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July 30, 2014

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MonteLago chefs prove to be the people’s choice at the Lake Las Vegas Chili Cook-off

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Allison Duck

People’s choice winner Chef Rodney Ignacio of Casino MonteLago poses with his family at the Lake Las Vegas Chili Cook-off.

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A sampling of Chef Rodney Ignacio's ingredients for his Cupid's Chili.

This year, couples had an unusually spicy option for celebrating Valentine's weekend.

No, not Zumanity or Crazy Horse Paris, but rather the Second Annual Silver State Regional Chili Cook-off at Lake Las Vegas.

The festival, which was sanctioned by the International Chili Society, included competitions for red chili, green chili, salsa and the people's choice category.

This year, the event spread out all over MonteLago Village at Lake Las Vegas, encouraging festival-goers to wander about the shops and storefronts by the lake. The bustling crowd seemed out of place in front of the soon-to-be-shuttered Ritz Carlton in the background.

The eager crowd lapped up chili-spiked margarita samples from Patron Silver to wash down chili of varying degrees of spiciness. Chef Tim Walsh of MonteLago Village's Sonrisa Grill restaurant threw, "a little bit of everything" into his Habanero Hellfire Chili, including the titular scorching chili which ranks as "exceptionally hot" on the Scoville Scale that measures the heat of the spicy vegetables.

Walsh's concoction proved to be much milder on the palate than the name might suggest. He conceded he had to tone it down a little as the day went on because his initial batch was so spicy it covered up some of the flavors he wished to highlight.

Walsh was one of the few chili chefs who brought along a topping bar including shredded Mexican cheese, diced red onions and sour cream. His chili stood out just fine on its own, but who can deny that cheese makes everything better?

This year the people's choice category recognized several other Lake Las Vegas chefs. Coming in first was Casino MonteLago Chef Rodney Ignacio, whose unusual red chili featured ground kobe beef as well as sausage, a less typical and possibly underutilized ingredient in chili.

His aptly named Cupid's Chili also featured hatch chilies the chef has shipped in from New Mexico. Chef Rodney also includes masa as a thickening agent and garlic sautéed in olive oil. The recipe, which he said he made on the spot the morning of the event, proved to be the winning combination.

Coming in third in the people's choice competition was Loews Chef Adam Cho, whose lamb chili in last year's competition was also a big hit. This year Chef Adam went with a three-beef blend featuring shortribs, tenderloin and ground beef plus a mix of beans including white, black, kidney and garbanzo beans. To add the right smoky flavor, he added smoked paprika and chipotles, but, "not so much spice because I wanted people to be able to taste the flavor of the chili."

In consideration of the non-carnivores in the crowd, Chef Adam also turned out a vegetarian chili, which mimicked his red chili, sans-cow of course. To make up for the lack of beef, he threw in squash, zucchini, onion and mushrooms.

Coming in first in the red competition was Mike Stewart, followed by second-place finisher Mike Austin, who also placed third in the salsa competition. Austin is a familiar face at the Lake Las Vegas chili festival, serving as a judge in last year's competition. He said he had "more fun, but it was more work" cooking instead of judging this year.

As a frequent competitor and judge on the chili circuit, Austin makes it to about 30 festivals annually. He said the key to a good red is, "New Mexico and California chili powders, and you always have to have garlic and onions and good fresh cumin. The most consistent winners use tri-tip meat." Austin did just that and earned a place on the winner's stand with his thick and creamy chili.

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