Editor's note: Times Columnist Philip Potempa served on the judging panel for Saturday's chili cook-off.
MERRILLVILLE | Greg Geimer, 31, almost didn't enter his recipe for the annual Northwest Indiana Chili Cook-Off and Tasting charity event.
Geimer, a guidance counselor at Merrillville High School, said it was the urging of his co-workers and the chance to raise money for what he calls "a good cause" that convinced him to take a chance.
His unique recipe for Buffalo Chicken Chili, garnished with crumbled blue cheese and a celery stick earned the first-place honors from the panel of judges.
"I started last weekend testing out this recipe and brought in samples to work and then fine-tuned it before making the big batch I served up for the event," Geimer said.
Sponsored by the Merrillville High School Key Club and the Lupus Foundation of America, Indiana Chapter, the cook-off drew nearly 300 people to Merrillville High School on Saturday. Visitors sampled the inventive chili recipes of this year's 12 contestants.
The winning recipes will be published on Wednesday's Times Food section.
The various surprise ingredients incorporated in chili ranged from diced apples, cubed parnsips and chocolate bars to venison, cinnamon, mashed potatoes, brown sugar and corned beef.
For Joan McGee, aka JoJo the Clown, of Merrillville, the chili event is a traditional that helps raise awareness.
"I was at the very first chili cook-off the lupus organization had 11 years ago, when it was still held in Portage at Woodland Park in the pavilion," McGee said. "I'm happy to be here every year."
McGee was even happier than usual for her clown alter ego, since she raised the most money from the donations dropped in her donor box. The nearly $800 she raised was the key ingredient netting her the Lupus Award for raising the most money.
Winning the People's Choice Award, based solely on votes, was Atilano Klidaras, 25, of Lowell, for his venison and chorizo sausage chili. He was also the third-place winner named by the judging panel. The second place awarded by the judges was Katelyn Holsclaw, 25, of Chesterton, for her vegetarian chili made with portobello mushrooms and a splash of dark beer.
Serving among the judging panel this year was Times restaurant columnist Eloise Valadez, who last judged the event in 2009, and Executive Chef Terry Zych, of Ivy Tech Community College, who was on the event's first judging panel when it launched in 2003.
Cook-off chairwoman Carrie Bedwell said nearly $5,000 was raised during the three-hour event.
"We are so thankful for the many volunteers and people who donated times and raffle items and silent auction prizes to make this event an annual success," Bedwell said.