Chili Cookoff Cheater


BBQ competitions are serious business when it comes down to how you play by the rules. This is the nature of the beast down the line when it comes to following these rules. With that being said, each contestant is given a set of rules to follow and the rest is a simple principle. That doesn’t mean that rules can be bent to gain an edge. The real secret to cooking is having a secret in the first place. Other teams will use tactics that aren’t exactly considered illegal and are right up there with ‘shiggin’, which is essentially snooping for secrets.

In the world of chili cook-off competitions there was one case where a respected chili cook got bested. He had a brother who took his ambitions one step too far and it proved what everyone never expected. His brother won first place at a chili cook-off without cooking anything at all! This is the case and point of Don Eastep and the infamous 2003 Terlingua cook-off held in Texas. It seems that Don had two other brothers who were both established chili cooks from Springfield, Illinois.

Since 1976, the eldest brother Les was well-known for entering chili competitions with his brother Larry. Often all three of them would travel to just watch other chili cook-offs in their Springfield chili circle. Les was respected in the chili circuit and held a Grandmaster title as he had won in 11 world championships. In addition to that they would travel across 20 US states to enter these cook-offs. Don was not a chili cook and would often come along to get free Swag and enjoy the event itself.

Don was never a great chili cook but was more outgoing than his other brother. It wasn’t until 2003 that an opportunity to attend the Terlingua chili cook-off came up for the brothers. This event is by invitation only, so these two established grandmaster chili cooks; Les and Larry were chosen to attend. It turned out that Larry had to work, so Don essentially invited himself instead. He even registered himself as his brother Larry just because he wanted to have the Terlingua T-shirt. But there was a big problem, Don wasn’t cooking chili!

What happened next is what set the chili world on fire. Initially, Don was given a cup that’s used to submit his to the judges. But he had no cooking equipment like his brother Les so he hatched a plan to get the t-shirt anyway. He decided to fill the cup with samples from other well-established chili cooks instead. He used his skill of talking and coaxed samples from many award-winning chili Grandmasters. It was enough to fill his cup and gain that Terlingua t-shirt. His brother Les wasn’t amused but couldn’t do anything to stop Don’s pride and ego.

Les was already too busy with his chili to prevent Don from floating around the cooking camp. By the time Don was finished, very few had any idea what would happen when it came time for judging. As it turned out, the cup that Don entered, it won the top prize! Don quickly seized the opportunity to have his shirt and trophy but quickly left the stage after that. It seems that the area where Les was cooking was in a tent compound that was organized by Bob and Cathy Plager.

This is part of the ICS tent compound representing the International Chili Society. There were 5 of the top chili cooks in the country including Bob and Cathy! It was eventually Cathy who became suspicious of Don when he started his shiggin? routine with others in that group. Before Don could get away with his crime Cathy rushed the judging stage to cry afoul. She explained that Don didn’t even cook chili in her tent complex. The organizer of the event Kathleen Tolbert took over this event after father Frank Tolbert passed away in 1984.

He was the huge name that gave birth to the ‘Behind the Store’ chili cook-off in Terlingua. After that it was a matter of approaching Don in the ICS tent to ask him if he cooked or not. He admitted to his crime and a new winner could then be announced. Even though Don had not only cheated but he proved a vital point. The best chili that other cooks took pride in making, wasn’t just one kind, but a mixture of everyone else’s! It was not only a shock that it could have happened at such a prestigious chili cook-off but audacious too.

Don was banned from the State of Texas and his brother Les suffered a worse fate. He was shamed by his brother for mocking the ICS group and the integrity that was broken. Les had then lost the respect from the ICS and the Terlingua supporters. There was a silver lining to this story as it turns-out. Don was eventually invited back to Terlingua for a very special cook-off request just two years later. It was a staged exhibition to patch-up broken ties with the society and the rightful chili winner Ted Hume.

They even played-it-up including a mock-pardon from the ex-governor of Texas, Rick Perry to allow Don to re-enter their state. It was great promotion for the Terlingua cook-off and returned pride to the ICS cooks. They could give Don a widely-publicized public trial for his devious chili plot and soothe old wounds that were hurt. Ted Hume who lost the glory of winning on stage in 2003 could regain his pride in 2005. He won the cook-off with Don and both of them could laugh about the incident after that.

To this day Les and Larry have won several competition chili cook-offs but have never been invited back to Terlingua. It’s been a lesson that has been hard for them because of Don’s actions. But also is a shameful reminder that Les could have prevented Don from doing what he did. Nonetheless, they are family, and they all cooked chili at many competitions around the country since then. Don finally passed away in 2012 from a car crash in the Ozarks. He was returning from all things- a chili cook-off where he was cooking his chili recipe.

