24 January, 2007

A Columbus Chili Champion: Interview with John Novak

John Novak won the annual chili cook-off put on by Huffman’s Market held October 8th 2006, at Fancyburg Park in Columbus. Saucisson MAC caught up with him a couple of days ago.

MAC: So tell me about this chili contest you got into…congratulations by the way. You were like the big winner there right?

JN: Yeah actually (cough) I won the best overall recipe and the popular vote

MAC: Wow so this was like a thousand –two thousand people?

JN: I don’t know, it’s hard to say .. I wouldn’t say that many, there was maybe few hundred

MAC: A few hundred?

JN: two to three hundred tops..

MAC: wow…

JN: I know, it’s hard to say, they were coming and going, it was in this pavilion at the park.

MAC: Fancyburg park.

JN: Yeah, yeah.

MAC: So you are saying it was more than sixty, though.


Definitely more than sixty.

I would say like a hundred maybe.

Wow, so that’s less than a thousand but more than sixty…



And unfortunately the celebrity judges were not quite big celebrities…

Well is Jimmy Crum still alive?

I wish (As far as Google search can tell, Mr. Crum is still alive and well. Ed.), I was hoping for him, and that- uh- who was that clown….

Flippo – Flippo the Clown

Oh yeah, of course, Flippo…and

Well how about Bobby Rahal was he there?

No…no…I was hoping for him or either Jack Hanna….

Jack Hanna…oh yeah, Jungle Jack, Does he even live in Columbus any more?

Probably not, he probably lives in New York or somethin….

So who where the celebrity judges?

It was the Upper Arlington Fire Chief and…

Oh right, in case the chili was too hot….

Yeah (Chuckle),

You know, if it was too hot, he could put out the fire, or something?

Yeah, and then there was the -uh Upper Arlington Secretary of Commerce.

Oh uh-huh (takes sip of scotch)

Then there some third guy, I don’t know who he was…He said he was a judge…

But they were all definitely trained in the culinary arts…

Well I figure the fire chief, was probably, you know firemen they are always in the kitchen making chili and shit like that…

Like spaghetti…

Can I say shit?

Its okay, we can edit it out later.


So how did you come up with the chili, I mean as much as you can divulge…

Oh yeah I wont give away big secrets….um well I guess it all comes down to my dad is from Texas and so he was always making and experimenting with the classic Texas beef chili…It started out my mom would make it and it was a very bland Texas chili; it was basically tomato sauce with one tablespoon of chili powder.


And then for some reason we would put rice in it.

Rice in Texas chili?

Well I don’t know, this was before tortilla chips made it to Columbus.


So when my Dad retired he started experimenting more with variations of it, every time I would come to visit he would give me a gallon to take home and most of the time if was so-so, but I remember one time …-he always made it, so I was kind of sick of it- I dumped it into a dumpster behind my apartment building. I was so sick of it…This was in college…Then I after I moved away from home (He moved to NYC. Ed.), I started making the classic Texas red chili, and then when I started dating Liz, she got all excited about it (The chili, that is. Ed.) and she got me a book by Jane and Michael Stern, called Chili Nation, which has chili recipes from each state in the Union, and so I started making a lot of those, and then branching out from them, and experimenting by myself and I found that I really like pork shoulder in the chili. So I took that, and I worked with the recipe from New Mexico which is all green chilies and I found I liked the combo of all the green chilies, a bunch tomatillos, a lot of garlic, onion and the pork shoulder, and I would serve is with the Mexican crema. Then Liz, for the contest, came up with the name “Novak’s Cream of the Crop Green Chili.” She suggested blending in the crema before hand and so it became a creamy, creamy green chili…

Yeah right, that’s how S likes her stuff too, anything, anything, she goes 'okay we’re having soup', or 'okay we’re having chili,' or 'okay we’re having …'whatever, just stir in the sour cream.


MAC: Don’t even, you know…no muss no fuss, just stir it in.

JN: Does it have to be sour cream or…

Well usually it's sour cream, but crema whatever, bring it on…so that was Liz’s idea.

Yeah, she wanted to keep things simple, plus the name, it was perfect, Cream of the Crop, and…

Yeah, that is good. And it also has your name in it too, that’s really helpful.

Yeah exactly.

