First ATRF Chili Contest Proves It’s Not Always about the Meat

By Richard Folkers, Guest Writer; photos by Richard Frederickson, Staff Photographer
ATRF Chili Cookoff

Voters at the first Advanced Technology Research Facility Chili Cookoff opted for veggies instead of fire by voting for Sucheta Godbole’s meatless Chili with an Indian Twist at the February event.

Wafting cumin through the building, 15 slow cookers full of chili lined an L-shaped conference room at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research Advanced Technology Research Facility (ATRF), as voters strolled past “No electioneering” signs and the tasting began Feb. 29.

Chili No. 13 came out of the gate with a spicy authority. “My tongue’s still tingling,” said one taster. “Just looking at it, you can tell how spicy it is,” said another judge. Thick with ground beef, with a smoky, peppery aroma, it was layered with black beans and corn, and it had a back-of-the-throat burn no other contestant’s offering could match. A nearby box of tissues served as a must-have for anyone sampling the sinus-clearing concoction.

Other dishes favored cubed or shredded beef instead of ground meat. Smoked kielbasa lifted another entry. Turkey and chicken made their marks as well. Two white chili recipes were in the mix. But No. 13 continued to draw a crowd, and some warnings to be cautious, even without the addition of its “Reaper of Sorrow” sauce.

But just as polls and pundits do not always predict elections accurately, the results were downright Iowa caucus-worthy. Voters at the first ATRF Protective Services Chili Cookoff contest opted for veggies instead of fire, and Sucheta Godbole, a bioinformatics analyst from the Center for Cancer Research Sequencing Facility, won top honors with her meatless Chili with an Indian Twist. A milder chili with a hint of curry in its broth, Ms. Godbole’s dish was fragrant with red and yellow peppers, beans, corn, and chickpeas.

Ms. Godbole said she wavered, right up until the morning of the contest, about whether to enter. “I was thinking about how to make it interesting and still attract attention to my no-meat chili,” she said. “I am glad I did—partly because of my husband’s encouragement.”

Ms. Godbole’s margin of victory was slim. She garnered 40 points (three points for each first-place vote, two points for each second-place vote, and one point for each third-place vote, in the anonymous ballot of ATRF staff members), putting her in first by just five points. Dwight Nissley, Ph.D., director of the Cancer Research Technology Program, nabbed the second spot with a chili featuring shredded beef, and garnished with lime wedges, cilantro, and cheese. John Columbus, a research associate working on the RAS Initiative, and his No. 13 came in third with 34 points.

First prize in the to-be-annual event was two weeks of reserved parking in the ATRF visitors’ lot.

The ATRF event came just seven weeks after the 13th annual Protective Services Chili Cookoff on the NCI at Frederick campus. The ATRF event’s promotional flyer took a tongue-in-cheek swipe at the older sibling, calling itself “The ONLY chili cookoff contest that REALLY matters.” So, might a tournament of champions be in the offing? John Stroka, supervisor of ATRF Protective Services and organizer of the ATRF cookoff, was coyly noncommittal. When asked about the upstart event, Tom Gannon-Miller, manager of Protective Services and organizer of the NCI at Frederick cookoff, called the ATRF contest “just like your kid brother looking for attention.”

Game on.


Chili with an Indian Twist (makes 8 servings)


  • One each, red, orange, and yellow organic bell pepper
  • One 8-ounce can of organic adzuki beans
  • Three celery sticks
  • One 8-ounce can of organic garbanzo beans
  • One large, pink onion
  • Four tomatoes
  • 8 ounces of frozen sweet corn kernels
  • Three cloves of garlic
  • One inch of ginger
  • Two sticks of cinnamon
  • Four bay leaves
  • Sweet Spanish paprika, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Preparation (about 15 minutes):

  • Cut bell peppers into large chunks
  • Dice celery
  • Chop garlic and ginger
  • Fire roast tomatoes, remove skin, de-seed, and puree with a cup of water
  • Chop onion into small squares

Cooking (about one hour):

  • Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan (4-quart size); add chopped onion, garlic, and ginger pieces. Stir fry for 10 minutes, until the onion loses all moisture, adding a dash of sea salt
  • Add bell peppers and celery, and cook them for about 5 minutes on high heat
  • Reduce heat and add sweet corn kernels
  • Wash canned garbanzo and adzuki beans, and add them to the mixture
  • Cook for about 10 minutes, adding a dash of sea salt
  • When the celery and peppers are cooked, add tomato puree
  • Cook for another 30 minutes on low heat
  • Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a pan; add cinnamon sticks and bay leaves, and fry them until the oil becomes fragrant. Add paprika to the mixture and then add the mixture to the chili. Close the lid after gently blending all ingredients.

Enjoy warm with cilantro (optional) and lemon juice.

For a slightly hotter version, you can add roasted cumin powder and spicier chili peppers.

Richard Folkers is the communications manager of NCI at Frederick.

Sucheta Godbole, first place winner at the first Advanced Technology Research Facility Chili Cookoff, stands with John Stroka, event organizer, near the reserved parking space she was awarded for two weeks.