All-woman cooking team gears up for Yaga’s Chili Quest & Beer Fest
They’ve been The Blues Brothers, the Kardashians, 1980s rap stars and have worn orange prison jumpsuits — lugging camp stoves, coolers and table décor — with children and husbands in tow.
They spend months brainstorming recipes, conducting taste tests, deciding on themes, costumes and secret ingredients. Bourbon, beer and chocolate are a few ingredients that have graced their cooking pots over the last several years, so anything is possible for this fun-loving, all-woman amateur group of chefs known as the Chili Belles.
They are: Kelli Acosta, Tila Briesh, Melanie Buck, Alicia Cahill, Hannah O’Donohoe, Wendy O’Donohoe. Erica Farmer, Kim Gibbons, Michelle Funston, Holly Jolin, Toni Lynch, Magen Ortiz, Jacki Nielsen, Lauren Millo, Gina Sifuentes and Sara Spence.
Formed in late 2009, the Chili Belles team entered its first contest in January 2010, competing in Yaga’s Chili Quest & Beer Fest in Galveston. The women dressed up as Tiger’s (Woods) Mistresses, and although their pot of red didn’t win first place, they did garner a trophy for showmanship. Outfitted in matching pink golf shirts and argyle socks, the women also used a mannequin posing as Woods’ wife and a putting green as attention grabbers.
“We used the word ‘chili’ in our name because we didn’t know we’d be participating in anything else,” member Magen Ortiz said. “We thought chili would be our one annual event and that would be it.”
That was not to be, however. When the women got wind the Galveston Island Shrimp Festival was planned for the following September, their competitive spirit took over and they began to brainstorm, entering and winning yet another showmanship trophy.
Since that time, the Chili Belles have entered both contests yearly, taking home nine trophies and one plaque. They’ve won first place for gumbo twice at the Shrimp Festival — 2011 and 2014 — with their most recent winning recipe appearing on the menu at downtown Galveston eatery Yaga’s Cafe.
The coveted secret ingredient? It’s all in the way you incorporate the okra.
“We stir-fried it lovingly in butter to give it a good crisping,” member Toni Lynch said.
To prepare for each event, Alicia Cahill’s downtown Galveston store, The Kitchen Chick, becomes command central with members bringing in various test dishes.
“A group of us do tastings a few months before each contest,” Holly Jolin said. “We give each other feedback and then make decisions.”
Booth themes and costume ideas are tossed around with everyone mindful of topical news.
The non-cooking Chili Belles busy themselves with decorating, designing costumes, prepping ingredients and serving the tasty dishes to event goers.
When not in event-planning mode, the group socializes together and has shared many milestones over the past six years: Seven babies and one grandchild have been born, marriages have taken place and one wedding is pending.
“We all really love each other and enjoy each other’s company,” Cahill said. Keeping spirits up during a cook-off is easy because they’re all good friends, she said.
A few bloody marys to sip on while stirring the pot make it that much more fun.
Yaga’s seventh annual Chili Quest & Beer Fest is planned for Jan. 15-16 in Galveston and will include live music, a 5K Fun Run/Walk, a washer pitching tournament, a jackpot margarita contest, vendors and a historical Strand merchant walkabout. Buy a tasting mug and sample more than 100 craft and import beers, chat with the brewmasters and meet the Chili Belles and other teams. www.yagaschiliquest.com
Chili Belles ‘Grand’ Gumbo
½ cup butter
½ cup oil (olive or canola)
1 cup flour
2 onions, diced
1 cup okra, sliced
4-6 blue crabs, quartered
1 pound spicy smoked sausage
3 stalks celery, diced
1 green pepper, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 quarts seafood stock
2-3 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1-2 pounds medium shrimp, deveined
1 cup lump crab meat
Maceo’s seafood seasoning
Salt and pepper
Filé gumbo powder
Make the roux by heating ½ cup butter, ½ cup oil in a large cast iron pan over high heat. Whisk 1 cup flour into the hot oil slowly, and then reduce the heat to medium low. Continue stirring until the roux takes on a deep copper, brown color. Do not burn. Add diced onions, stirring them into the roux. Continue stirring until the roux is a rich, dark brown.
In a separate pan, stir fry the okra in a hot skillet with a pat of butter. Cook until the okra has some browning and the slime is gone. Set aside. Add blue crabs and spicy smoked sausage and stir fry for 3 to 5 minutes.
Add celery, green pepper, garlic and cooked okra. Increase the heat and cook, stirring for 3 to 5 minutes. Add seafood stock, thyme, bay leaves and Maceo’s seafood seasoning.
Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and skim off any fat from the surface of the gumbo. Fifteen minutes before serving, add shrimp and crabmeat. Cook through. Season with salt, pepper, Creole spices, Worcestershire, Tabasco and filé to taste.