LEWISTON — For some, it was all about the  peppers. For others, the beans. 

For friends Jeremy Brown and Marc Michaud, good chili meant mixing in slow-roasted vegetables, prime rib and enough spice to give it a kick. Oh, and then there’s the spicy chutney on the side. 

“It’s off-the-charts hot,” Brown warned one of the tasters at the The Root Cellar’s second annual chili cook-off on Pierce Street Park Saturday.

The man laughed. “What, like, do I need to sign a waiver?”

“Well,” Brown said with a smile, “I would almost say yes.”

Twenty-five cooks competed for a plaque and bragging rights as part of The Root Cellar’s annual fundraiser. Located in downtown Lewiston, The Root Cellar is a non-denominational ministry that works with inner-city kids and their families. Most of Saturday’s cooks were volunteers from The Root Cellar or members of area churches. 

Many were new to cooking competitions.

A few were new to chili. 

“I don’t usually make this,” said Debra Letourneau, a member of the South Lewiston Baptist Church, as she stirred her pot of chili.  “I just got creative and put a lot of different beans and spices in it.” 

The cook-off’s rules were simple: Don’t use a pork base (Muslims can’t eat pork and many of The Root Cellar’s families are Muslim),  be prepared to list your ingredients for the judges and bring six or seven quarts of chili for everyone at the cook-off/family fun day to taste. Four community and church leaders served as judges, rating the 25 entries on originality, heat level, taste, texture and presentation.  

Chris Pope, director of The Root Cellar, entered his own chili into the competition. It was a recipe he invented, and it had four secret ingredients.

Well, three were not so secret. 

“OK, I’ll tell you two: paprika and cayenne pepper,” he said. “The third is habanero pepper.”

Eric Tompkins of Jay used his mother’s chili recipe for an old-fashioned chunky chili with three kinds of beans, tomatoes and hamburger. It took him about 40 minutes to prep and all night to simmer. At the competition, he topped it with shredded cheese.

Did he have a chance of winning?

“I’ve heard positive feedback for the cheese part, but I don’t know,” he said.

Brown and Michaud took more risks. Rather than using an old family recipe or something they’d been making for years, they created their chili recipes one day before the competition. Friends since elementary school, Brown and Michaud have been cooking together for years. They’re known for coming up with unusual dishes — including, once, a float using Sam Adams beer and cherry ice cream.  

“Some of our ideas are out there,” Michaud admitted.

For Saturday’s chili, they used prime rib, lamb and chicken, roasted vegetables and both jalapeno and habanero peppers. They offered a side of spicy chutney and corn bread. It took them about four hours to prep and 10 hours to simmer.

The effort was worth it. 

Brown and Michaud won the team award. 

“It’s exciting,” Michaud said after the announcement. “Every now and then I have a good idea.”

Pope — whose chili had the secret ingredients — won the individual award. 

As dozens of kids ran through the park and families milled around eating chili and munching on hot dogs, Pope offered a simple acceptance speech at the microphone. 

“Thank you to everybody for coming out,” he said. 

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Peggy Winn of The Root Cellar entertains children with balloon animals at the second annual Root Cellar Chili Cook-Off held at the Pierce Street Park in Lewiston on Saturday. The cook-off is a fundraiser for The Root Cellar programs, which benefit inner-city children. The event featured live music, food and games.

Janna Gilbert of Jay, a volunteer at The Root Cellar and a cook-off contestant, serves some of her chili at the second annual Root Cellar Chili Cook-Off held at the Pierce Street Park in Lewiston on Saturday.

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