Chilly outside, but inside Westport Chilifest was hot

It was snowing hard Saturday afternoon, branches were coming down all over and power was flickering out around the area as a freak Halloween nor'easter buffeted Westport and the rest of the region.

But at the Unitarian Church, folks were warm and dry and having a hot time sampling chili concoctions. It was the first Chilifest, a spin off from the annual Chowderfest at the church. Proceeds from that event have helped to purchase 30,000 meals for the Connecticut Food Bank, according to Chilifest organizer Jim Keenan.

"We started Chowderfest when the economy was really bad, and invited restaurants to participate," Keenan said. "We wanted it to be a win-win situation for us and the local economy. They began to ask about entering chili in the fest, but it didn't mix -- chowder and chili are really two different palettes. So we created Chilifest to address that desire."

The concept of Chilifest is simple: Pay a fee to participate, receive a spoon and a ballot, sample all the chili and vote on your favorites. Two categories were offered: Classic and Creative. "A classic chili is traditional meat and bean-based," said Keenan. "The creative is white, red, meatless, seafood, anything else."

Ten restaurants were represented: Ash Creek Saloon, Bobby Q's, Brewhouse, Chili Bomb, Da Pietros, Nicholas Roberts Gourmet Bistro, Old Post Tavern, Restaurant at Rowayton, Swanky Franks and Lime Restaurant. The restaurant getting the most votes in each area gets the trophy.

Ironically, Keenan said he is not a big fan of chili. "The restaurants really wanted to do it," he said. "And when the weather gets chilly, people want chili. I've become a fan because of the fest and get a kick out of people enjoying it so much. They all have their own theories on how to try it -- reds first, beans first. And it's funny to see what the restaurants have added as sides and what they've named their concoctions."

Indeed, there was Ash Creek's Ash Kicking Chili, a traditional recipe with a sweet taste. Brewhouse's Dat'l Do It 3-Bean Chili, with a dash of BBQ sauce in it. Swanky Frank's five-alarm, Hot Dog! That's Good Chili. Old Post Tavern's Fire in the Hole Chili, with just the right amount of heat.

Amid the buzz, chatter and musical backdrop, Kim Saab and Steve Ferrara had found a little oasis to enjoy Chili Bomb's Texas Peacemaker. Ferrara said, "We're trying to hit them all. Our favorite so far is this one. As chili goes, I don't make it, but I eat it and really enjoy it." Saab added, "It's a fun way to spend a snowy Saturday."

Serey Carlton, from Stamford, with her husband Chris was sampling Nicholas Roberts' Texas Chain Gang Chili. Boldly, she declared, "I dig chili." Like Ferrara, she doesn't make it herself, but enjoys it, adding, "I cook with a lot of spices. We did the Chowderfest last year and enjoyed that, so decided to come to Chilifest. It's a good way to experience the various restaurants."

What was Serey's favorite? Bobby Q's Smokehouse Chili, which featured little cubes of smoked beef brisket.

You could say she's a good judge of chili since that restaurant took the title in the Classic category, narrowly edging Brewhouse.

In the Creative category, it was the Restaurant at Rowayton's Sumptuous Seafood Chili, which featured shrimp, beans and other ingredients that made it a standout

Chilly days call for chili and Chilifest answered the call.