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Chili Reimagined: Savoring Chefs' Secret Ingredients
Chili Reimagined: Savoring Chefs' Secret Ingredients

When you think of chili, what comes to mind? Meat, beans, and a few spices? Tailgating? Tex-Mex? My perception quickly changed after attending NYChiliFest, an event that turned the world of chili on its head with a mind-blowing number of toppings and twists that ranged from classic to conceptual. The competition, which took place at Chelsea Market, featured over 25 masterful variations of the classic dish presented by a handpicked array of New York City restaurants and chefs vying to win the 2016 Golden Chili Mug.

Each chef delivered their own interpretations of this comfort food while incorporating one common ingredient—100% dry-aged, locally-raised beef supplied by Dickson's Farmstand Meats, a local butcher shop located in nearby Chelsea. Combined with live music, an interactive photo area from Citi, and perfectly-paired brews, the event turned up the heat on a traditional winter staple.

The first stop on my tour de chili was Untamed Sandwiches, a Manhattan-based sandwich shop that proudly offers a 100% sustainable menu. Staying close to chili's southern roots, their beef and black bean base was topped with cornbread, cilantro, and pimento cheese—an ingredient that this born-and-raised northerner experienced for the first time. Referred to as "the peanut butter of the south" by co-founder Andy Jacobi, the cheese brought an unexpected smoothness to the dish.

Feeling rejuvenated, I ventured back into the chili arena—there was still a smorgasbord of chili left to be tasted.

Adhering to the southern theme, Tex-Mex joint El Original balanced their bowls with Hatch-chile queso (a native New Mexican pepper), while Hill Country Barbecue topped me off with a spoonful of diced jalapeños that dramatically upped the spice factor.

At this point, I was only three restaurants deep, but already in need of a strategy to pace myself and a cold beverage to quench the fire growing in my mouth. I opted for a cider hoping that the sweetness would complement the savory, spicy flavors being served that evening. I was right—the combination was soothingly refreshing. Extinguishing the fire and feeling rejuvenated, I ventured back into the chili arena—there was still a smorgasbord of flavors left to be tasted.

Asian noodle joint, Mok Bar, kept true to their roots by incorporating kimchi, ramen noodles, and crispy potatoes into their recipe. The noodles were the perfect conveyers of flavor while the potatoes added a satisfying crunch. Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue also understood the value of crunch by garnishing their sweet yet smoky concoction with corn chips, an ingredient that executive chef Matt Fisher joked "every great meal starts with."

While my taste buds urged me to continue, my stomach only had room for one final stop, Bar Truman, a restaurant new to NYC's Meatpacking District, but definitely no rookie to chili cook-offs. Chef Arthur Saks artfully layered lime crème fraiche, cilantro microgreens, cornbread croutons, 12 month dry-aged Manchego, and a drizzle of avocado oil. Not to be outdone, Saks offered his chili-goers a sip of bourbon lemonade to help wash the flavors down.

The chili tastings began to cool down as voters casted their ballots to name the winner of the 2016 Golden Chili Mug. The grand prize went to El Vez, a modern Mexican restaurant located in Battery Park. Their winning bowl began with a dry-aged beef, heirloom rattlesnake bean, and Oaxaca chile base, and was delectably topped with Mexican crema, cheddar cheese, and a dash of smoked sea salt. Compromising no detail, the chili was paired with bite-sized blue corn bread complete with a dollop of smoky agave butter.

After spending an evening sampling chili from some of New York's best, I learned that there's no wrong way to enjoy the dish. Like it spicy? Add jalapeños. Need to cool off? Take a bite of corn bread. Prefer ramen? Mix in some noodles. NYChiliFest was just one of several events keeping New York City warm this winter in celebration of Citi's Feel the Warmth campaign.