Randall Van Dyke eats fire for breakfast.
Forgoing the typical eggs and bacon, Van Dyke, Virginia Tech’s executive chef, dips his silver spoon into a bowl of freshly made chili; he tastes for flavor and checks for heat.
Van Dyke, as well as the other chefs from D2 at Dietrick Hall, are testing out their latest creations for the dining hall’s 22nd Annual Chili Challenge. The competition, which began Monday and ends Thursday, requires participants to finish an entire bowl of chili each day for lunch to win a T-shirt. Each day of this spicy challenge, the chili becomes progressively hotter.
“Bright and early in the morning, our breakfast order starts out with hot, spicy chili,” Van Dyke said. “And of course everyone gets so exciting and involved in that. They get to sit there and go ‘Mmm no, that’s not hot enough. (They) add a little more and add a little more, and eventually it gets to the point where you see a lot of faces turning red and sweat beating off their faces. Then they know they’ve got it right.”
To make the chili hotter each day, the chefs select from an array of peppers, allowing it to accumulate more burn and spice. D2 encourages participants to learn more about the chili-making process by allowing them to taste firsthand the effect of each pepper, and by providing additional information.
“Our goal is the same every year: To show (the participants) how each pepper can graduate (the heat),” said Kelvin Bergsten, assistant director of D2.
In the dining hall, every pepper is presented on tables. This includes anything from the bright green jalapeño peppers to the vibrant red habanero peppers. Participants can view information about each pepper from this. They also have the opportunity to see the Scoville scale, which is a measurement used to gauge the heat of chili peppers and hot sauces.
Learning is a key goal in the challenge. Not only does the staff want to expand the students’ knowledge of chili, but also to also open their minds to something new — an important component to the college experience.
“We improve or do new twists on it each year to increase the curiosity or the knowledge factor for the students,” said Ted Faulkner, director of Dining Services.
Achieving this, as well as providing positive feelings towards the event, motivates the serving staff to try their hardest in creating a delicious meal.
Van Dyke could easily skip past the spicy-but-not-harmful peppers, and instead incorporate more painful ghost peppers or even pure capsaicin as some chili-eating competitions across the world do. While this would certainly heighten the competition factor, the serving staff wants more than to simply challenge the participants.
“Sometimes people do a Chili Challenge and it hits them on their lips, and at that point you’re like, "This is too hot,’” Van Dyke said. “But we don’t like that with ours.”
For him, the added challenge of making chili is that the combination of heat and flavor are equally essential.
“The key factor to our chili is that first initial bite; you taste all the flavors and goodness of it and then on the back end it hits you,” he said.