Rotary Club's Chili Cook Off Event Brings in Thousands

By Maddie Cutler Ι Daily Sun Senior Writer Ι February 6, 2023

Neil Camhi and Lee Green showed up to The Rotary Club of The Villages’s Chili Cook Off, Craft Beer Fest and Home and Garden Show well prepared.

“We had friends give us a heads-up,” Green said.

The two carried muffin tins with 12 spaces perfectly sized for sample cups of chili. They used the tray to savor the samples and judge their favorites.

“It works great,” Green said.

Camhi and Green were two of thousands of people at the event Saturday at Lake Sumter Landing Market Square, and Rotary members were thrilled by the large turnout. Rotary member Wendy Weaver, of the Village Hacienda, said crowds waiting to purchase wristbands for the chili tasting and beer vendors were nonstop.

The Lake Sumter Children’s Advocacy Center took home first place in the chili competition while Jacobs, a wastewater treatment business, came in second place and Citizens First Bank took third.

Event coordinator Stephanie Fernung said the event is the largest fundraiser the Rotary Club has each year.

“Thanks to some sponsorships before we even had ticket sales, the funds were in the tens of thousands,” Fernung said. “And based off of foot traffic and crowd size, this could easily be the biggest event we’ve done.”

Weaver said it will take a few days to total the funds raised at the event Saturday, but she estimated the club was at the $25,000 mark or more.

One of the event’s big draws this year was the Craft Beer Fest.

“This is the first year we’ve had this many beer vendors,” she said. “Last time, we had five or six, and this year there are 21. It’s been a huge hit with people.”

Florida breweries, including Bully Brewing, Hiatus Brewing Company, The Sunny Pint and Cigar City Brewing, each had several beers or ciders for people to enjoy.

But the biggest hit of the day was the chili tasting as dozens of teams cooked and served chili for a chance to win trophies and bragging rights.

Camhi, of the Village of Bridgeport at Creekside Landing, said one chili that caught his attention was The Villages Golf Cars’s bloody mary-themed chili, while Green was partial to Citizens First Bank’s chili.

“It is a perfect balance of flavor,” said Green, of the Village of Bradford. “It’s spicy, it’s savory and has everything I need in a chili.”

For Craig Pereira, the chili cook off is all about the fun he has with friends.

“For me, getting to see people having fun with each other and competing against each other — that’s what I like,” he said.

The Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1036 tent was stationed next to the Col. Phillip C. DeLong Marine Corps League Detachment 1267 tent, and Pereira said they went back and forth all day seeing who had longer lines.

Ron Perich, of the Village of Hadley, was the unofficial chili cook off leader for the Marine Corps League.

As for their recipe, Perich said everyone has their own secret ingredients, but the club tested multiple recipes before settling on the one they brought to the event.

“For about 10 years, we used the recipe of a member — a fellow Marine,” Perich said. “When he passed away we decided to test out a new recipe.”

Perich said the club had an internal cook off where members made their own chilis and did a blind taste test.

“The chili that got the most votes during that tasting is the recipe we used for the Rotary cook off,” Perich said.

As it turned out, the Marine Corps League’s winning recipe was Perich’s. “It’s not even about winning for the chili today,” he said. “I’m just glad we can be here today to represent ourselves and show the public ways we support the community.”

YOUR Humane Society SPCA made 15 gallons of chili for their first time at the Rotary cook off Saturday.

Humane Society director Cheryl Courtright said their tent was doing double duty.

“We’ve got our chili and we’re feeding everyone, but we also have photos of all our adoptable animals at the shelter,” Courtright said. “So we’re helping the people get fed and helping the animals find homes.”