Mark Hurt is an agricultural gardener and champion chili cook.
Photo by Bill Wiegand
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While repairing equipment in a Taylorville, Ill., restaurant one day in 1979, Mark Hurt spied a flier soliciting cooks for a local chili cook-off and thought,”‘I can do that.” Countless competitions later, Hurt is the reigning champion in the International Chili Society’s (ICS) chili verde division for the state of Illinois and for western Kentucky. This October, Hurt and his wife, Linda, who also is an award-winning chili cook, will be among the contestants competing for the $25,000 grand prize in the ICS World Championship Chili Cook-off in Reno, Nev. An agricultural gardener in the department of crop sciences, Hurt has worked for the UI for 17 years.
Tell me about what you do in your job.
It varies according to the time of year. The first of the year, we decide what seeds we need to get and make requests to the companies. They’re always really good about donating seeds that we need for our projects. I start the seed in the greenhouses, and it goes from there to the fields. We also have a 3-acre orchard with 300 trees that we maintain. Peppers, tomatoes and vegetables like that we usually start in March for field planting in May. Then we have to maintain it by spraying all the treatments for all the different experiments that we do.
What is the focus of the research you’re involved in?
Basically everything right now is fungicide research toward phytophthora. Mainly we’re working with peppers. We have a project in Shawneetown, in the southern part of the state, in an area where they have a lot of problems with phytophthora, and it wipes out entire fields of different vegetables. We’re looking for fungicides that will help control it and resistant varieties of plants that look promising.
What’s your favorite part of what you do?
Growing all the plants. I’ve always had a big garden. With all the peppers and vegetables, it kind of entwines with my chili-cooking hobby.
I wanted to work at the university and with plants because gardening was a family activity I was involved in all my life. I took all the tests for jobs with high turnover and the agricultural gardener was the last test I took, but actually the job I really wanted.
Tell me about the chili cook-offs you compete in.
I’ve been competing about 24 years. I belong to the International Chili Society, but it’s only had a chili verde category for about three years. I’m sponsored by the Illinois Pork Producers. My wife started cooking about two years ago, and she recently qualified for the world cook-off by winning the Sangamon County fair cook-off. I told her not to come home without a trophy, and she came home with two. Her recipe is entirely different from mine.
We’re usually allowed three hours of cooking time and one hour of prep time. Everything has to be cooked on site. Contestants have to bring all their own ingredients. We bring our own stove, and I actually built a booth that accommodates both of us while we cook. It has an area for two people to cook and a higher countertop for chopping and preparing. You turn in a quart cup of your chili to the judges and then hand out the rest free to the crowd.
How do you qualify for the world cook-off?
You have to win either a state cook-off, a regional cook-off or two district cook-offs to qualify. Last year was my first year qualifying for the world cook-off, although I’ve won a lot of competitions over the years.
My wife and I pretty much just cook in world-qualifying competitions because it’s not a hobby that you can make a lot of money at running to competitions all over the country. We travel about a five-state radius. We could cook chili every weekend if we wanted to but then it wouldn’t be a hobby and it wouldn’t be fun.
What’s the secret to a good chili?
Fresh ingredients and the order that you cook them in. I make better chili later in the year when I can use my own fresh peppers instead of buying them.
I grow all my own chilis and grind my own powders. I’ve had as many as 41 varieties of chili peppers and as many as 5,000 plants in my garden, but I don’t do that anymore; I learned my lesson. Right now, I grow about eight varieties of peppers and just a couple varieties of tomato plants. We make dried peppers, and we roast them and freeze them.
Most of the pepper varieties I grow now – like my green chilis that I use in my cooking – I can’t buy the plants locally, so I buy seed from New Mexico.