Emma Cabaness, the 2020 Katonah Chili Cook-off Champion, grew up making chili with her mom in the Midwest. She’s an experienced competitor, with over 20 years’ worth of competitions under her belt in New England, the Midwest, Rocky Mountains and here in New York. Plus, she’s married to a Texan. This year, she returns to compete in Katonah’s 13th annual competition and, for the first time ever, is cooking with a partner, fellow Katonah resident Marc Abrams (full disclosure: he’s my husband). 

She kindly granted us a few minutes of her time before she began her days’ long chili-making process. 

Katonah Connect: How often do you win chili competitions?

Emma Cabaness: About 50 percent of the time. I competed in North Salem about two years ago, and I think I came in seventh place because my chili was pretty spicy. It really just depends on who’s judging you. And since I don’t work from a recipe, there’s always some variability in my chili, especially when it comes to spiciness. 

KC: Do you have any sort of base that you always work from?

EC: Well, I always start with sautéing onions…

KC: As a chili expert, what should us laypeople know?

EC: I grew up going to chile parlors where if you ate an entire bowl of the number 10, you could write your name on the wall. I grew up around chili culture, so to speak, and so did my husband. But Midwestern chili and Texas chili are slightly different, and they’re vastly different from here. 

KC: Different how?

EC: I don’t really use beans. In Illinois, we only allow pinto beans. But out here, people use black beans and lima beans – that’s not considered chili, that’s a stew. And I definitely don’t use any other vegetables. You’re not supposed to even do tomato sauce! 

So, that’s some of what I wrestle with each time – how many of our taboos can I overcome? I will probably have a smaller range of ingredients than some of my competitors because I don’t do carrots or corn or anything like that. It’s against the rules of chili, at least the way I understand it.

KC: Wow, that’s crazy. Is this the only place you’ve experienced such a different chili culture?

EC: No. For example, once in Vermont, my husband and I competed against each other for a fundraiser. It was the first and last for that experience – I got second place, but Jack didn’t place it all. He was upset because he felt like he had made real chili, but the winner used maple syrup and beer in his chili. People don’t seem to understand how deeply troubling that was for us. So, I’m trying to straddle being open-minded and yet still wanting to keep it close to home.

KC: Have you ever competed with a partner?

EC: No. 

KC: What made you decide to try something new and different this year?

EC: I did it because of the contest’s restrictions. They limit participation, so I’ve advocated for everybody to have a partner. Chili contests are fun for everybody, and I think it’s fun to include as many people as possible. I’d even be open to more partners if it meant more people could be included. It’s a really fun event!

KC: Do you know who will judge this competition?

EC: Oh, it’s a beauty contest. People who buy tickets serve as the judges. Traditionally, chili competitions are judged by a panel. 

KC: Any tips or advice for the judges?

EC: Be open-minded and have fun! And, if you want to try the spicier chilis, in Illinois they say to either drink milk or a vanilla milkshake first. Never drink water. If your mouth gets overheated, eat bread. You can have crackers in a pinch, but bread is better because it absorbs the flavors. Finally, you can ask for extra grease if you can’t handle the heat. 

KC: You have a six-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter, what do they think about all of this?

EC: They think it’s hilarious, and they’re super into it. My daughter has blue ribbons for track races, and I have my chili trophies. But it’s funny because they hate chili – they won’t even try it! But they’re super proud of me, and it’s kind of exciting for them.

KC: Do you compete in any other food competitions? 

EC: No, but I would like to see more food events in town. I would love to be a part of a pie baking contest because I feel like people get super fussy about their crusts. And I am there for that. That’s my level of competition. 

KC: Okay, noted. On the night of the competition, what should we expect? Is it very competitive? 

EC: Well, I get accused of doing a fair amount of smack talk! Which I find funny because I don’t think that I’m even talking smack, but maybe I just have a certain level of confidence? It’s probably more that I’m bragging, but I’m not talking down to anyone. 

Look, I want everyone to do well – I just want to do the best!

Good luck to all the competitors!

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Gia Miller is an award-winning journalist and content writer who lives in Katonah. Her work has appeared in Parents, The Washington Post, Healthline, Well + Good, Psych Central, SheKnows, SELF and more.