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The Making of "The Secret Life of Chili"

Secret Life of Chili Jim O'Connor, Dr. John and Kerry Lambert
by John Raven, Ph.B.

As many of you are aware, I was featured in a TV program on the Food Network called "The Secret Life of Chili". The program first aired last August and is now in reruns.

My boss lady thought it might make an interesting article for me to tell you about the making of the program.

It all began shortly after the first of the year when I got an email from a TV production company in California wanting to know if I would be interested in taking part in a new series they were putting together for the Food Network called "The Secret Life of ----". My segment would be the secret life of chili. I replied that I was indeed interested, and we exchanged a series of emails arriving at an understanding of what was expected of me and what I could expect from the production company.

My end of the deal was to give the host of the show, Jim O'Conner, hands-on instructions for making a genuine bowl of Texas Red. I also had to come up with a suitable location for filming the program. We ended up using the community room here at the compound where I live for the location. It was plenty large and had a nice kitchen. I told the director that I thought making the location setup like a chili cook-off would work better than trying to get everything into the kitchen. We agreed on that. Date for the filming was set for February 27, which gave me about six weeks to get ready.

The email continued to whiz back and forth. Kerry Lambert, the director of the program, had a lot of questions to ask about chili and related subjects.

Finally the Hollywood crew headed to Texas. I was informed that Kerry and Jim O'Conner would be here a couple of days in advance of the shoot for a planning session. Sure enough, two days before the big day, Kerry and Jim showed up at the door.

Kerry turned out to be a really neat little lady originally from Lubbock, Texas. Jim was a very likeable guy who apparently never meets a stranger. We spent a couple of hours talking about chili and the program. I gave them a quick tour of the proposed location, and everything seemed to be just fine. Kerry and Jim headed back to Austin where they were winding up a show called "The Secret Life of Doughnuts".

I had my work cut out for me: a big shopping trip for all the things needed to produce a fine bowl of chili, plus a few things to make the whole operation run smoother.

The day before the big day I was busy. I had to get everything for the chili ready to go in the pot. I also had to cook a pot of chili so that there would be a finished product even if something went wrong on the set. This project took all day. By sundown, I had all my bases covered.

The big day dawned cool and gray, perfect chili weather. My buddy, Scott, came in to assist with anything that might come up during the day. We hauled everything over to the Community Room and got it all sorted out.

About noon the Gollywood crew arrived. Kerry, Jim, a cameraman, a soundman and a gopher. Kerry would also handle a camera so the action could be seen from two viewpoints.

We planned out the first scene. My microphone kept falling off, so the soundman finally taped it on with duct tape. With the sound check coming in positive and the lights being right for the cameras, we started.

My five minutes of fame in the program was boiled down from a little over four hours of material that was recorded that evening. Jim and I covered everything from the origins of chili to the operation of propane stoves, and a lot of things unrelated to chili or anything else.

It was a great time. Jim had a great sense of humor and a quick wit to make it work. We had to stop several times to get the laughing under control.

Despite all the distractions, Jim and I ended up with a pot of chili. For some reason this pot turned out hotter than fire. I have no clue as to why. The same spices were used in both pots. To solve the problem, I mixed the two pots together and came up with one that was just short of perfect. Everyone had a bowl of red garnished with cheddar cheese and chopped onions. Then the Gollywood crew left, leaving Scott and me with a big mess to clean up.

All in all, it was a fun experience. I'd do it again in a minute. I just wish some of the stuff that went on the cutting room floor had ended up strung together. It was funny.

There was no recipe for the TV chili. A lot of folk have asked for the recipe, so I'm going to put it together as best I can remember it.

John Raven's TV Chili ala "The Secret Life of Chili"

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 3 pounds chuck, all white removed, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 6 dried Ancho chile pods
  • 4 New Mexico Red chile pods
  • 1/2 cup fine dice onion
  • 4 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
  • 2 tablespoons comino (cumin) seed
  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • cayenne (optional)
Inspect the chile pods. If they have dust on them or dust in the wrinkles, wash them under cool water and pat them dry. Remove the stems, seeds and as much connective tissue as you can from inside the pods. Put the pods in a medium hot, dry skillet and press them flat with a spatula. When you can begin to smell them, put the pods in suitable pot and cover with water. Place a saucer or such on top to keep the pods under the water. Bring to a boil, remove from heat and let cool.

Place 2 or 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a heavy skillet and heat just until it smokes. Add about one third of the meat and stir it around until it starts to brown and gives up its water. (You'll know when that happens as a lot of water will suddenly appear in the skillet). Remove the meat to your chili pot with a slotted spoon leaving the juice and water behind. Dispose of the water and do the next one-third. When you have all the meat browned and in the pot, mix in the onion and garlic. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Cover and let set while you prepare the chile paste.

Remove your cooled chile pods from the water, and place them in a strainer over a bowl so they can dry a little. Save the water in the pot. Using a teaspoon or dull knife, scrape the chile pulp from the inside of the chile pods. Save the pulp and discard the tough skins. (The color of the pods is a powerful dye, so if you don't want chili-colored fingers, use gloves for this operation).

Place the comino seeds in a small, medium hot, dry skillet. Stir them around until they begin to give off their aroma. With a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, grind them to a powder. (Lacking grinding equipment you can substitute cumin powder).

Add enough water to the meat in the pot to cover. Add about two-thirds of the chile paste, and the ground comino. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook covered for an hour, stirring occasionally. If the meat needs more water, use water reserved from soaking the chile pods.

Add the tomato sauce, and bring back to low boil. Check for seasoning, adding a bit of cayenne, if desired.

Mix two tablespoons flour in one-half cup of cool water. Mix until all lumps are dissolved. Pour mix into pot, stirring all the while. Let chili come back to boil for about 10 minutes. The mix will thicken and take on a sheen.

It's done!

Serve with fresh, fine chopped onions, grated Cheddar cheese, and tortillas or saltines.

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