Chili & Cinnamon Rolls? Yes Please!

One of my favorite all-staff activities is a good old fashioned Chili Cook-Off. There are several reasons why I highly recommend this event. First, most people love eating a hot bowl of chili during the cold winter months. Second, almost everyone seems to have (or know a family member) with a tasty chili recipe. And finally, a chili cook-off is a great opportunity to give staff much-needed time for relaxation and conversation.


We started hosting a chili cook-off a couple years ago when I was a high school principal. Our social committee agreed to try this event, and invited our staff to come to library during their lunch break. The feedback we had for this inaugural event was outstanding! What really made the event a success was that we went the extra mile to have a traveling trophy AND a cash prize for the winner!

2018 Chili Cook-Off Champion Scot Gehret

This year, we decided to use an hour of professional development time to host the event. We invited all 250 employees (teachers, para-educators, bus drivers, food service, etc.) to an off-site location. Upon arrival, staff were instructed they were going to do a "blind" taste test of several different chilis, unaware of which staff member had prepared each chili. In total, we had 15 entries, with chilis given creative names such as "Chili Chili Bang Bang," "Afterburn," "Unicorn's Last Supper," and "Slow Cook, Favor Flave."

The 2020 Trojan Chili Cook-Off Trophy

To make this event extra special, we asked our food service staff to make cinnamon rolls to go with the chili. Although I personally did not grow up with the chili/cinnamon roll combination as a part of my school lunch program (our district opted for peanut butter sandwiches), it has been widely reported that cinnamon rolls are the most frequent - and tastiest - item that can be paired with school lunch chili.

Two staff members debate which chili is best

After tasting as many recipes as time allowed, staff members were asked to vote on their top-rated chili. As we went on with other announcements and awards, four "judges" tallied the votes. At the end of the celebration, we announced the top three place winners. Our 2020 Chili Cook-Off Champion was none other than Heather Wanatee, a Kindergarten teacher who made an amazing chili that is - according to the chef - "layered with onions, spicy, meaty, thick... dangerous!"


You can see the winning announcement and Ms. Wanatee's acceptance speech below.

In summary, I would highly recommend any school district or organization explore hosting their own chili cook-off. My experience is that this event can bring much-needed laugher, camaraderie, and positivity during the cold, never-ending winter months. And if you want to make things extra special, consider adding a traveling trophy, cash prize, or homemade cinnamon rolls!


PS: If you are looking for someone to make you your very own Chili Cook-Off Traveling Trophy, Aaron Smith is your guy!!

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