Want a fun excuse to get friends together and welcome the fall? Host your own cook-off to find out whose chili is really hot stuff! Connoisseurs of chili can get pretty competitive about their perfect recipes … beans vs. no beans, beef and pork vs. strictly veggies … and it’s a fun way to bring everyone together so they all go home full and happy.

What’s great for you is that this party is as easy to host as it is entertaining to attend, so it’s a win-win as you head into winter weather.

Send out invites to friends asking them to bring their top chili recipes, already prepared in a sIow-cooker so it’s ready to serve. To decorate, dollar store bandanas are an easy way to give a Tex-Mex feel to the room. Use them to adorn tables and line baskets of chips, and give extras out for guests to tie around their necks.

To really get in the spirit, ask your guests to break out their cowboy boots and hats, denim, and button down shirts. Throw on a current or classic country music mix and you’re good to go. And don’t worry if you have any non-chefs on the guest list; not everyone needs to bring chili. Even 3 or 4 options are plenty for a fun competition.

Be sure to gather copies of the recipes ahead of time so you can make sure none are repeated, and that everyone gets a chance to shine. You could even create a little Cook-Off Cookbook for your guests to take home as a party favor, with permission from the chefs, of course.

Ask your contestants to give their chili a creative name, or maybe you could provide a couple of options for each and let your guests vote on their favorite one. Another option is to do a blind judging where only you and the chefs know whose chili is whose. Whichever you choose, don’t forget to pick up some small table tents so you can label each one.

The Tasting Table

Find a space where you can set up one long table, buffet style, where you can place the slow cookers, preferably against a wall with easy access to power outlets. (Don’t forget to make sure you’ve got any extension cords or power strips you may need.) Be sure to have enough ladles available or ask your guests to bring theirs from home.  For serving, provide small disposable cups and plenty of plastic spoons so your guests can sample all the chilis without getting full.   Once the voting is done, you can set out larger bowls for people who want more substantial servings while they wait for the winner to be announced.

Decide your voting system in advance so you don’t have to figure it out mid-party. You can go as simple as having people drop a slip of paper ina bowl, or as advanced handing out pre-printed ballots with categories. You could ask your guests to consider things like appearance, consistency, originality, best name and heat level, and rate them on a scale of 1-5 or use something like yuck, meh, pretty good, amazeballs and give me more right now!)

Get the party going!

As your chili-cooking contestants arrive, help them setup their slow cookers while your other guests enjoy their first beer. Once everyone’s set, explain the voting process to the whole crowd and let the sampling begin. When the voting’s over, let some time lapse before announcing the final tally to build some suspense.

You can either announce one grand prize winner or spread out the awards for the top winners in individual categories.

Don’t forget to have awards for all the winners, but don’t stress over making them too extravagant either. You could give people something as simple as a bottle of hot sauce with a hand-printed label commemorating the event. Other ideas include a gift certificate to Chili’s, a collection of different chili powders or a small slow cooker.

Don’t forget the fixin’s! 

Chili’s obviously the main course, but it’s also fun to create a table where folks can “gussy up” their chili with add-ons. Include things like tortilla chips, saltine crackers, sour cream, diced onions, guacamole, pickled jalapeños, shredded cheese and corn muffins. Add some veggies to the mix with some simple greens tossed in a light vinaigrette or a Mexican jicama salad to stay on theme.

For drinks, beer is a natural partner to chili. Select a variety of fall-themed brews and put them on ice in a large metal tub. Include pitchers of sweet tea and lemonade for non-imbibers, and don’t forget to have plenty of water on hand for palate cleansing.

Stay simple for dessert. Offer a large platter of chocolate chip cookies or brownies as a nice treat to end the evening or cool things down with an ice cream sundae bar.

Now how easy is that? So, do you have any special chili recipes or favorite can’t-do-without toppings? Tell me all about it below!

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