Jill Fishon-Kovachick wasn’t going to make last year’s mistake again. Then, she wasn’t expecting a first-of-its-kind event to draw so many people. Now, she doesn’t underestimate people’s desire for some good chili on a cold winter day.
The smells coming from inside the Saratoga Clay Arts Center were smoky, spicy and a tad sweet, creating an anticipatory buzz among the crowd lined up outside the door in winter jackets, caps and scarves.
It was the second hour of the second annual Chili Bowl, and someone inside the jam-packed center politely, but urgently asked people who had finished their chili and voted to hightail it out.
“We’ve got a line backed up out there,” a man said, laughing nervously.
The Chili Bowl, held by and at the Saratoga Clay Arts Center, was undoubtedly a success. Fishon-Kovachick, the center’s founder and owner, made sure there were more than 1,000 bowls available for this year’s event, up from last year’s 700. They ran out of bowls last year and had to turn people away.
“We didn’t expect it to be what is was and we were so busy,” she said. “I never anticipated the outcome that we had last year. I think people really enjoy having an event happening in the winter, when there’s nothing going on.”
The event supports local artists and charities. Half of the proceeds — $15 for the bowl and $1 for admission — go to the center, which employs the artists who hand make the earth-toned, beautifully shaped clay bowls that people eat chili out of, then take home. The other half is split among five charities of the chefs’ choice — Franklin Community Center, Slow Foods Saratoga Region, Upstate New York/Vermont Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Saratoga Lions Club and the Schuylerville Area Food and Emergency Relief.
When Kent and Kim Williams traveled the winding roads through Schuylerville to get to the center last year, the Chili Bowl had run out of bowls and was almost out of chili.
“There was one chili left, so we had one,” said Kim.
“It was like 35, 40 degrees last year, the sun was out and I think they were overwhelmed by the number of people who showed up,” said Kent. “They’ve got it really much more organized this year.”
The Saratoga Springs couple got to try all five choices this year. Kent’s favorite was the Hattie’s Restaurant offering and Kim’s the Putnam Market version.
Hattie’s chef Jasper Alexander wasn’t feeling too much pressure Saturday. His was voted “best chili” last year, and this year he kept the recipe about the same — some pinto beans, brisket, and about six different types of chili peppers.
“I tweaked it a little bit,” he said, as he ladled the brisket chili into an eager man’s bowl.
The Saratoga Clay Arts Center also wanted a vegetarian option at this year’s Chili Bowl, so they asked Alicia Bevan if she could pull something together.
Bevan, of Putnam Market, served up samples of her black bean enchilada chili topped with crème fraiche.
“We’ve heard great feedback,” she said, from behind a long row of tables topped with pots of chili, wax paper cups and glass jars that people were dropping poker chips into. Each poker chip was a vote for “best chili.”
In addition to a chili full of braised short rib, wild boar, bison and house sausage, Druthers Brewing Company served up a little fun in the form of hops. The crowd seemed to like the side choice of light or dark beer.
Henry Street Taproom served spaghetti with cheese, onions and beans. Chef Ali Benamti said if people liked it enough, she would consider putting it on the menu.
At the far end of the chefs’ table Cathy Rana wanted to know what made Ron Granberg’s chili so sweet.
“Are you sharing the recipe?” she said, sounding eager, but also wary.
Granberg, manager at Lillian’s Restaurant in Saratoga Springs, quickly shook his head no.
“We wanted to make it kind of a full-bodied kind of chili, keep it kind of basic, not get too crazy, and add that sweetness to it that a lot of chilies don’t have,” he said, looking out at a growing line of people in front of his table.
He told Rana he prefers people to come into his restaurant, that if he shares the recipe that might not happen any more. But then, perhaps feeling like he had let down a curious child, furtively whispered: “It’s got a little brown sugar in it.”