While it takes but two to tango, Saturday afternoon’s third annual Napa Food Bank benefit chili cook-off in downtown Napa required five seasoned palates to pick a champion.

Those palates belonged to James Aptakin, executive chef for San Francisco’s Hilton Financial District Hotel; Napa Fire Chief Tim Borman; Catherine Bergen, owner of C Casa in the Oxbow Market; Napa artist Gordon Huether; and yours truly.

In a little over an hour, the cook-off judges tasted through a dozen and a half chilis prepared by as many hard-working, chili-lovin’ teams from the local community, ranging from beer guys to bankers, real estate mavens to dedicated youths.

Once again, the team from the real estate firm Pacific Union International took home the champion’s trophy — a repeat for the crew headed up by David Bridges, as his group of chili cooks won top prize last summer.

In addition to Bridges, the Pacific Union International team — connoisseurs all of fine tequila — included Madison Bridges, Linda Carroll, Robin Patterson and Larry Scorza.

After the stack of scoresheets were tallied by the chili cook-off staff, judges were informed that the next two top-rated chilis had identical scores. That meant the judges had to break the tie by tasting the two chilis in contention for the other two awards. No mean feat, as the five of us dipped our spoons into the samples and tried to come to an agreement. In the end, a 3-2 vote decided the finishing order.

The Napa City Nights team — those responsible for the fun programs in downtown Napa this summer — took second place. Its proud members included Scott Meloney, Jeff Madnick, Samantha Madnick, Mark Orloff, Sue Chesbrough and Chris Chesbrough.

The third place trophy went home with Genelle Frontin, of Colin Brewhouse.

Napa Mayor Jill Techel was asked to pick the best-looking booth out of the 18 set up along Main Street on Saturday. She picked the Cowgirl Chili booth, all dolled up with Western gear and six shooters.

Cowgirl Chili also took home the People’s Choice Award, having earned the most votes from the hundreds of chili fans attending the event. Members of the Cowgirl Chili team are Natalie Peatman, Missy Harrison and Casey Zikmund, plus their “token cowboy,” Wes Farley.

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How were the chilis, you ask? Honestly, I was not as impressed this year as I was last summer. Too many soupy offerings, very little complexity, very little heat. In fact, the overriding flavor in a number of them was tomato rather than chiles. For those who don’t like spicy hot chili, that’s probably a good thing.

While the Pacific Union International chili was not my favorite this year, its richness and deeply infused flavors made it one of my top picks.

Had I been handing out the awards, I would have given the blue ribbon to the “Rubbin’ Is Racin’ Chili” from the DBI Beverage Napa team, made up of Nasser Alimusa, P. J. Kennedy, Brent Koen and Matthew Peck. 

They credited Alimusa’s mother, Jeannette, with the recipe for their outstanding, thick, rich, intensely flavored melange. While the foursome wasn’t giving away all the secrets, members did reveal that their combination of venison and tri-tip had been rubbed with seven different chiles and cooked with three kinds of onions. As these guys distribute beer, they admitted using “Coors Light to top it off ... and a little bit of love.”

In the end, all of the participants — including dozens and dozens of volunteers who make this event happen — are to be congratulated for their efforts. The Napa Food Bank benefits and, in the long run, so do those in Napa who struggle to put food on the table. Everyone on Main Street last Saturday hoped no one in this county would ever have to go to bed hungry, especially a child. In fact, with this visibility for the Napa Food Bank, there was considerable talk about how all of us can work together to eliminate hunger in Napa County. Chili can do that, you know.

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