that evening. On Friday, the chilies, each of which were made in crock pots, began their slow cooking processes.

“The rabbi set everything up right before Shabbat, [around] 4 to 5 p.m. on Friday,” said Arielle Avishai.

For 20 hours the chilies stewed.

“It becomes tricky because the flavor actually changes,” said Avishai. “And you have to be careful that you add enough liquid.”

David Chudnow admittedly knows deliquescent delinquency.

“Last year, I added too much water,” he explained, while standing beside the steaming stove in Shaare Torah’s kitchen on Thursday night.

This year, he and his wife, Heather, made a Cincinnati chili.

“It’s tomato based and uses Greek spices, cinnamon and cocoa powder,” he said.

The chili, which the Chudnows named “You Cooked Me All Night Long,” is the same recipe that they used last year. But while his competitors eyed a particular prize, David had his own.

“I’m not playing for the win, I’m just playing to redeem my own mistakes,” he said.

Margaret Fischer, a first-time competitor, similarly rebuffed any pursuit of victory. “I don’t care if I win,” she stated.

Fischer’s entry, which featured neither beef nor poultry products, paid homage to her previous lifestyle.

“I was a vegetarian for 10 years,” she said. “It was the first chili I ever made, so I’m going to stick with it.”

In recent years, Susan Goldman has fared well in the competition.

“I don’t think this is really cheating. I went to vocational school and learned French cuisine but never learned how to make chili,” she said.

Three years ago, Goldman relied on ground meat and kidney beans but ultimately produced a self-appraised pedestrian platter.

“The first year I came in third, but I’m a foodie, and I always watch The Food Network.”

With her amassed knowledge, Goldman returned to the competition and delivered a triumphant Szechuan beef chili.

Though that entree won last year’s cook-off, Goldman surprisingly switched this year’s entry.

“I didn’t want to do the same thing,” she said.

So with deference to her winning dish but a nod to change, Goldman set herself at the end of the kitchen’s stainless steel work surface Thursday night and plotted portions for Thai beef chili.

Across the table from the reigning champ, two cooks looked to take her crown.

“I’m in it to win it,” said Heather Ufberg.

Surrounded by pounds of boneless chicken, Ufberg cited the culinary catalyst for her chicken jalfrezi.

“I was at a shevah brachot hosted by Sari Cohen and Adam Pollak, and this is the recipe [they] had there. It was fantastic,” she said. “I knew then that it would be my recipe and that I would win.”

Silently, Michael Belman worked beside Ufberg.

“I’m making a Texas style chili,” he said. “It’s mostly meat, [the] very purest form of chili.”

Belman said that he and his wife, Chantal, are quite familiar with the event and its featured food.

“Chantal and I are chili lovers and connoisseurs and have come to this event and tried other people’s chili,” he said. “It was inevitable we threw our hat in the ring.”

Elsewhere in the kitchen, cooks had already completed their courses.

Jonathan Young proudly displayed his almost au naturel achievement.

“I go very basic,” said Young. “It’s going to cook for 16 hours; you don’t get a lot of nuance.”

When asked about his previous involvements with the cook-off, Young replied, “I always do OK, I never win. I’ve been told that I’m a spot or two out, but I think they tell everyone that.”

Near evening’s end, while some may have preferred an entremets, Avram Avishai offered entrants an entremés.

This is the coveted Shaare Torah Chili Cook-off plaque, which hangs in the synagogue, he said. Following Saturday’s taste test and judging, the winner’s name and the year will be inscribed.

Young said that the plaque is only partially the prize.

“It’s fun having everyone in the kitchen.”

And although most participants are polite, Young admitted that a bit of boasting began weeks ago.

“It’s a friendly competition, [but] there’s more than a little bit of trash talking,” he said. “Sometimes, Jews cooking chili turns into a Steelers-Bengals game.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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