This Saturday, May 7th, marks the 14th Annual Great Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting.  The event has become a Petaluma institution and is always a crowd favorite.  This isn’t hard to believe with over 40 chili and salsa teams battling it out for top honors.  And don’t forget about the beer garden, the raffles, and the music and entertainment.   The event is held from 1pm – 5pm in and around Herzog Hall (Petaluma Fairgrounds) and benefits Cinnabar Theater’s Young Repertory program.  Think of it as doing your good deed for the day, with all the food, drink, entertainment, and great Petaluma energy that you could want, as an added bonus.

This year’s event is sure to be the biggest ever.  The challenger spots sold out immediately, giving them plenty of extra time to tweak their recipes…so now it is your job to come and taste (and vote on) their creations.  Additionally, many of last year’s top winners took the year off, so there is plenty of room on the podium for enthusiastic new teams.  But don’t think a lack of veterans translates to lack luster flavors — everyone brings their A-game, both vets and rookies.  These teams spend all year working on their recipes in order to take their shot at Chili glory.  You can see a venerable who’s-who of local restaurants, caterers, businesses and service organization by checking out their challengers’ page.

My favorite category is the restaurant/caters, since as you know, I like eating out.  Not unexpectedly, teams from McNears, Maguires, TAPs, Tres Hombres, Whole Foods, Petaluma Market, Steelhead, and Bear Republic will again compete in this category.  This year they are joined by former competitor Tolay, and newcomer Yanni’s (from Penngrove).  My pick for this year’s Cinderella story is definitely Yanni’s, but you just never know what the judges’ and voters’ taste buds will be looking for on any given day.  Regardless, definitely try Yanni’s chili.  Great meat makes for great chili, and Yanni’s makes the finest in the county, evidenced by their Best Charcuterie Award at last year’s Harvest Fair.  Using an ever changing variety of sausage, their chili is rarely the same, and always fantastic.  But be warned – if you think Yanni’s chili is warm, wait until you meet the husband and wife proprietors, Francesca and Johnny.  You will swear that they are your long lost favorite aunt and uncle.  They are always happy to see you, treating you as if you were their own, and always…ALWAYS…filling you up with the best food.

And after last year’s dry emergency services showing, we are thick with firefighters and policemen again.  Santa Rosa, Novato, and Petaluma are all sending their firehouse teams to compete for the Fireman’s Axe Trophy.  (Ladies, if you like firemen, this is the place to be.)  And not to be outdone, our very own Petaluma Police Officers Association is sending a team…probably to keep the firefighters out of trouble.  Needless to say, this will be the best protected Chili Cookoff ever.

Restaurants/caterers, businesses, and service organizations all compete within their group, with more and more out-of-towners traveling to compete against our venerable locals.  You will see teams from Petaluma veterans like McNears, Petaluma Market, and Whole Foods going up against some of last year’s freshmen winners, like TAPS and Maguires.   Many of our service organizations have returned, like a gaggle of Rotary groups (including last year’s Judge’s Service Award winning Sunrise Rotary) and are facing stiff competition from a revived emergency services sector, with

Along with the high energy competition of chili and salsa tasting inside Herzog Hall, outside the pace slows a bit and allows you to enjoy the Petaluma spring weather with music, dancing, raffles, people watching and a vast array of libations in the beer garden.  As always, the beer garden is anchored by the highly charitable local favorite and winner of multiple People’s Choice Awards, Lagunitas Brewing Company.  They are in good company with a virtual who’s-who of California breweries, from Lost Coast and Ell River Breweries in the north to all of our local favorites (TAPS, Dempsey’s, Moylan’s, Ruth McGowan’s, Bear Republic, etc…) 

The esteemed panel of celebrity judges include long time veteran Chili judges as well a nice mix of rookies.  We are honor to have our long time judge, former mayor Pam Torliatt, rejoining our ranks.  Alongside here will be current mayor David Glass, city council member Mike Harris, KSRO DJ Steve Jaxon, KRTY DJ Michael J, and several food writers/bloggers.  A few new judges have me excited too.  Pete White, co-owner/operator of Sugo Trattoria (best food in town) is a former chili competitor and food connoisseur, and is sure to be a tough and thoughtful judge.  Joining Pete for his rookie year as judge, is Elece Hempel from Petaluma People Service Center, and Argus Courier editor Chris Sampson.

But not be outdone by our celebrity judges, everyone entering the cookoff is given a set of ballots cards to distribute among their top chili, salsa and beer choices.  These ballots are tallied for an array of ever popular People’s Choice Awards.  As the competition heats up, each voting card garners more cheering, bell ringing and noise making than the last, as the teams vie for these coveted trophies.  This is not just a food and beer tasting “event.”  This is a chance to participate in one of the great Petaluma experiences while supporting a great cause.  Events like the Great Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting are what make Petaluma such a great place to live and why so many people want to come back and visit.

This is a family style event with special pricing and entertainment for the kids.  For all the information about the 14th Annual Great Petaluma Chili Cook-off, Salsa and Beer Tasting visit www.greatchilicookoff.com.  Parking is free, both at the fairgrounds and on the street, and along with the main gate, rumor has it that the Payran Street entrance will also be open this year.

And if you feel that you must work off some of the calories gained at Chili, the charitable folks at Sunrise Rotary (last year’s Judges Award – Service Organization) are putting on the Sonoma County Backroad Challenge on May 21.  This picturesque bike ride winds its way through our beautiful backroads…but most importantly, it starts and ends at Lagunitas Brewery.  http://www.backroadchallenge.com/)