Recently, ButcherBox took part in the Tenth Annual Harvard Square Chili Cook-off.
The degree of difficulty was high.
Cooking for large crowds — especially in restaurant settings — is always a challenge. It’s not unlike cooking for friends and family at home; only, you multiply that experience exponentially, and the diners are far less forgiving.
When cooking for a massive number of people, you have to anticipate a group that might have different likes and dislikes. More than anything, you have to figure out what experience you want them to have. And all that has to be done before you even begin to calculate your ingredients, utilize your equipment and staff efficiently, and figure out a reasonable price to charge your customers, as these situations are typically catering gigs.
How bout this? For the Harvard Square chili cook-off, we had no equipment, no staff, and were giving it away for free…to a crowd that is a thousand people or more. It’s also competitive cooking, outdoors, in New England, in the winter.
Now that’s a challenge I can get behind.
So, here’s how we pulled it off — earning second place in the process.
On day one, we had to write a recipe that could be scaled up to feed more than a thousand people. We also had to calculate the cost of the whole endeavor, because let’s face it, someone’s gonna want to know how much you spent.
Day two was spent renting the commercial kitchen space needed to cook a recipe that yields 50 gallons of chili and requires 24 hours to cook perfectly.
Once we know we have a space to cook that incredible quantity of chili, we then had to figure out how to transport 50 gallons of chili while keeping it all boiling hot. And to add another degree of difficulty, the temperature outside is about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Day four we rented all the necessary equipment for every step of the process.
On day five we needed to organize the staff for each stage of the process, from the camera crew to video the damn thing, to shopping support, cooking support and set-up, and serving and clean-up crews.
And day six? Well, there really is no “day six.” Here is the 36-hour sprint to put ButcherBox in a position to win the chili cook-off:
Wake up at 4:00 AM, make coffee and recheck my lists. Call time at restaurant depot is 6:00 AM. There was a wintry mix of weather, and I could only hope it would let up before we had to unload the truck back at our rental kitchen.
From 6:00 AM to 8:00 AM is a whirlwind; during our shopping trip through a massive restaurant supply warehouse, we collect everything we need. It all gets loaded into a U-haul, and we head to the kitchen.
Everything is unloaded and set out. We put vegetables on one table, dry goods on another, meat on yet another — hundreds of pounds of each. The ovens are turned on, the smoker is lit, huge skillets are set on burners, and we hunker down and get to chopping.
I chose a recipe that I’ve made variations of in the past. I start with fatty, bone-in short ribs that I smoke with hickory wood and beautiful lean ground chuck sautéed with onions. Then I add three types of dry chilis, gallons of hard cider, pounds and pounds of diced bell peppers, carrots for some extra sweetness to balance the smoke and spice, black beans and pinto beans, and, lastly, garbanzos for some additional texture. That gets rounded out with chipotle puree and tomatoes. (Check out the full recipe below.)
Five hours later, we have four 15-gallon pots brimming with simmering chili. It will cook overnight at a bare simmer, and the slow and low cook will draw the rich beefy flavor out of the short ribs as they become melt-in-your-mouth tender.
The kitchen gets scrubbed down in anticipation of the next crew renting the space, and we pack up everything except the chili.
Before we leave for the evening, I connect a Wi-Fi thermometer with probes into each pot so that I can monitor the temperature overnight right from my phone.
We head back to the kitchen at 8:00 AM the next morning, and we prepare all the ingredients for the toppings bar: Sour cream, chopped scallions, shredded cheeses, and, lastly, crushed Fritos — an idea from a Texan co-worker.
The kitchen is ours until 11:00 AM, and it’s a struggle to get everything packed up and cleaned in time. We finish with 30 seconds to spare. I run through last minute taste tests and adjust the seasoning, stirring the pots with a wooden spoon the size of a canoe oar. We pack all the chili into large pans and load the pans onto insulated carriers on the back of the truck. We warm the carriers with Sterno fuel to take the chill off. In Cambridge, MA, the temperature is hovering just above 0 degrees.
At 11:30 AM, we are right on schedule, but the event doesn’t begin until 1:00 PM, and now its time to pray that everything stays hot.
The setup crew is on-site, and our tent is ready to go. Our spot in the Square looks fantastic.
A few minutes before 1:00 PM, the crowds begin to line up. A drum group shows up and begins to hammer out a wild latin beat, and we stay warm by dancing. The insulated carriers did their job, and the chili is steaming hot as we begin ladling out portions to the crowd.
People loved it. Our chili seemed to be the fan favorite, but the votes told a different story.
We came in second place, losing to the reigning champs who have held the title for three out the past four years.
But don’t worry, I stopped by their booth to let them know we are coming for them next year, and now I know exactly how to take the Chili Cup for ButcherBox.
Here is our standard recipe for ButcherBox Chili:
- 1 pack ButcherBox ground beef
- 1 pack beef short ribs, seasoned with salt and pepper
- 2 onions, diced
- 4 bell peppers, assorted colors, diced
- 2 carrots, peeled and diced
- 1 c tomato puree
- ¼ c tomato paste
- 1 c black canned black beans
- 1 c canned garbanzo beans
- 1 c pinto beans
- ¼ c ketchup
- 2 Tbsp chili powder
- 2 tsp Ancho chili powder
- 2 tsp Aleppo chili powder
- 2 Tbsp chipotle puree
- 1 c hard cider
- salt and pepper to taste
- ghee or avocado oil for searing
- Preheat a Dutch oven, add oil and sear beef short ribs on both sides for 2 min per side. If you have a smoker, feel free to smoke them for 30 minutes with applewood chips. Remove and place in slow-cooker.
- Place onions and ground beef in the Dutch oven and cook until beef is nearly cooked through. Season with all powdered spices, strain excess fat, and transfer to slow-cooker.
- Add peppers to Dutch oven and sauté for 1 min. Add tomato paste and chipotle puree and stir, simmering for 1 min. Add hard cider to deglaze and transfer to slow-cooker.
- Add all remaining ingredients and cook on low setting for 18-24 hrs.
And the recipe for 50 gallons of chili? Follow the directions above, but use this recipe list:
- 50 pounds ground beef
- 70 pounds short ribs
- 20 pounds beef bones
- 20 pounds white onions
- 15 pounds carrots
- 2 qts garlic
- 6 pounds red peppers
- 6 pounds green peppers
- 6 pounds yellow peppers
- 6 pounds orange peppers
- 4 gallons black beans
- 4 gallons pinto beans
- 4 gallons stewed tomatoes
- 8 gallons tomato puree
- 2 gallons tomato paste
- 1 gallon chipotle puree
- 3 gallons ketchup
- 1 qt ancho chili powder
- 1 qt Aleppo chili powder
- 2 cups chili powder
- 1 qt cumin
- 1 qt black pepper
- kosher salt to taste
- 3 gallons hard apple cider