That’s all a part of the presentation really.

Yeah, Yeah. Ours was really the only non-traditional (not red) entry, I would have like to have seen a little more variety, but it was fine.

How many entries where there?


Okay so there were six entries,

Yeah (Laughs)

There was between sixty and a thousand people there….

Yeah (Laughing)

You know when you laugh, you sound just like Jorge.


Yeah, If I picked up the phone and heard you laughing I wouldn’t be able to tell if it was you or Jorge…

Oh that’s disturbing.

(long conversation about Jorge)

So you are getting settled in your new house and your new life, in Columbus, who does most of the cooking?

Actually I have been doing more and more of the cooking, It has kinda worked out where she does the baking and I have become more of the cook.

So what do you like to cook? What is in you repertoire?

Oh I don’t know, I like to do things out of the Cook’s Illustrated, magazines…

Okay, I am holding the September/October 2003 issue of Cook’s

Oh, okay.

Can you tell me what was the top three recipes.

Roast beef, creamed corn and skillet green beans.

Close, close, but no. Beef and Broccoli is the recipe I do out of this issue. I made it tonight. Real good, you should make it, even the kids will eat it. Well one of them will… if I force him. But what else what else do you like to work on?

I have been working on “Chilies” from other countries. You know like Indian Curry, I just made that for the first time. Liz said it was pretty good. Let’s see…then I did a Chicken Parprikash, which is sort of an Eastern European Chili….

So you are just crazy about Chili huh?….

Well recently, I been on the Chili high, ever since the victory…

Right. So have you been getting a lot of press since…

You’re practically the only person who has acknowledged it, aside from Jorge’s family…

(another conversation about Jorge)

So let’s talk a little more about the competition, there were a few people on your team.

Yeah, Manish Anand and Susan Ghanbarpour.

And what were their contributions?

Well, they’re friends from New York and they just happened to be here that weekend. By a strange coincidence they happen to be two of my biggest chili fans. I think they’re half the reason that I have kept experimenting with chili, especially Manish, I mean he just, what is the word, he rhapsodizes about it. He’s nuts about the chili. I put them on the team so that they could get aprons.

So they were the cheerleading squad.

Yeah essentially.

Was there any moments, any clutch moments, when you were like uh-oh something is going wrong…

There was one worrisome point towards the end of the competition when the chili was getting really low and Manish was worried that he was not going to get another bowl. Most of the day it was pretty slow then in the last five minutes everyone came to try the chili. I was worried that I might run out before the judges got some.

But it all turned out okay.


You won Best Over All Recipe ribbon from the Judges and you won the People’s Choice Award.


So it’s a good recipe. Because I was thinking you know, Super Bowl is coming up and there is going to be a lot of people getting on their search engines saying I want a good chili recipe.

Oh Yeah.

I’m going to put the title of the article “Super bowl Chili.”

Oh nice.

It should be bangin’. On my blog I usually get maybe sixteen hits in a week, now, probably get ten thousand.


You know people have their Super bowl Parties, People are like, you know, “I don’t know what I want to cook,” you know, chili. They are going to type in “Super bowl Chili,” and whose recipe is going to come up? Whose recipe is going to be transmitted across the United States and across the world, because the Super Bowl is a world event. did you know that?

Uh yeah, I guess I didn’t believe the hype…

Do you follow football?

Of all sports I probably understand football the best.

Well you watch the Buckeyes…

Of course, and you got the Bears. Hey, they’re going to be in the Super bowl. Are you going to watch the game, or are you just going to cook chili?

I might go to Wisconsin. It’s a real toss up.


MAC: But seriously, you have been experimenting with Chili recipes for a long time. And you really did win this competition, so you’ve got to be doing something right, what are the important elements, for you, in the Chili?

JN: One thing I would like encourage people to use more whole chili peppers, fresh peppers, chili purees. I think people are too reliant on just chili powder. When you start using the whole chilies that’s when you start getting the flavor. That’s my one serious note.

Your recipe calls for chili powder what kind of…

In this recipe the chili powder isn’t as important as… I mean that’s my point…what’s really important are the green chilies, the poblanos…

But what’s you favorite Chili Powder?

Okay, Penzey’s Medium Hot. That’s a good one.

How about beer? What kinda of beer do you drink?

