Protective Services Chili Cookoff Full of Good Food, Good Fun, and “Tough Choices”

By Samuel Lopez, Staff Writer; photos by Richard Frederickson, Staff Photographer
Photo of Miller with Stull, Hrasar, and Farling

Tom Miller (center-right) presents James Stull (center-left) with his reserved parking space, while second-place finisher Jerry Hrasar (left) and third-place finisher Jim Farling (right) look on.

This year’s Protective Services Chili Cookoff was marked by blazing-hot chili and fiery competition as 15 entrants contended for the attention and adoration of approximately 150 hungry attendees.

The competition is a fixture at NCI at Frederick and regularly features an array of culinary concoctions, from which the visitors rank their choices for first, second, and third place. This year was business as usual—albeit with fewer entries than recent years due to a notification issue—said the event’s organizer, Thomas Miller, manager, Protective Services.

Miller, who initiated the event 15 years ago, has coordinated and competed in it each year. In that time, he’s seen competitors make nearly every chili imaginable and try nearly every tactic to win, including attempting to secure coworkers’ votes in advance of the event or pretending to be a visitor, standing near the chilis—which are always numbered to conceal the entrants’ identities—and encouraging visitors to try their entry.

Because he is both the event’s coordinator and a competitor, Miller never votes on the entries—though he has attempted a few “winning strategies” himself. This year, he greeted visitors at the door and told them, “Just don’t disappoint my granddaughters, ok? They helped me.” He also placed a photo of his granddaughters beside the ballot box to remind visitors to “vote wisely.”

The competitors’ sneaky antics embody the friendly competition, lighthearted rivalries, and good-humored trash talk that are hallmarks of the event every year. Miller believes it not only gives visitors a chance to eat great food but also provides them an opportunity to meet their coworkers. He cited a previous cookoff where he met a scientist who had been coming to NCI at Frederick off-the-clock every night to turn off an incubator in his lab. Miller offered to have the Protective Services team handle the task instead, and the scientist gratefully accepted, forming a new relationship with the security office.

The camaraderie was equally evident during this year’s cookoff as visitors dashed between the crock pots full of chili and chatted about the entries, which featured both tried-and-true ingredients—beans, corn, and various meats—and more creative components, such as entry 11’s spaghetti noodles. Flavors ranged from the beany and sweet number 2 to the meaty and spicy number 15 to the tangy number 6.

With such a wide spectrum of choices, some visitors found voting for a winner particularly difficult.

“Tough choices,” said Ron Kunz and David Johnston, both from the Environment, Health, and Safety Directorate.

Some tried to solve that problem by writing lengthy notes about each entry before casting their ballots, while others took a less rigid approach.

“[It’s] gotta get that combination of flavor, spice, and texture, and a good presentation,” said visitor David Shiau, systems administrator II, Enterprise Information Technology Directorate. However, he added that he was willing to overlook some criteria “as long as it tastes good.”

Walter Hubert, Ph.D., NCI at Frederick Office of Scientific Operations, noted that attendees from different regions of the country have different expectations for chili. He has entered his Texas-style chili con carne into the competition multiple years, including this year as entry number 15.

“[Everyone has] regional taste buds,” he said. “[Chili] is like a gemstone: everyone looks at a different facet but assumes it’s great.”

In the end, however, James Stull’s entry number 11 proved to be the hottest topic among the visitors, including visiting middle-schooler Alayna Hu, who said it was her favorite because of the cheese and sour cream that could be added to the spaghetti noodles.

The buzz surrounding Stull’s entry—along with its impressive flavor—was enough to earn Stull first place. As a prize, he has received a reserved parking space on the NCI at Frederick campus for 10 days.

The other competitors finished as follows:

  • Second – Jerry Hrasar (entry number 6)
  • Third – Jim Farling (12)
  • Fourth – Jennifer Miller (8)
  • Fifth – Ted Witte (10)
  • Sixth – Tom Miller (1)
  • Seventh – Gretchen White (13)
  • Eighth – Dan Hartman (7)
  • Ninth – David Johnston (2)
  • Tenth – Team ARC, Building 578 (14)
  • Eleventh – Teresa Stitely (3)
  • Twelfth – Walter Hubert (15)
  • Thirteenth (tie) – Delia Croghan (4), Sarah Hooper (5), and Linda Brubaker (20)

After announcing the winner, Miller joked that his “granddaughters haven’t stopped crying since they heard the results,” but it’s all in good humor—and good fun.

“For next year’s contest, I plan on buying a new crock pot,” he added. “I think employees don’t like voting for a chili that is in an old crock pot, no matter how superior-tasting it is.”

Visitors line up to try the chili… …visitors of all ages. Stacy Taylor (left) and Roxanne Angell (right) were among the many attendees who enjoyed themselves. A visitor casts her ballot. There were few leftovers by the end of the event.