Cowboy Chili in the Canyon

I guess it wouldn’t be Topanga if our annual Chili Cook-off was a legitimate competition.


Goofy chilis often win. Last year, in the traditional chili category, the top prize went to a Moroccan lamb chili. This year, second place went to friend Kali’s chili — which featured habanero whipped cream and strawberries. (And was actually quite tasty, once I got enough past my initial shock to try some.)

Several years ago, I was a judge. There were only three chilis entered, none of which had any meat. (And one of which was a salsa-like “raw” vegan chili.) Our task that year, the other judges and I determined, was to choose the least bad of the three.


It seemed there was some effort by our local community house powers-that-be in the intervening years to make it more of a legitimate event. And this year, the chilis were of a much higher caliber. Still, there was missing a true sense of competition, as the entrants traded secrets, shared ingredients and utensils, and passed around beers and bottles of homemade wine.

It’s more of simply a big community chili cookout, I suppose.

“I’m worried about my beans,” my cooking neighbor, Tom with the Big Chili Paddle, confessed. “I didn’t soak them, and I don’t think they’re going to be cooked through.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured him, knowing he was the only entrant this year in the vegetarian category, “I feel pretty good about your chances.”



In 2014, my first year “competing,” I made a traditional chili that was heavy on Mexican influences — in particular, a heavy masa influence from corn flour. I also tossed in a couple slices of American cheese for creaminess. (“Hey man,” said my pal Dan, cooking across from me, with a look of bewilderment on his face, “Did you just throw some processed cheese into your chili!?”)

I did not win. But I had fun, and got lots of props for my chili.

This year, I chose a more strictly traditional route. I would use no beans, just beef (and a few smoked pork bones — technically a violation, but no one seemed to be paying much attention to violations), roast and grind my own chilis and cumin seeds, lots of sweet onion and fresh garlic. My base would be Tecate beer, and a second level of smokiness would come from a few ounces of Del Maguey Vida mezcal.

Trevor & Julian adjust the beeriness of their chili

Trevor & Julian adjust the beeriness of their chili

I had brought along some extra beers, figuring I’d start the day early and have a couple come noon-time. But I’d only just finished my coffee, the rising sun slowly warming the ballfield, when Tom offered me a taste of his homemade wine, which I accepted. Soon, the sound of bottles and cans snapping open all around me heralded an earlier start to the afternoon than anticipated. It was a warm, beautiful morning and there was plenty to celebrate.

“Want some beer?” said my 20-something neighbor cooks and buddies from the year before, Trevor and Julian, who prepare their chili on the coolest ancient rusted cast iron camp stove ever — and deserve to win for that alone.



Walking around the swap meet with my Tecate in hand, I ran into my friend Sue. “Drinking already?” she said. I glanced around at the people drinking their coffees, looked at my phone, and it was 9:47.

“It’s a whole different scene up there at the chili stage,” I meekly objected.

By noon, the chilis were taking shape, their flavors integrating, as we contestants walked about sampling and complimenting one another’s creations. And then it was 1 p.m. — judging time. But it seemed the judges — Topanga’s Engine 69 Fire Department — had left to go douse a house that was burning. So the usual non-qualified assortment of chili judges was scrambled together.

My chili, round about noon

My chili, round about noon

The contestants gathered at the front of the stage as the effusive MC lady did her schtick, and then the winners were announced. Tom won the vegetarian category, as predicted. Trevor and Julian collected their blue ribbon for “Best Traditional Chili”, and we all returned to our pots where customers were lining up to try the diverse variety of chilis.

“Dude, you were robbed,” said Julian graciously, and I gave him a hug.

“It ain’t so much about winning as spending the day with y’all,” I told him from the bottom of my beer-soaked, cumin-infused heart.

*    *    *

Sonoran Vaquero Chili
serves many

1 lb. choice tri tip, cut into small cubes
1 lb. choice carne asada, chopped
1 lb. choice short rib on the bone
1 lb. smoked pork neck bones
1 lb. grass-fed ground beef
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. heirloom tomatoes, pureed
4-5 dried guajillo chiles
2-3 dried chipotle chiles
2-3 dried chiles de arbor
1 head garlic, peeled and crushed
1 white onion, chopped
3 cans Tecate
3 oz. Del Maguey mezcal
1 oz. Mexican chocolate
1 tbsp. ground cumin
sea salt & pepper to taste

Toast dried chiles and grind to a powder. Combine with cumin.

Heat oil over medium high heat in a large pot. Brown cubed and chopped meat (tri tip and carne asada). Add onion and garlic and cook until golden and translucent. Add short rib and ground beef, continue browning. Add beer and pureed tomato, bring to a simmer, lower heat to medium low and cover.

