By Ben Tinsley
TJP Staff Reporter
DALLAS — Sunday, a team of volunteers from Ann & Nate Levine Academy won this year’s bragging rights for preparing the best bowl of kosher chili in Dallas.
As the 22nd annual Dallas Kosher Chili Cook-off drew to a close Sunday, Team Levine took both first place and the “People’s Choice,” while second place went to Henry Litoff — for the second year in a row. Third went to Legacy Communities.
In the vegetarian chili category, the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance team netted first place, with Whole Foods taking second.
Well over 4,000 people — one of the largest crowds ever, according to officials — attended Sunday’s event, said Ed Jerome, Tiferet past president and cook-off co-chair with Shirley Rovinsky and Diane Goldblatt.
Sunday was an incredibly sunny, crowded day at the cook-off. Many people parked at the Jewish Community Center on Northaven Road and took the free shuttle bus to the seven-hour event.
It took about 300 volunteers, nearly 50 teams and 30 vendors to make this happen without “professional” assistance, Jerome said.
The event sported the usual concession stands, games, rides, vendors and a silent auction.
The music of the day — or as Jerome put it, “the official sound of the chili cook-off” — came from the Mazik Brothers, a band formed in 2003 by Jim Schwartz and Rusty Cooper that includes drummer Rob Shrell and bassist Joel Fudderman. The band, which focuses on songs from ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, has played at the event for the past 11 years, officials said.
More good news
All chili, incidentally, remained kosher and under supervision of Dallas Kosher. Preparation included the beef, tons of vegetables and seasoning. Vegetarian chili was the same — except, obviously, no beef.
Back to the winning moments: Rabbi Matt Rutta with Levine was walking away from the front stage and was far too preoccupied with the good news of his team’s first-place win to hear Ed Jerome subsequently announce that they also won People’s Choice.
So the good rabbi just kept walking until members of his team stopped him and shared the second round of good news.
The team won third place last year.
Michelle Feinberg, senior admissions officer at Levine, was quick to share that Team Levine’s winning chili was a masterful combination of carefully measured spices, the “perfect amount of salt” — and the blessing of Rabbi Rutta.
“It was the perfect blend,” Feinberg said. “It was totally delicious and savory … We ran out of chili around 11:30 a.m., and people were coming back for third servings.”
Levine Development Director Melissa Gendason agreed with Feinberg’s chili assessment.
“The chili has that ‘Levine special sauce’ that made it fabulous,” she said with a smile.
Rabbi Rutta said he couldn’t be prouder of Team Levine.
“I know it doesn’t seem like I’m the most objective party here, but our chili was so good,” the rabbi said. “Really good. Not too spicy.”
Second placer Henry Litoff, 30, is an Indian food aficionado who works in his family’s real estate business with his brother Austin. Austin also competed Sunday.
Real Texas chili
Litoff said he tries to stay away from making gimmicky chili.
“I just make the chili that people want to eat,” he said. “Meat, tomatoes, onions, different powders and a bit of flourish. I try to make it so you can’t taste anything by itself. It’s carefully melded together.”
Litoff said this year he had some trouble getting a working burner, which put him behind schedule a bit, but soon he was trucking along.
He was in the chili-making zone: Meat. Tomatoes. Onions. No beans.
“I’m a purist,” Litoff said. “Texas chili should not have beans.”
Brother Austin Litoff cooked with Moishe House on Sunday. (As of last year, Moishe House had been a three-time people’s choice winner.)
Unlike his brother, Austin attended culinary school in Israel awhile back.
Austin’s idea of good chili is traditional spices, chili powder, some lime juice and thoughtful recipes.
“I like a meaty, creamy chili,” Austin said.
Although they didn’t place Sunday, disappointed aficionados could be heard chanting “Moishe House! Moishe House!” as the awards were being read out.
Tiferet Israel’s vegetarian chili cook-off team did not place this year either, but was first in the vegetarian category in 2014.
Solomon Israel of Tiferet Israel said he is a particular fan of the vegetarian category because it allows people who don’t eat meat to still enjoy the goodness of Texas chili.
And the event wasn’t completely about chili:
Diane Benjamin, a past co-chair of the event and Texas region president of Bnai Zion, helped man the Bnai Zion booth, which sold nail polish and beauty aids to support Bnai Zion’s efforts in Israel.
Deborah Linksman, daughter of the late Mike Jacobs, founder of the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance, sold about 15 copies of her late father’s book, Holocaust Survivor: Mike Jacobs’ Triumph over Tragedy at the chili cook-off. The book has seen 11 printings. Mike Jacobs died July 28, 2014 at age 89.
Charities sharing in the proceeds of the event this year were the JCC Maccabi Games and the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Scott Kammerman, executive director of the Texas Chapter of the Friends of the IDF, gave the 22nd annual Dallas Kosher Chili Cook-off extremely high marks.
“There are a number of chili cook-offs in any number of cities, but this is the original and best for a reason,” he told the audience just before the awards were announced Sunday.
Dallas Morning News columnist Steve Blow, one of the 10 judges for the chili competition, joked that heartburn is a small price to pay for all the good chili he got to sample Sunday.
“I was amazed how consistently good the entries were. Is kosher a secret ingredient?” he said in an email to the TJP.
“Through the collective wisdom of the judging process, we came up with winners, but I don’t think there was a loser in the bunch,” Blow added. “As a newbie to the cook-off, I was also impressed by the size and great atmosphere of the event. The sense of community was palpable and I felt honored to be a part of it.”