Matt Allen with his trophy, which will be displayed at Station 13 until next year. Chief Landry Merkison holds the plaque that will stay at fire department headquarters. (Staff Photo: Kathy Jefcoats)
RIVERDALE — It’s as much a cliche as finding cops inside a doughnut shop but Clayton County firefighters were excited to compete in the department’s first chili cook-off competition Friday afternoon.
Matt Allen of Station 13 took home the prize after three judges sampled 10 pots of chili. Judges were CNN law enforcement analyst and former fire chief Mike Brooks, Atlanta Eats restaurant reviewer and blogger Mara Davis and this reporter from Clayton News Daily.
Allen, a firefighter for more than five years, said the secret is venison.
“What I think makes it best is venison and bacon grease,” he said, excited to be holding the trophy depicting a bowl of resin chili covered in slivers of plastic cheese. On either side are two firefighter figures aiming water hoses toward the bowl.
Allen killed the deer himself and is skilled in making the gamey meat palatable.
“You fry bacon and cook the venison in that grease,” he said.
It is only the second time Allen has made the chili and he didn’t expect to enter the contest.
“It was a last-minute thing,” he said. “We didn’t have a representative from Station 13 so my lieutenant suggested I do it. I killed a deer and made this chili for the first time last year. I liked it and decided to make it for the cook-off.”
Allen learned how to cook from his parents and grandmother growing up in Monticello. He does some cooking at the station house but says the firefighters eat healthier foods than chili.
Station 3 firefighter Paul LaRocca was runner-up with a sirloin-based chili. His specialties tend to run toward his native Italian.
“He makes a lasagna that is out of this world,” said Deputy Chief Jacque Feilke. “If you ate his lasagna, you’d never eat anyone else’s.”
LaRocca’s chili was unique in that the tomatoes and chilies he used came from his own garden. He comes from an entire family of cooks.
“Every Italian is the cook of the family,” he said. “But I am the fire station cook. I like my grandma’s meatballs but everyone seems to like my chicken parmigiana. I make a good tomato sauce, too.”
LaRocca used a sirloin instead of ground meat because he didn’t want a “greasy” chili. Next year, he said, he will rethink his choice of meat to reflect a more traditional chili.
However, it was tough enough to decide to use beans in his recipe.
“I learned how to make chili during visits to Texas and New Mexico,” said LaRocca. “They don’t use beans. What I make is more in line with the southwestern chili — with the beans.”
Chief Landry Merkison said that, although he was disappointed to lose the cook-off, he was pleased at the response from the department and other county government offices.
Clayton County police Chief Greg Porter, Deputy Chief Gina Hawkins and Commissioner Sonna Singleton showed their support by attending the contest.
“I think it was fabulous that all these people had a great time in fellowship and friendly competition,” said Merkison. “We accomplished what we wanted to do.”
Although the contest date was set last year, it ended a week that saw an uncommon storm of snow and ice. The icy road conditions meant firefighters’ schedules were more grueling than usual. As they waited for the judging to begin at the headquarters on Interstate 85, firefighters took turns throwing a football into truck tires hanging from ropes and playing a bean bag toss.
“This was a great way to wrap up a snowstorm,” said Merkison.