Cook for 90 minutes. Add chili powder, mezcal and chocolate. Stir, cover and continue cooking for another 90 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Adjust seasoning to taste. Uncover, and continue cooking until desired consistency. Remove bones and any large chunks of meat, which should be chopped.

Wild Agave

“We want to have you guys over when we get the place cleaned up a bit,” my pal Gordon had been telling me for five or six years, over the course of two different “places”.

The time had finally come. Gordon and spouse Lori, who had moved into their “new” house a year or so before, were far enough along in their renovations that they now felt comfortable hosting. But nothing ever being simple, we had been trying to schedule this particular dinner party for a matter of months.

The mezcals of Del Maguey

The mezcals of Del Maguey

The theme would loosely be “Mezcal & Mole” — or, at least, that was the subject line of the group texts bouncing around during the protracted planning phase. More

Sunday Night in Budapest

One of the best parts of having a large dinner party circuit is being treated to ethnic meals prepared by friends who come from disparate corners of the globe.

Andras' Hungarian fried chicken

Andras’ Hungarian fried chicken

Dinners that come to mind in recent history include Singapore street food, a Russian Easter feast, a Dominican roast pork pernil, and a dazzling Norwegian multekrem dessert of heavenly cloudberries. We once went to a Chinese friend’s home for Szechuan hot pot — the meal’s centerpiece was a large pile of duck tongues. More

Spooks, Sandwiches & Sympathy for the Devil

It couldn’t really have started any worse.

The day of our school’s annual Halloween Carnival — the new, experimental 2015 edition in which I would be cooking for somewhere apparently between 450 and 600 people — had arrived.

Rennie at work

Rennie at work

I got to the ballfield at the local community center around 1:30 for the 3:30 start time. I unloaded my coolers full of meat, boxes of bread and bags of slaw — far more food than was necessary, I was certain, and felt confident I would be bringing things home at the evening’s conclusion. But the event organizer, my friend Danielle, had asked me to err on the side of abundance. To cook on, there was a large and rusty Santa Maria grill that had rolled in on wheels and parked itself beneath the backstop. More

Skinny Girls LIVE — Fundraising for the Kids

I sometimes get asked to do large events. As with the lovely wedding I cooked for earlier this year, I am always quick to point out that I am not a caterer. I don’t have any of those warming trays and I don’t have large metal spoons.

But I can usually still pull off feeding a whole bunch of people and having them feeling relatively happy and full at the end.


My children’s school Halloween Carnival had always been a somewhat humble affair — a couple hundred kids running around the school playground in the dark from one parent-curated booth to the next; adults queuing up for a bowl of chili or slipping stealthily from spiked sports cups.

This year, I was told, they wanted to “step it up”. Stepping it up involved, among other things, moving it to the local Community House, having a live band and alcohol sales, and me cooking.


The most I had ever cooked for previously was a bit shy of 200. But now, for the Topanga Elementary’s fundraising Halloween Carnival, I was told there could be as many as 600 people. Some of whom would be eating, some who wouldn’t; some carnivores, some pescetarians, probably some vegans; lots of picky kids. How do you plan for that?

Like a one-night restaurant, I suppose.

I didn’t want to buy too much. And I didn’t want to buy too little — I was okay with running out of items, there’s a certain aura of missing out to that, but not before say 8 p.m.

Star of the evening

Star of the evening

I planned a menu that would be easy to prepare on the only thing I would have to prepare food on — a Santa Maria grill: sandwiches (tri-tip and grilled chicken), Baja fish wraps, grilled veggie bowls. In a stroke of (I thought) inspiration, I would also offer two limited-quantity premium meat items: a Flintstone-size beef short rib, long smoked, Texas-style; and a 2 lb. “cowboy” dry-aged rib eye on the bone. The true inspiration, I would serve each with a premium alcohol — a shot of bourbon with the short rib; a shot of tequila with the rib eye.

As I did pre-prep in the days leading up to the event, there were still some unanswered questions beyond how many people would actually eat — how would I keep food cold, and warm; would I have enough people helping me; would I be able to see what I was doing after it got dark; would the premium meats sell; and would the grill staff be able to keep from drinking all the premium alcohol themselves?


Stay tuned next time for a full report.

And if you live in the area and are not busy on Saturday, October 24th, bring the kids to the canyon for some old school Halloween fun — booths, a haunted house, games, live music and, of course, tasty food. There’s a rumor the chef may even be performing a song with the band.

Topanga Halloween Carnival
Saturday, October 24, 3:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Topanga Community House
1440 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290

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