KANSAS CITY, Missouri -- Lee Kroencke spends most weekends in a canopy tent hunched over a stainless steel pot, seasoning simmering ground beef with meticulously measured and timed batches of spices.
The seasoned chili cook from Lenexa, Kansas, won the Kansas state cook-off in 2010 and 2014 and goes by the "Great Pepper" -- that's chili speak for head honcho -- for the local chapter of the Chili Appreciation Society International. Every year, he travels to dozens of cook-offs across the country with his wife, Shelley Kroencke, who regularly competes against her husband.
The couple have learned to adapt their chili recipes for each region. In Chicago, judges prefer tomato-rich chili that tastes "like spaghetti sauce," Lee Kroencke says. In Little Rock, Arkansas, they prefer pork, so Kroencke floats a pork chop in his chili as it's cooking. Kansas Citians like chili with ground beef, beans and plenty of heat. And in Cincinnati, the chili is bean-free, "even hotter than ours and always served over spaghetti," he says.
That's the thing about chili: Everyone has a strategy for making the Super Bowl staple.
Kroencke, for example, swears by simple recipes and spices at the peak of freshness, ordered online from Texas-based Mild Bill's Spice Co.
"Freshness is paramount," he says. "I don't use spice that's more than 90 days old."
Jim Lilleston, a competitive chili cook from Overland Park, Kansas, who won the homestyle division of the 2014 Lenexa Chili Challenge and goes by the nickname Chiliman 27, has been a fixture at the Lenexa Chili Challenge since 1997. He also uses spices from Mild Bill's. But unlike Kroencke, Lilleston's favorite chili brims with pinto beans, onions, green chilies and spicy hunks of Scimeca's Italian sausage.
Marissa Allen, who blogs about cooking and is married to Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Jeff Allen, hails from Texas. Her favorite chicken chili recipe has a Southwestern spin and incorporates taco seasoning mix, canned corn kernels and Rotel.
"I make beef chili too, but chicken is Jeff's favorite," Allen says.
Allen loves to entertain -- she has five to eight guests for every home game -- and making a big batch of chili in her trusty slow cooker is the easiest way she has found to feed a crowd. For extra color and flavor, she tops each bowl with cilantro, pico de gallo or sliced avocado.
"It's light and healthy, with lots of flavor," she says, "so you don't need to pile on a bunch of cheese."
Bill Maas, a former defensive tackle who played for the Chiefs from 1984 to 1992, tweaks his tried-and-true chili recipe every time he makes it. His latest draft calls for dried chile de arbol peppers, fresh jalapenos, brown sugar and venison that Maas hunted himself in Missouri.
Venison is lean, natural and "every bit as good as beef," Maas says. He and his wife, Sarah Maas, serve the venison chili with chopped onions, sour cream and shredded cheese. "We also like to put it in a bread bowl," he says. "Just get a round roll from your baker's and carve out the inside. Sourdough is really good."
Cooking chili is about chemistry between ingredients and people. Go to a charity chili contest (or any Super Bowl party with a sizable food spread) and you'll find people swapping recipes, tips, maybe even some spicy smack talk.
"We take our chili serious," Lilleston says, "but it's a lot of fun, and there's a lot of friendly banter between the cooks."
It's that sense of community that keeps Kroencke coming back year after year: "It's just magical when people come together over a pot of chili."
Marissa Allen's Game Day Chicken Chili
Marissa Allen, the wife of Chiefs offensive lineman Jeff Allen, enjoys making chicken chili in a slow cooker. The Texas native puts a Southwestern spin on the recipe with taco seasoning and diced tomatoes with green chilies, such as Rotel.
2 (15.5-ounce) cans light red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (15.25-ounce) can sweet whole kernel corn
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (10-ounce can) diced tomatoes with green chilies
1 small yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup water
1 (1.25-ounce) packet taco seasoning
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1 pound fresh (not frozen) chicken breasts
Salt and pepper, to taste
Garnish: Diced red onions, shredded cheese, chopped cilantro, sliced jalapeno, tortilla chips
Combine kidney beans, tomato sauce, corn, diced tomatoes, onion, water, taco seasoning, chili powder and cumin in a slow cooker. Stir, then place chicken breasts on top. Cook on high for 5 to 6 hours.
Before serving, shred the chicken with two forks and season chili with salt and pepper. Garnish as desired.
Jim Lilleston's Award-Winning Homestyle Chili
Lilleston won the anything-goes homestyle division of the 2014 Lenexa Chili Challenge with this recipe.
3 pounds 90-percent lean ground beef
1 pound mild or hot Italian sausage, ground or removed from casings
2 (1-ounce) packets chili seasoning, such as Williams
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 large onions, diced
2 (10-ounce) cans diced tomatoes with green chilies
2 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes with garlic and onion
1 (40-ounce) can mild or hot chili beans, undrained
Salt and pepper, to taste
Brown ground beef and Italian sausage over medium-high heat in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add 1 packet chili seasoning, then stir to combine. Add garlic, onions, diced tomatoes and chili beans, then stir to combine. Add second packet of chili seasoning and salt and pepper, to taste. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 2 hours.
Bill Maas' Venison Chili
Maas, a former defensive tackle for the Chiefs, is an avid home cook and hunter who loves incorporating wild game such as pheasants, quail, even elk and caribou.
3 pounds ground venison or beef
1 pound ground pork
2 yellow onions, diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cups water
2 cups beef broth
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 cup tomato sauce
2 dried chili peppers, minced
2 jalapeno peppers with stems removed, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
4-5 tablespoons chili powder, to taste
4 (15.5-ounce) cans mild chili beans, undrained
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/4 cup brown sugar or honey
Brown venison (or beef) and pork over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Meanwhile, combine onion, garlic, water, broth, vinegar, tomatoes, tomato sauce, peppers, cumin, chili powder, beans, oregano and brown sugar or honey in a large pot over medium heat. Once the mixture comes to a simmer, add the browned meat. Reduce heat to low, then simmer for at least 4 hours.
Black Bean Yam Chili
Chili champ Jim Lilleston says vegetarians and omnivores alike will dig this healthy meat-free chili, which tastes great with cornbread or over brown rice.
2 tablespoons olive oil or coconut oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium red onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 tablespoons sea salt
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 large sweet potato, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 (28-ounce) can fire-roasted crushed tomatoes
1 cup water or vegetable stock
3 (14-ounce) cans black beans, drained and rinsed (or 4 cups freshly cooked beans)
1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup chopped cilantro, for garnish (optional)
In a large pot over medium heat, heat the oil. Saute the garlic, onion, pepper, and salt until the vegetables are soft, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the cumin and chili powder and stir to combine. Cook for another minute. Add the sweet potato and lime zest and cook for about 10 minutes more, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes, water or vegetable stock, beans, lime juice and cocoa powder. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for 10 minutes, or until the sweet potatoes are soft. Top with chopped cilantro (if using) and a squeeze of lime, if desired.