May 15, 2023 By Gabriele Holtermann
“Everything is bigger in Texas” — and so was this year’s annual Texas Chili Cook-off competition hosted by Texas Exes New York Chapter at Pig Beach BBQ in Astoria on May 13.
The event drew around 500 people, who mingled in popular establishment’s the large backyard and sampled and voted for the best chili and queso in town.
The yearly event raises scholarship money for New York students who attend the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin). Out-of-state tuition at UT Austin is $41,000 a year and the Texan ex-pats want to send “Yankee kids to the great State of Texas for an amazing, educational experience and bring the Burnt Orange enthusiasm back home!”
Carl Koehler, president of the New York Texas Exes Chapter, shared that the chili cook-off event raised $35,000 for 15 deserving students.
“We try to celebrate Texas and the spirit of Texas and the state of New York,” Koehler, an Arlington native, said. “But sending more students [to Austin] and giving more money, that’s our primary mission.”
Ira Weidberg, membership chair, native New Yorker, and UT Austin alumni, said it was very difficult to get into UT Austin.
“Unfortunately, Texas does not give any money to New York kids, they don’t really understand the cost of out-of-state, and they think a lot of people have a lot of money here,” Weidberg said.
San Antonio rose Ali Petlin, the organization’s networking chair, said eight professional and 12 amateur teams participated in the cookoff.
Team “Chili Queens” with Umair Khakoo paid homage to the “World’s Borough” with its Chili recipe. Khakoo, a UT Austin alumni, was born in Pakistan, grew up in Texas and now lives in Astoria.
He drew inspiration from Nihari, a slowly cooked Pakistani beef stew with fried shallots, ghee and garlic paste. He seasoned 37 pounds of beef chuck with freshly harvested chilies from India, which he toasted and pulverized and used Masa as a thickening agent.
“Queens is the most diverse neighborhood not only in New York but the world,” Khakoo said. “And so I have access to ingredients from all over the globe, and I wanted to incorporate those in a Chili.”
Kevin Volpe grew up in Long Island and married “into a Texas family.” His team, the Chili Willies, was a family affair with his wife, Houston native Andrea Weitzman — who admitted she doesn’t like chili — along with his parents and his sister.
“I’ve been making chili mostly for my family for about 10 years or so,” said Volpe, who placed third. “This is the first time I tried this. I combined a lot of different recipes together to form my own. And this one actually turned out really well. It wasn’t too spicy. It wasn’t too liquidy. It was a good amount of meat to chili sauce ratio.”
The big winner of the cookout was “Texas Chillin,” scoring a hat trick and taking home the prize for best queso, best team presentation and best chili.
Mr. Villarreal and his 28-member strong were the “People’s Choice Champs” in 2016, 2017 and 2022 and Villarreal was moved to tears.
His team has been participating for nine years, and despite the triple win, the thing that truly mattered to Villareal were his friends, his “secret ingredient.”
“We started doing this since we were in college just to get free drinks and free beer,” Villarreal, who grew up in Laredo, Texas, said. “So it’s a little emotional for me because we work so hard.”
Friends Jennifer Hafkin and Heather Eskey-Hamastai enjoyed the event with their kids in tow while listening to tunes from DJ Price I$ Right and Queens-based band “No Grudges.”
Eskey-Hamastai, an Austin native who has lived in New York City for over 20 years, loved the family-style event showcasing the Lone Star State’s energy and hospitality.
“Everyone’s friendly, everybody’s drinking, and everyone’s having fun,” Eskey-Hamastai said. “This is our culture.”
Christ Stark, a chef with Hill Country Barbeque and one of the event’s sponsors, advised novices who want to enter a Chili cookoff to use real chilies, not the shelf mix.
“Powder them yourself in your blender. And let it cook. Don’t pull it off because you think it looks done. Let it keep going,” Stark said. “Then let it rest in the fridge again before you serve it so you can spin off all the fat on top. Because that makes a big difference.”
Settling the age-old argument of adding beans to Chili, he responded, “I mean, we’re a Texas barbecue restaurant. There’s no beans here. There’s no beans in the Chili we serve at the restaurant. There’s no beans in any of the three we serve in Chili Month.”
Pig Beach BBQ is located at 35-37 36th St. in Astoria. For more information, visit pigbeachnyc.com/location/pig-beach-queens-ny.