Biden Chile Cookoff

Participants in the Biden campaign's virtual chili cookoff discus their creations on Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020. From top center, clockwise: former state Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton; former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar; Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo; state Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver; chef Tom Colicchio; and state Rep. Bri Buentello, D-Pueblo.

While New Mexico's official state question may be "red or green?" a group of Colorado Democrats posed a different query during a virtual chili cook-off sponsored by the state's Biden campaign on Sept. 12: Pueblo or San Luis Valley?

As it turned out, both wound up taking home top honors in the friendly competition, which was overseen by Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio.

Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's steaming pot — made with locally sourced organic pork and red chiles from the San Luis Valley, where his family has been ranching since the 1850s — was voted the chili viewers most wanted to try.

Senate President Leroy Garcia, meanwhile, assisted by his son as sous chef, won best presentation for the colorful plates of Pueblo green chili, created from a family recipe that includes a jolt of powdered red chile and chopped potatoes, simmered to perfection and served alongside beans, tortillas and bottles of beer. (See the sidebar for the Garcia family's no-longer-secret recipe.)

Through the hour-long Zoom teleconference, the chef and the politicians took turns talking about their preparations with a sprinkling of commentary on the presidential race — "my two favorite topics, politics and food," quipped Garcia — with a focus on issues important to Colorado's Latino community.

"This is American, this is what it means to be American, to celebrate our differences but to come together over our uniqueness and what makes us whole," said Colicchio, welcoming the cooks.

The other Democratic politicians wielding a ladle were state Sen. Julie Gonzales, of Denver, state Rep. Bri Buentello, of Pueblo, and former state Rep. Joe Salazar, of Thornton, who took office last month as a member of the Democratic National Committee.

Colicchio joined the online event from his kitchen in Portland, Oregon, where he's filming the 18th season of Bravo's Top Chef but was confined indoors because the air outside was too thick with smoke from the wildfires ravaging the West Coast.

"If we don't get our country to focus on what is happening with the environment, we are going to be doomed," he said.

After the cooks introduced their dishes and tipped their hats to the workers who produced their ingredients, Colicchio said: “I'm glad you thanked the farmers and everybody that grows food because right now they are struggling, and they really need our help. They are on the frontlines, they're getting sick and at much greater rates than the general population.

"We need leadership in this country that is going to actually care about science, that's going to care about people, that's going to have empathy for our country and for everyone here, and that person is vice president and soon to be President Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.”

"Immigrants across the state of Colorado and across this country, make tremendous contributions to our economy and under the Trump administration immigrants have been quite, just viscerally, under attack," said Gonzales, who emceed the cook-off while stirring a pot of green made with Pueblo chiles and beef from Safeway.

“It's time that we elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the presidency so that we can enact comprehensive immigration reform," Gonzales said. "And so that we can ensure that every single person in our country is treated with dignity and respect.”

As the virtual cook-off neared its conclusion and she urged viewers to register their preferences, Gonzales added: "We know that voting on our chili is important, but voting in November is super important."

Noting that everything in her pot of chili came from farmers in Pueblo and Otero counties, Buentello vouched for Biden's grasp of rural issues.

“He understands the importance of rural economies, of us being able to raise our children here, to send them to quality public schools, to make sure they can get a job here in small-town Colorado after they graduate from college, trade school."

Joe Salazar, who said he prepared each dish — locally sourced from Brighton and the San Luis Valley — with a prayer to honor his ancestors, cooked up what he called a "double whammy," serving red and green chilis alongside each other "because it's Christmas time."

"This chili that we are cooking is born from mother Earth," he said. "And we are in a statewide drought here in the state of Colorado."

He added that his family, hailing from northern New Mexico and the San Luis Valley, understands how important the climate is to growing food and raising animals. "We cannot do that with the threat of climate change. We have to get this under control. And we know that we can't do that under Donald Trump."

Along the way, there was the occasional trash-talk between the cooks — "This chili shouldn’t divide us now, it shouldn’t divide us," Colicchio interjected after the Salazars boasted the chiles they were each using was the best in the state — but mostly the cooks spoke about the importance of community.

"We are all children of God, in my view, we all need to come together to deal with the crises that we have, and also make sure that people are able to achieve their full potential," said Ken Salazar, who noted that he came to appreciate Biden's "great courage and great common decency" when they served together in the Obama cabinet.

"So right now in this crisis, we have the pandemic, we have the economy in a tailspin, we have racial justice issues which are very much a passion with every single person on this call," he said. "We need to create a world where it doesn’t matter what your background is, your gender, your sexual orientation, your race, your nationality, we are all in this together, and somebody needs to stand up for the proposition that all of that is what makes us Americans."

Marveling at the mouth-watering dishes after the cooks had plated their chilis, Colicchio summed up.

"It all looks great," he said. "This tells me that we are all different, we all have different approaches to food, but when you put your heart and soul into anything, it's going to be great, and that's what we need to get back to."

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