By Donna Cornelius
The Exceptional Foundation has come up with a winning recipe for its biggest fundraiser.
The Homewood-based nonprofit’s Chili Cook-off, which last year attracted more than 11,000 people, is set for March 5 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The 2015 version of the cook-off drew more than 90 teams and raised more than $294,587. At the first event 12 years ago, 20 teams competed and the event netted about $40,000. The outdoor competition outgrew its original site, the Exceptional Foundation’s parking lot, and is now held in the Brookwood Village parking lot.
There’s another change that may be even more important to chili lovers –the quality of the star attraction.
“The winning chili that first year was Hormel out of a can,” said Dee Grisham, the foundation’s director of development.
That entry had some extra ingredients added in, but even the most creative amped-up version of a canned chili likely wouldn’t make the first cut in the contest these days.
Adam Rhoades said his company, title sponsor Northwest Mutual, is a regular cook-off competitor – and it doesn’t take its chili-making lightly.
“We have pretty much the same team of chefs and collaborators,” said Rhoades, who’s also a member of the foundation’s board of directors. “They start planning about six months in advance.”
The head chef of last year’s winning team, IberiaBank, won’t divulge his blue-ribbon recipe. That’s because the bank’s team cooks up basically the same chili every year – but with improvements.
“We’ve gotten better, I think,” said Wes Quattlebaum, who leads IberiaBank’s team of cooks. “We’re in the tweaking phase now.”
Margaret Cochran, the Exceptional Foundation’s marketing and event manager, said most competitors get an early start on the day of the cook-off.
“Last year, I got there about 3 a.m., and the first team had gotten there at 1 a.m.,” she said.
The chili has to be made on site and ready by 10:30 a.m.
“That’s when the preliminary judging starts,” Cochran said. “We have 45 judges.”
Seven awards are up for grabs. Judges select the grand prize winner and the first and second runners-up. Those who attend can vote for the People’s Choice Award winner, and the Spirit Award goes to the team with the best tent and costumes.
Joe Medori of IberiaBank said his team decided a few years ago to go whole hog in its efforts to win the Spirit Award.
“At that time, we hadn’t always had good chili, and we wanted to win an award,” Medori said. “We figured we could control our theme. We’ve done Mardi Gras, Duck Dynasty – that was our first year to win the Spirit Award – and had ’70s and ’80s themes. When we did Duck Dynasty, even the women wore beards.”
New this year is the Participants’ Award, which will be voted on by participants in Exceptional Foundation programs.
The foundation gives those with special needs a place to participate in social and recreational activities, which often aren’t available to them after they’re past school age. The foundation also provides after-school and summer programs for school-aged young people.
“Our participants love the chili cook-off,” said Tricia Kirk, the foundation’s executive director. “They know so many people there, and they can get on stage and perform. They’re our morale boosters.”
The event raises not only money but awareness for the foundation, she said.
“Every year, after each cook-off, we have people call and ask, ‘What exactly do you do?’” Kirk said. “They say they have a child or a sister or another relative with special needs and want to find out more about our programs.”
Dee Grisham said the cook-off is an essential ingredient in the foundation’s finances.
“Only a fourth of our budget is covered by participant fees,” she said. “We offer scholarships. We take our participants out to lunch. We have a prom. We have a basketball league, a swim team and bowling. This is where they make friends, fall in love – it’s their place.”
Rhoades said he joined the foundation’s board about three years ago.
“Our involvement started with the chili cook-off; we were a sponsor,” he said. “This place makes a difference in the fabric of people’s lives. It serves a silent population. There’s often not a path for them after primary school, and many families are affected. Their lives can become a little bit of a prison for them and for their families.”
Rhoades is an enthusiastic supporter of the cook-off – but not as a chef.
“I can’t cook to save my life,” he said. “We’d never win if I cooked.”
IberiaBank’s head chef said the chili-making process is “a feel thing.”
“I don’t have a background in cooking,” Quattlebaum said. “I have a background in eating.”
Each team has to make 10 gallons of chili; tickets include unlimited samples. The event also will have beverage sales from Good People Brewing Co., some food vendors, entertainment and a kids’ zone.
Tickets are $10 in advance and $15 at the gate. For more information, visit www.exceptionalfoundation.org.
Rhoades said the cook-off is “a great family event.”
“It mirrors what’s special about the Exceptional Foundation,” he said. “Most participants have kept a childlike perspective. This is one of the few places in the city where I can walk in and get a hug. That spirit is infused into the event.”
Tricia Kirk said her favorite part of the fundraiser is “the buzz of the crowd.”
“It’s great to see so many people in the community coming out and cheering us on,” she said.