NORWOOD PARK — Each judge was warned Sunday: The Chicago Fire Department chili cook-off is serious business.
Actor David Eigenberg, the guy who plays “Herrmann” on NBC’s "Chicago Fire," seemed a little worried.
“If we slam someone’s chili and they take offense, do you have our backs?” he asked.
Chili Cook-Off organizer Steve Bezazian answered him with a shrug and silence.
And that made it perfectly clear that the panel of chili-tasting judges — Eigenberg and his "Chicago Fire" co-stars Joe Minoso (Joe Cruz) and Yuri Sardarov (Otis), Chicago City Clerk Susana Mendoza, Chicago Fire Department Deputy Chief Mark Neilson and I— would have to make tough decisions and live with the consequences.
So after tasting 21 chili recipes — a wide range of meats (brisket, venison, shredded pork, ground beef and sausage), plenty of beans (black, kidney and pinto) and fiery bits of habanero, serrano and jalapeno peppers — I ordered up a last taste of my top picks just to make sure I could live with my final decision.
And my second spoonful of chili No. 7 — delightfully sweet and smoky with a real kick — inspired me to throw in a few extra points in praise of that particular recipe’s color, aroma, consistency, taste and aftertaste.
And in the end, Ol’ No. 7 was the big winner … by a single point.
And get this, the victor, Ed McHale, isn’t even a firefighter.
“I’m a telecom manager,” the 51 year–old Jefferson Park man said. “I was at Ellengee Market, a place a lot of firefighters get their food, and I was there just after someone came in with a flier … so I entered.”
He credited the win to his secret ingredient — polish sausage.
“I get it at Andy’s Deli on Milwaukee. I grind it up, and that way it tastes like bacon and adds smokiness,” McHale said. “And I add tri-tip that I get from Ellengee.”
He blanches and purees tomatoes to give the chili color and adds a mix of habanero, serrano and jalapeno peppers for heat.
“Everything is fresh. Nothing from a can,” McHale said.
“I spend a lot of time on it, four or five hours, and make a bloody mess of the kitchen. My wife said I had extra good luck because I actually cleaned up the mess this time.”
McHale’s victory, however, was just the third best thing that happened to him in the last few days.
Last week, his neighborhood Catholic school, St. Cornelius, dodged a bullet when it wasn’t on the Archdiocese of Chicago's school-closing list.
And best of all, McHale’s wife, Dorothy, got word on Friday that that she is now free of ovarian cancer.
“Winning is a good feeling, but it’s really second best to hearing that she’s clear of cancer,” McHale said. “She went through all the treatment without ever complaining. It’s amazing. My wife, she’s my absolute hero.”
Dorothy McHale said that after a week of getting awesome news, her husband’s cook-off victory was like “cheese on top of great chili.”
Still, there was even more good news at Mo Dailey’s Pub and Grille in Norwood Park on Sunday.
By the end of the day, the Fire Department's chili-cook off raised more than $22,000 for the Ende, Menzer, Walsh and Quinn Retirees’ Widows’ and Childrens’ Assistant Fund, which gives financial assistance to the Fire Department’s neediest widows and orphans.