MERCED — The aroma of simmering meat and fresh tomato sauce filled the air as Merced resident John Jepson, 60, took the stage to defend his title as World Champion at the 2012 World's Championship Chili Cookoff.
The annual event, held by the International Chili Society (ICS), brings out the best-of-the-best chili recipes from all around the country. The cooks are as unique as their recipes, all vying for the top prize: $25,000 and the World Champion title.
Jepson, who's lived in Merced for the past 20 years, took an eight-hour flight to Charleston, W.Va., to compete in the 46th world championship event last weekend. The former world champion placed fourth in the red chili division, winning $700 and a trophy.
The competition was fierce, with more than 400 cooks braving the rainy weather to compete for $55,000 in four main divisions: traditional red chili, chili verde, salsa and the new "homestyle" category, which allowed the use of beans and other ingredients -- a first for the ICS.
"The cooks are very passionate about the fact that they qualify to cook in the world championship," said Carol Hancock, the CEO of the International Chili Society. Hancock said the chili recipes are evaluated on taste, aroma, consistency, appearance and heat.
Jepson has spent the past 30 years competing in cook-offs, 14 of them at the world championship level. Placing in the top five is an honor Jepson has enjoyed five times since 2004.
Last year, Jepson landed the coveted $25,000 prize and World Champion title in the traditional red chili category. Though the recipe has been in his family for years, Jepson said he turned it up a notch by using a very special secret ingredient.
"I traveled to New Mexico and found some chili peppers down there," Jepson said, confiding that he got the peppers from an elderly woman, whose name he's keeping a secret. "It put the recipe over the top," he said.
It all comes together
CEO Hancock samples the winning recipe every year and said Jepson's mouth-watering chili always stands out from the crowd. "It's hard to describe with words what makes his chili so good," she said. "John's chili has the perfect blend of spices. It has the perfect blend of everything."
Jepson's world-famous recipe is posted on the ICS Web site. But imitators beware -- the results may not turn out the same. "Everyone can have the same recipe, but not the same bowl of chili," said Vickie Marnick, administrator at the ICS, who helps plan the 175 to 200 cook-offs the group holds each year, including the world event, which takes nearly two years of planning.
Using his gut instincts to measure some of the ingredients, Jepson said that "two tablespoons might actually turn into one," and his recipe changes every year.
"I've been working on it for years," he said. "I've got a drawer full of recipes, and it's been refined over the years. Each year has to be a little different."
Adrian Fuhrman, 71, has competed with Jepson for the last 26 years, and said his determination and passion for chili are inspiring to watch. "He's always searching and trying to find the right peppers," Fuhrman said, adding that Jepson's taste buds are "way better" than his.
Over the years, Fuhrman said the cooking buddies have never had a disagreement or fight. "We just gravitated toward each other and bounced ideas off each other. We make each other better."
Another close friend of Jepson's snagged the 2012 World Championship. Bob Plager of Littleton, Colo., who used prunes and duck grease in his winning recipe, Jepson said.
Competing in chili cook-offs has become a family act for Jepson, whose son is now cooking in the chili verde category. Jepson's two grandkids are on the sidelines, cheering him on and attracting samplers with the magic words: "free chili!"
Other than the title and prize money, Jepson said the most rewarding part of the experience is contributing to the ICS, which donates 100 percent of the profits from each year's World's Championship Chili Cookoff to area charities. Over the last 46 years, they've raised over $91 million, according to Hancock. This year's profits went to a hospice charity.
While the competition is a joy for Jepson and his family, it's not cheap. Case in point: A two-quart pot of chili can cost over $50 because of the tri-tip meat it includes. However, Jepson said it's well worth it.
"To finally have your name called," Jepson smiled, remembering the moment he won. "I was just numb. You're totally numb."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.