Some Like It Hot

A first-person account of what it takes to win a fierce Woodland Hills chili cook-off.

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  • Written by
    Janine Sharell

My mom and I went spoon-to-spoon with 46 other contenders at this year’s St. Mel Catholic Church Chili Cook-Off in Woodland Hills. Competitors had tough-guy names like El Diablo, Eat & Die, and Beirut Firecracker. Us? We went for a softer approach, dubbing ourselves Nonna’s Chili, armed with my beloved Grandma Messina’s Italian-style recipe.

Organizers Cindy Mays and Jeannine Campbell say it’s not a fundraiser. Campbell calls it “an old-fashioned, small-town picnic without a lot of hoopla.” 

Upon check-in, each cook was handed a jar and asked to get tasters to fill it with “donations.” For years, Rick Mollé raked in trophies for his Buffalo Breath Chili. But three days after school started, Rick suddenly passed away. His wife, Tina, carried on in his memory, unaware that the monies collected were for their daughter Kelsey’s tuition.

Local firefighters from Station 84 played the Simon Cowell role. They doled out opinions and cast votes, as did throngs of chili connoisseurs. 

Finally, it was trophy time. My mom and I were surrounded by all the runners-up. We stood arm-in-arm, poised to console each other. Finally, the announcer shouted, “And first place goes to … Nonna’s Chili!” I’m not too proud to say the dam broke and tears flowed. It may be a “small-town picnic,” but after years of putting my family’s beloved chili recipe on the line at this annual event, I can tell you it’s jam-packed with heart, hard work and a lot of love.




3 pounds ground meat

2 chopped onions 

3-5 diced garlic cloves

1-2 chopped green or red peppers

Olive oil for sautéing

10+ chopped basil leaves

1 8-ounce can tomato paste

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 can tomato soup

Chili powder


Salt and pepper

2 15-ounce cans red kidney beans

1 15-ounce can pinto beans



• In a large pot, heat olive oil and sauté onions for about 10 minutes. 

• Add the meat and cook until it’s no longer pink. 

• Mix in peppers, garlic and basil. 

• Stir in tomato paste, then fill can with water and throw that in, too. 

• Follow with can soup and crushed tomatoes. (If the mixture is too dense, add water). 

• Sprinkle in chili powder and cumin to taste. (We aren’t spicy folks, so I use about 1 teaspoon.)

• Simmer on low heat for about 3 hours, stirring the bottom with a wooden spoon. 

• Add beans and cook 1 more hour. 

• Now taste and adjust spices. 

• Serve with shredded cheddar, chopped onions and sour cream. 


Pour a glass of Chianti, break a loaf of warm, crusty bread and savor. Buon appetito!