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Organizing a Chili Cook-off

It’s fun to have a traditional Fourth of July picnic, but if you’re looking for something a little different, why not consider a chili cook-off? Chili is a quintessentially American food and is a great way to celebrate this patriotic holiday. And the fact that everyone’s chili is a little different makes it all the more interesting. Furthermore, you can pair it with cornbread, crackers, and other snacks, and then add dessert and beverages for a full-course meal that everyone will enjoy.

Who to Invite?

Cook-offs can be small and intimate or quite large, and are ideal as 4th of July fundraising events for churches and community groups, or simply as a fun Independence Day activity for the neighborhood to enjoy, sort of like an old-fashioned block party. However, it’s also possible to have one that just includes you and several friends and it can even be held in your backyard, just for fun.

If you’re doing just a small cook-off, keep it to about 5 or 6 participants and their families and ask everyone to bring a crock pot full of their creation. As the host, you can provide the additional items for the picnic.

If this is a neighborhood event or a fundraiser, you’ll want to open the festivities to at least a few dozen entries. The best way to entice participants is simply to get the word out through newspaper ads, fliers, and by word-of-mouth. Chili cook-offs are very popular, especially in some parts of the country, so you may actually have to limit the number of participants. So, set a deadline for registration and note that spots are limited.
You’ll also need to give your entrants specifics about the competition. Check out the Chili Appreciation Society International website for written guidelines you can offer to those who enter (www.chili.org).


Once you’ve determined a good location for your chili cook-off (outside is best, if weather permits, but be sure to have a back-up location just in case), you’ll need to make sure you have everything your entrants need for a successful event.

Unless this is a professional event, chances are that your entrants will not be doing their actual cooking at the location. Instead they’ll be bringing large pots or crock pots full of their creation. That means you’ll need to have large hot plates available or, at the least, a place to plug in each crock pot. Be sure to have extension cords on hand as well as power strips and be careful not to overload your circuits!

Since non-cooking guests are going to be traveling from table to table to check out all the chili, you’ll need small 2-3 oz. plastic cups for tasting as well as small spoons. These are available in large quantity from discount stores like Costco or online from a number of different suppliers. Also remember to have lots of napkins as well as small plates for cornbread or other foods you might serve or sell and cups for soft drinks and other beverages.


Before you ask for entries, you’ll need to decide how judging will be handled.  If this is a small event, everyone can have a ballot and either indicate their ultimate favorite or score each entry according to a number of different factors. If you’re doing the latter, stress that voters should try every entry, if possible, in order to make this as fair as possible. Then you’ll designate two or more people to tally the ballots.

If this is a large event, however, it’s probably best to appoint several judges who will determine the winners. These can include chefs at local restaurants, an area politician or dignitary, and others involved in organizing the event. Though everyone can sample the chili, these individuals will be ultimately responsible for the awarding of the prizes.


More cooks will be enticed to enter your competition if you offer some good prizes to the winners. For small events, gift cards or cooking-related gifts are a good idea. However, if this is a major event, you may want to offer cash prizes. Determine your budget beforehand so you can let the entries know exactly what the prize potential might be before they register.