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Casey at the vat: SouthtownStar hosts chili cook-off to benefit Together We Cope

South Group PhoEditor Larry Ruehl (middle) smiles as he was awarded first place SouhtownStar's chili cook-off paper's offices Tinley Park

South Group Photo Editor Larry Ruehl (middle) smiles as he was awarded first place in the SouhtownStar's chili cook-off at the paper's offices in Tinley Park, Ill., on Nov. 15, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 26, 2012 6:13AM



Two of the three chili judges had arrived at the SouthtownStar offices, and my chili was still lukewarm.

It was something of an embarrassment as the contest was a personal point of pride. For weeks, I had promised victory, writing in a boastful email to my co-workers encouraging them to sign up for the chili cookoff because, “I need some competition to dunk on.”

I also encouraged them because the competition benefitted a good cause. Meal tickets to the event raised $200 for the Tinley Park based charity Together We Cope.

So the stakes were high, my ego was inflated to the size of a zeppelin, and I wasn’t exactly bringing my A-game the day of the contest due to unforeseen circumstances.

The night before, I attended a concert in Chicago that went on entirely too long because Lauryn Hill, of the Fugees, is a diva. She showed up 90 minutes late to her own show and mumbled something outrageous during her set about how her life’s work was to sabotage Casey Toners’s award-winning chili.

Anyway, I was running very late to work on Thursday, the judges had arrived, and my dish was cold. Throwing the ceramic bowl into the microwave for a couple minutes helped a little bit, but the end result was a bowl of chili that tasted a little bit like a chili slushi.

Luckily, all three judges didn’t seem to mind. Tinley Park Mayor Ed Zabrocki and the owner of Homewood’s 5th Quarter and Press Room Eatery bar, Steve Nemitz, were the first to arrive and eagerly went on their way tasting all 11 chilis provided by the SouthtownStar staff.

Nemitz makes chili year-round at his restaurant, and Zabrocki said he has judged seven prior chili contests. Zabrocki enjoys cooking himself. Before he came into the office, he actually made a Kahlua pumpkin cheesecake that, regrettably, cracked in half while he was trying to bake it.

“This is no (lie),” Zabrocki said. “I love to cook. In my next life, I’m going to be a chef.”

After about 30 minutes of tasting and filling out judging contests forms, Zabrocki and Nemitz settled on their winners, which were still anonymous at that point.

“It’s one of those chilis I could put a spoon in it and it would stay up,” Zabrocki said. “I like a busy chili; a busy soup with lots of things in it.”

The third judge, Dominic Bartolini, arrived about 20 minutes later. Bartolini has run Bartolini’s Restaurant with his brother, Chris, for the past 18 years. He also won a chili cookoff in Palos Park in 2008. His winning entry was layered with black beans, balsamic vinegar and red wine.

Bartolini, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, said he loves a good chili.

“You can put everything in one pot, walk away and come back and, amazingly, you have a meal,” Bartolini said.

About an hour after the judges wrapped up, the winner was announced: SouthtownStar photo editor Larry Ruehl.

Ruehl said he used his German grandmother’s recipe that called for a healthy dose of chili sauce, a boiled-down canned concoction of tomatoes, onions, celery and sugar.

For his efforts, Ruehl received a trophy with a red pepper paper sitting in its trophy cup.

“I can’t tell you how valuable that trophy will be with my wife,” Ruehl said. “Every time I need to add more salt, I can just invoke this trophy.”



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