The World’s Championship Chili Cookoff is coming to Reno. Previous year's cookoff winners talked chili with Reno.com.

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Part of the International Chili Society’s job description is sanctioning hundreds of nationwide cookoffs and inviting the best of the best to come armed in competition with mouthwatering chilis and salsas. This year the Biggest Little City plays host to the 49th annual ICS World’s Championship Chili Cookoff Oct. 16-18 at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino. Top qualifying cooks not only have the chance to vie for cash prizes and awards in one of four categories -- traditional red chili, chili verde, salsa and homestyle chili -- but also to help raise funds for charities and non-profit organizations.

At the 2014 World’s Championship Mary Parker’s “Dragonfly Chili” won in the chili verde category and Al Henry’s “Alf’s Colorado Red” took first place for homestyle chili. But the $25,000 grand prize went to “traditional red” cook Mike Stevens, a Vietnam veteran and owner of Yakety Yak Ranch in Dilia, N.M. Stevens still remembers his first encounter with a belly-warming bowl of chili.

“When I was 5 or 6 years old, my dad took me to Lindy's Chili (Chicago) to eat after we visited my Grandma. The very first time I asked my Dad (an Irishman who loved only bland food) for a bowl of chili, he told me I wouldn't like it and it would make me sick. I got of bowl of red (hold the beans) and it had me from hello! I loved it and that started my quest to eat and then later to cook the best chili in the world!”

In 1995, Stevens won Chicago’s Windy City Chili Regional Cookoff, qualifying him for his first world championship. Along with his wife Gloria, Stevens has continued to cook coast to coast for the past two decades.

“We have four children and seven grandchildren, all of whom love chili," Stevens said. "On Feb. 28, 2014, I sold my business, Orland Hearing Aid Center and retired. Since then, my wife has retired also and we plan to get in as many years as we can with the grandkids, ranching and, of course, cooking chili!”

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There are many paths that lead to the winner’s circle, but they all share a common passion -- cooking a delicious pot of chili. The journey for Mary Parker, winner of last year’s chili verde title with her “Dragonfly Chili,” began as an adult, tasting chili verde for the first time from contestant Patty Summers. Enchanted, she began to follow the competition, helping out others but never thinking of submitting her own recipe until 2006.

"I went to the ICS World’s Championship Chili Cookoff in Omaha (Neb.) where I signed up to judge chili -- what an eye-opening experience! I learned just how tough the competition was. It was really difficult finding a winner among such good chili. In 2007, I decided to try entering my salsa in the North Carolina State Chili Cookoff, where it did not do well at all. In 2008, I again entered my salsa in the North Carolina State Chili Cookoff and actually won first place, qualifying me for the 2009 ICS World’s Championship.”

Flushed with success, Parker embarked on her first full year of cooking and found that those surrounding her in competition, contentedly dubbed “chiliheads,” were kind souls who enjoyed sharing the experience together.

“I went to the ICS website and studied all the chili verde winners for the past five years and from that, I made my own recipe. I took this recipe to a cookoff in Snowmass and won a first place there. Since I had two first place wins for 2009 (salsa and verde), I decided to try my hand at red chili in Superior. What a surprise – I won first place. By this time, I was hooked on ICS chili cookoffs. The people I have met are fantastic and always willing to give tips on making better chili.”

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