Lately it has been Shiner Bock, a beer from Texas and I also like Two Hearted-Ale.

Made by Bell’s in Michigan. Yeah at one time in my life I made it my mission to drink all the Amber Ale I could find….


JN: Are you talking to me?

MAC: Huh? Yeah. So do ever use beer in your recipes? S swears by it and I have to admit she makes a pretty good chili.

Oh yeah, there’s a few recipes I do, not this one, I mean you can I guess, but there’s one I do a lot where I deglaze with beer…

Yeah I think Emeril does that…


But uh anyway a beer to go with chili…

You know a lager or something not to heavy….

Okay, let’s talk sausage. I don’t think I am compromising my journalistic integrity by revealing I have known you for quite some time..

Yeah, Liz remembers fondly the giant kielbasa you brought to my birthday party.

Isn’t that sweet.

That was good kielbasa…

A little bit of love from Greenpoint. But like I was saying, I have known you for a long time, we have been in several films together, you are an accomplished painter, and a musician. I want to ask you about a song you wrote many years ago about sausage.

Oh yeah.

What’s the story about that? Did Jorge call you up one day and just say “John can you write me a song about Chorizo?” Or what? Do you remember?

That’s actually stems from my tenure at the Starliner Diner in Hilliard. I worked there for about a year before I moved to New York.

Yeah, I have been there, really- really good food.

I worked there as a server, and there was a cook there named Fila(sp?). He would walk around saying crazy shit and like singing little weird songs and one time, I swear, it may have not been the exact melody, but I heard him singing softly to himself, “Chorizo, chorizo, chorizo..” and so a little while after that I was sitting in an apartment in New York, you know just bored, and I was strumming a guitar and I kinda of adapted it into a song. Then a year later and Jorge tells me he has used it in one of his screenplays….

Pancho’s Revenge, you were great in that film. Can you sing a few bars for us now?

Ok…. “Oh, Chorizo, oh chorizo- chorizo, Chorizo, chorizo-o, chorizo, chorizo, chorizo”…you can use that as a lullaby for your kids.

That would be great, I remember in the film when you say “Here’s the sad part”…

Yeah, I went into the minor key and… “Chorizo…”

Yeah it was so weak and wilting like you are reaching for that last piece of sausage as you melt away into this huge lush valley deep in the Andes….Hoo…powerful stuff. I’m starting to get misty…

I was amazed that the song structure was strong enough that I was able to turn it into three versions in the film: There was the classic version, then a melancholy one in the middle, then the triumphant version at the end. I still can’t believe…

I just remember the melancholy chorizo.



So this competition you won, what was the prize?

I got a gift card to Huffman’s and a gift basket made up by Mrs. Huffman.

They are the folks who put on the competition.

Yeah, it’s a great little grocery store, I get my pork shoulder there, they carry a lot those nice small label items and they prepare a lot of thing in house, Mrs. Huffman makes these amazing chicken pot pies…

Oh yeah?

They are like the size of a child’s head….

A child’s head?

Yeah a child’s head…

But it’s chicken….

Yeah- yeah. They also make their own buckeyes, they have Amish baked goods and stuff like that….

That sounds real nice.


JN: Are you still recording?

MAC: Yeah, I got a tape deck plugged into a phone jack in the other room

Okay well I don’t want to hear this recording, somewhere down the line, mashed up with a Gorillaz tune or something…

Yeah, hey, did you like the theme song to my cooking show?

Yeah, what was that?

It was a mash-up called “Flaming Mary Can (Out) Run Prince” (after hitting hyperlink, scroll down to number 7. Ed.)


Yeah, I think that song really rocks, once it gets going. I imagine the opening being that song set to a montage of driving shots from the South side…

Right on….

You know it really rocks hard, but it has an uplifting theme.

I imagine your cooking show being a cross between Anthony Bourdain and Chris Kimball.

Yeah could be that….

With a hint of the Love Boat…I really think people should find should find love on your show.

What more could anyone wish for?

Next time you in CMH, I’ll fix you some chili.

Thanks, Cheers.

Link to Novak's Cream of the Crop Recipe here

1 comment:

E said...

Great interview. But why on earth would Jungle Jack live in NYC? He doesn't do Regis & Kelly that often, does he?