When it comes to chili, Charlotte firefighter Jeff Nixon is developing a dynasty.
In the four years that he has entered the Ballantyne Festival chili cook-off, Nixon has won six first place awards – two Johnson & Wales judges’ awards and four people’s choice awards.
He brought home his fourth championship on Oct. 10 in a field of 19 cooks that competed despite a downpour that put a major damper on the festival. Nixon said he packed a 12x12 portable tent in his truck just in case, but the festival set up canopies for the competition.
“If Jeff’s cooking, go find him,” said Phil Bosche, Charlotte Fire Department battalion chief. “That’s not just for chili, it’s for anything he’s cooking. It’s an experience.”
Nixon, who has worked for the Charlotte Fire Department since 2004, has been cooking since he was a young child. His stepfather, Ed Adams, was a chef for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
“Every boy wants to grow up and be like his dad,” Nixon, 48, said. “My dad used to work in restaurants, so I wanted to be like him.”
At 10 years old, Nixon spent summers cooking with his dad, at first cutting tomatoes and lettuce and then taking on more difficult tasks as he grew older. He eventually got a degree in hotel management and culinary arts from Paul Smith’s College in New York and began working in restaurants himself.
He cooked with several renowned chefs in his culinary career, including Paul Cyr, executive chef of Madison Square Garden and The Harbor View Hotel in Martha’s Vineyard; and Willie Weber, former chef for the king of Belgium.
Nixon said he realized that a chef’s hours weren’t conducive to spending time with his family, so he became a police officer and then a firefighter when he moved to Charlotte.
Nixon, who lives in south Charlotte with his young sons Jacob and Cooper, is stationed in Fire Station 39 near the Arboretum. His reputation as a good cook has spread throughout the department, and he frequently is asked to cook when he’s on shift.
Nixon developed his chili recipe more than 20 years ago with a friend, and he continues to tweak it. He doesn’t use beans, and his meat is certified Angus beef tips and 90 percent Angus ground beef.
It has the right combination of spice, the right combinations of flavor and it doesn’t burn your face off.
Phil Bosche, Charlotte Fire Department battalion chief
His secret ingredient is a blend of chili spices called Captain Wetta’s Magic Dust. Nixon was first introduced to it when his friend secretly put some on his sloppy Joe at a firehouse lunch.
“My face lit up, my eyes started watering, my nose was running and my lips were burning,” Nixon said. He refused to let on that his food had been doctored despite the sweat beads rolling down his forehead.
He approached his friend later, who owned up to adding the spices to Nixon’s lunch.
“I said, ‘Can you get me some?’ ” Nixon said. “From that point on, he sent me a jar every year. He never tells me what kinds of chilies he uses.”
Nixon does know that he grows his own chilies and wears a respirator when he makes the powder.
This year, Nixon used 52 pounds of beef bought at Costco and Harris Teeter, which he marinated for 24 hours, in his chili for the Ballantyne Festival. He cooked the chili in a 20-gallon steamer pot over a huge propane burner.
“It has the right combination of spice, the right combinations of flavor and it doesn’t burn your face off,” said Bosche, who is a big fan of Nixon’s chili.
At this year’s Ballantyne Festival chili cook-off, which included entries from Charlotte mayoral candidates Jennifer Roberts and Edwin Peacock, everyone who attended the festival was given a ticket to vote for their favorite chili.
Courtney Lawrence, who oversaw the chili competition, said the word among contestants was the firefighters were the team to beat.
“We get great chili from all of our contestants though so we also knew it was a tough competition,” Lawrence wrote in an email. “(But) because it (Nixon’s chili) had been pretty popular, most folks who had been before wanted to try the chili. I had it and can attest that it was excellent!”
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.