And you know, I kind of think that Don’s shenanigans were just the sort that Tolbert and Shelby and the rest of the founders would have appreciated, so when Don died a few years ago, driving home from a cook-off, I like to think he was warmly welcomed with a wink and a grin to that one big cook-off in the sky.

How cheating may not be so bad

While Don Eastep is an infamous legend that echoes around the chili circuit, some chili cooks have food for thought. The idea that several chili recipes mixed was enough to win the grand prize does have merit. The blend of top chili flavors that all come together can stimulate taste buds more than a single recipe alone. This is one additional story that I’d like to share how I learned to make chili from my Dad’s recipe. He worked hard as an electrician for the port authority of San Francisco.

Many union events brought-out the electrical Longshoreman who worked along the bay docks. One event was for the Local 6 IBEW that had a chili cook-off scheduled. My Dad was always running late for these events and had no time to cook. He went to the store, grabbing only a few essential chili items before he took his chili to the contest. He grabbed a pound of ground beef and a chopped-up a big onion to go into the pot first. When this was almost brown he added chopped and stewed tomatoes from a can.

His next move was unexpected since he had no time to cook beans, so he took a desperate measure. He added 2 cans of every chili bean brand off-the-shelf! There were 4 or 5 brands of every kind of chili he could find. Thick and spicy, big and small beans, extra saucy and sweet, it was a total mess! But what happened over the next 2 hours stewing, that chili was giving all these flavors time to mix. It took first place in the contest and people were asking for the recipe. When my Dad told them what he did, they laughed it off instead.

I guess they were thinking he was joking because he always had told them jokes throughout the day. I used to hear this story all the time from his

friends how he made the best chili ever. They thought he must be guarding his secret ingredient with such a lame-sounding excuse. The truth was a bit too simple for most people to take seriously. But it proves that just like Don Eastep, the combination of every flavor was enough to fool the senses. How an entire contest could be won with off-the-shelf chili sounds insane!

Perhaps it was the fresher ingredients like the ground beef and fresh onion that hid that preservative flavors? Or was it the stewed tomatoes that added a near-fresh aroma that gave the chili new life? Nobody knows for sure until I recreated the recipe myself. I wouldn’t have believed it could be possible but it was perhaps the best chili I’ve ever tasted. Not one that I would try entering into a competition but definitely for close friends. And who would guess that one good story can also bring-out an award-winning chili too?

Are there any other chili Traitors?

Not exactly a traitor but closer to a trader as one anchorwoman Maggie Vespa of KGW8 entered her chili cook-off entry. Just last year in 2019, Maggie was about to enter the annual KGW News chili cook-off at her office. She was pressed for time and ran-off to Trader Joe’s and grabbed all the canned chili they sold. It was another mixture that proved to be a huge hit and she was crowned the winner. Her colleagues begged for the recipe which she admitted the secret via a Twitter comment that fueled an uproar!

It boiled down to one of her co-workers who made his chili with only fresh ingredients. His chili however was the least liked and he vowed to drag Maggie through the mud. But as luck would have-it her real secret was letting it simmer in a crockpot for hours. The support that she received with online tweets was enough to defend her title. It became known as hacker chili, and to this day the exact kinds of canned chili she bought are unknown! Even her co-worker had to face the shame of bad-mouthing her online.

It seems nobody wanted to eat his turkey chili or hear about his complaints that Maggie’s chili was better. Not exactly competition rules by far though it goes to show you how social media gave her support. Just for being honest about her surprise win and how people’s perception online came to her rescue. You would never see this at an official ICS cook-off or official chili competition event. Or would you? Has there been another case or chili trickery?

The odd case of the Terlingua groups

Two camps hold chili competitions in Terlingua every year and have been at each other’s throats for years. The first is the CASI group known better as the Chili Appreciation Society International. The other is billed as the Original Terlingua International Frank X. Tolbert- Wick Fowler Championship Chili Cook-off. The folks over at CASI have very strict rules that inspect meat that is used before any competition can start. The Frank Tolbert ‘Behind The Store’ competition has a different set of relaxed rules.

This is how Don Eastep managed to enter this cook-off without being caught. Despite the presence of ICS (International Chili Society) sponsoring this event, the rules simply weren’t followed as you would expect. But since this event is by invitation only, only the best top-title grandmasters are allowed to attend. They are trusted to follow the rules since their previous wins proved they stick to them. The CASI group is fierce at the competition and includes checking from the start to finish, preventing any cheating from happening.

Frank Tolbert created his Woodstock-like chili cook-off with more attention to entertainment and exclusivity. It’s a rivalry that has caused a lot of ruffled feathers with chili grandmasters over time. But without a doubt the Behind The Store event does know how to attract lots of press as a result. We may never see a chili cheater like Don Eastep happen by accident again for this reason. At least that is until somebody happens to be caught cheating or admits that they cheated to win?

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