Public invited to taste cookoff recipes and vote for favorites

Students flank NMU Hospitality Club member Becca Keranen while assisting her with her chili recipe. (NMU Hospitality Club photo)

By Katherine Larson
“Come enjoy good food, with a lot of good people, gathering for a good cause!” Crissa Karavas, president of Northern Michigan University’s Hospitality Club, invites us all to the club’s annual Chili Challenge, scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 16, from 1 to 3:30 p.m. at NMU’s Jacobetti Commons.
Really, how better to spend a snowy Sunday afternoon in February? Chefs—some professionals, some dedicated amateurs—will be lined up with crockpots and steam tables full of chili, plus whatever trimmings suit their offerings best. NMU culinary arts students will provide cornbread, coffee, lemonade, and water. And all the rest of us can wander from crockpot to crockpot, tasting and comparing and enjoying.
We even get a vote. This is, after all, a challenge. Professional judges will assess Most Original, Best Use of Heat, and Best Overall, with separate categories for the professional contestants and the amateurs. But the rest of us get to vote for People’s Choice, where all the chilis rumble up against one another and the favorite wins.
In fact, last year’s People’s Choice winner was Thomas Bleau of Marquette, a devoted amateur. This year? Come taste, and see what you think.
Admission is $10, $5 for students, and free for children aged two and younger. For that price, attendees will get plenty of chili: the Challenge had dwindled in past years, but in 2019 it was revitalized, with 21 competitors presenting their flavorful offerings to almost 200 happy eaters. Karavas hopes for even more—competitors and eaters, both—in 2020.
Attendees are also eligible for door raffle prizes, with additional raffle tickets made available to those who bring non-perishables to donate to Room at the Inn. Karavas said net proceeds from the event will also be donated to Room at the Inn.
NMU’s Hospitality Club is eager to showcase the accomplishments of students in the other programs housed in the Jacobetti Center, so the door prizes will include baskets from leaders in those programs: automotive technology, cosmetology, construction, welding, and commercial driving.
The Hospitality Club itself has grown to include not just NMU’s culinary arts students but also those studying tourism and hospitality management; all are helping put on this event. They are advised by faculty members Chef Deb Pearce and Loganne Glendenning, who have earned Karavas’s deep gratitude: “They’re so open to what we want to do. They help us learn, they help us meet people, they facilitate whatever we want to try.”

Pictured are members of last year’s Hospitality Club and volunteers with the Room At The Inn homeless shelter. Canned-food donations and all proceeds from the event were donated to Room at the Inn. (NMU Hospitality Club photo)

Another NMU student-led organization, EcoReps, has joined in to help with environmental concerns. Karavas said, “Last year we got feedback that we were creating a lot of waste with styrofoam tasting cups and plastic utensils. We’re addressing that this year by switching to compostable products.”
Other help comes from community businesses, including Double Trouble DJ, Radio Results Network, the Mining Journal, and the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation. But the brunt of the effort is borne by the Hospitality Club’s 20 members.
“This is our club’s big event,” Karavas said. But it’s not their only activity. They provide fellow students with cooking help through their series “Cooking with the ‘Cats.” In addition, she said, “In March we’ll be hosting our first ever Hospitality and Tourism job fair, preceded by a resume workshop. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. We already have had 500 businesses in contact with us, and by mid-November at least 40 were registered. Some are from downstate, some are from Wisconsin, some are from even farther away. We’re very excited.”
In addition to her studies and her leadership of the Hospitality Club, Karavas currently works as kitchen manager at Doncker’s. “My dream is eventually to open my own bakery.”
But for now, chili is top on the agenda.
What makes a good chili? Tastes differ, Karavas said. “For me personally, I like lots of flavor, with some heat but not overwhelming. And I prefer chili that’s thick and hearty rather than thin and brothy. But you might disagree. Come and taste!”

RECIPE: Lamb and White Bean Chili

With all this talk of chili, how can I leave MM readers without a recipe? My favorite vegetarian chili, involving black beans and butternut squash, was the subject of a February 2016 article, so here I offer my favorite meaty version.
Ideally, I’d use my own simmered-from-scratch beans—soaked overnight, then simmered with an onion, some garlic, some sage, and a bay leaf for several hours.
When I have that much energy and time, I use both the beans and their cooking liquid for this chili. But sometimes energy flags; sometimes time evaporates. Canned beans provide a perfectly adequate substitute, so long as they are first drained and rinsed.
Light and bright, this chili respects our health (the fat is all drained off) while shaking us out of winter’s doldrums with plenty of flavor.

1 pound ground lamb
salt and pepper
1 onion, chopped
1 or 2 poblano peppers, diced
1 small bunch cilantro, cleaned
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 jalapeno peppers, minced (include seeds and ribs if you want more heat)
2 to 3 tablespoons chile powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 to 4 cups canned white or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 to 3 cups water (or bean cooking liquid, if you simmered your own beans)
1/2 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
lime wedges

In a large pot, saute lamb over medium-high heat, breaking up chunks, until well browned, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then pour lamb and its fat into a colander over a plate to catch the drained-out fat. Discard fat.
Add onion and poblano peppers to the same pot, and cook until they are slightly softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Finely chop 2 tablespoons of cilantro stems and add them to the pot. Stir in garlic and jalapeno and cook 2 minutes.
Make a space on the bottom of the pot for the chile powder, coriander, and cumin and let them cook there for a minute until they become fragrant. Stir tomato paste into the spice mixture and let it cook until it too becomes brown and fragrant. Combine vegetables and spice mixture.
Return lamb to pot. Add beans and water. Simmer, covered, over medium-low heat for 45 minutes. At this point, feel free to set the chili aside for later reheating; refrigerating it overnight will help develop the flavors.
When you are ready to serve, reheat the chili. Chop the cilantro leaves and dice the avocado.
Ladle chili into bowls and top with dollop of yogurt, diced avocado, cilantro leaves, and a squeeze of lime.

(Author’s note: If your appetite was whetted after reading in January’s Marquette Monthly about “Giuseppe’s Dinner,” and my upcoming guest chef stint at Zephyr Wine Bar & Cafe, I need to alert you to a change: the dinners will instead be offered on Sunday, Feb. 9, and Monday, Feb. 10. The chef’s share of proceeds will be donated to the International Rescue Committee.

Also, I’ll repeat my invitation to readers to share with me their histories and how those histories live in the food they love. I’d like to share them as part of a written quilt of hunger and hope and shared humanity. Please email me at

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