THE RETURN OF THE CHILI WRANGLER: Jamie Beletz keeps order at 37th state cook-off

Jamie Beletz -
Jamie Beletz
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There is no beer or good chili in Afghanistan.

At least, there wasn’t for Jamie Beletz.

Almost two years ago, while working as a government contractor in the Middle East, Beletz said he made up his mind to get his hands on both of the things he missed so much as soon as he could.

Today, he is a frequent customer at the Bainbridge Island Brewing Company and a returning official at the state’s 37th annual chili cook-off event Saturday.

Sometimes dreams do come true.

“I was in Afghanistan for a little over a year,” Beletz explained. “I oversaw three of the five largest contracts for the federal government. That’s actually where I first saw the chili cook-off. There were two things I really wanted while I was over there: chili and beer.”

Beletz has been an island resident for just over a year. His wife actually bought their home here while he was still overseas.

He still remembers talking to her via Skype. She would often call him from the Bainbridge Island Brewing Company, an act which he described as “beyond cruel.”

Upon his return to America and his arrival on Bainbridge, Beletz said he began immediately to make up for lost time with his wife, friends — and other loves.

“The first thing I did was go to the brewery,” he laughed.

Then he called Cynthia Stearns.

To Stearns, producer of the annual Washington State Chili cook-off, Beletz offered his services and was quickly named the event’s official Chili Wrangler.

What exactly does that entail?

Apparently, it’s all of the perks with none of the pressure, exactly what he was looking for, Beletz said.

“I coordinate between the head judge and scorekeeper,” he explained. “I maintain the judging area, setting up for each category.”

And, obviously, he tastes a lot of great chili. Unofficially, of course.

“Actually, judge is probably better because you get to eat it all,” he said. “But I get to eat when it’s all over.”

The 37th Washington State Chili Cookoff will take place Saturday, Aug. 16 at Emerald Downs and features competition in three chili categories: red, verde and salsa.

The chili cook-off will be held in conjunction with live horse racing. Stearns said more than 50 venues vied to host the competition.

“We are pleased to have Emerald Downs as our host site this year,” she said. “It’s a unique locale for our state and easily accessible. Plus, we have the exciting atmosphere of thoroughbred racing and a wonderful venue to make this a terrific reason to enjoy both.”

Winners at the state level are advanced to national competition, set to take place in Las Vegas, Nevada in October.

General admission is $7 per person, with tasting kits available for $5.

A percentage of the proceeds go to charity.

This is Beletz’s second year as chili wrangler, a position he says is part official and part promotional.

“This is the biggest event to hit the state of Washington since we adopted ‘Louie, Louie’ as our state rock song in the 1970s,” he said. “Texans are always boasting about the chili they make there, but they also think they are also the largest state in the U.S., and they are wrong about that too. Washington is the center of the chili universe. We just don’t brag as much as they do.”

It is precisely Washington’s location and agriculture that ensures its place as “the center of the chili universe,” according to Beletz.

“You can probably grow all of the ingredients right here in Washington,” he said. “You can get really good local, organic chili and grow or make everything you’d need.”

Going from fan to official was a bit of a change, Beletz admitted, as he began to see how truly serious the competition actually is.

“People will come from all over,” he said. “They really take it seriously. I learned that chili wasn’t just chili.”

However, Beletz said that the experience has not changed his pure, unadulterated love of the food — which he personally prefers as spicy as possible.

“There isn’t any bad chili,” he laughed. “There are some chilis that are far better than others.”

The cook-off is officially sanctioned by the International Chili Society.

Founded in 1967, the ICS is an organization that sanctions nearly 200 chili cook-offs each year that are governed by official rules and regulations as well as a blind judging process. These events are worldwide and benefit charities or non-profit organizations.

The second most winning person as recognized by the ICS, and former Chili Red World Champion, Doug Wilkey is resident of a Shoreline, Washington.

For more information and directions to the venue, visit, or search “Washington State Chili Cookoff” on Facebook.


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