For USU Medical Students, a Spicy Chili Cookoff Helps Break the Ice

Uniformed Services University Enlisted Social Committee hosts a chili cook-off event to build community

Medical student Navy Ensign Elisabeth Kaza samples chili at the Enlisted Social Committee cook-off event, which drew a large crowd of volunteer judges to the competition. (Photo credit: Ian Neligh, USU)
Medical student Navy Ensign Elisabeth Kaza samples chili at the Enlisted Social Committee cook-off event,
which drew a large crowd of volunteer judges to the competition. (Photo credit: Ian Neligh, USU)

March 14th 2023 By Ian Neligh

Ground beef, brisket, bacon, jalapeƱo, habanero peppers - and just a dash of the hottest pepper in the world courtesy of the notorious Carolina Reaper - immediately caught the attention of a group of Uniformed Services University (USU) medical school students sampling it.

“It’s got a very pleasant kick to it,” said Navy Ensign Jesse Walter as he tried the chili. “I love the tomato chunks and beans… I like how it’s very simple but you could dress it up if you wanted to with more toppings.”

Navy Ensign Elisabeth Kaza nodded in agreement and joked, “I don’t have anything as eloquent to say — but it is very yummy.”

The Uniformed Services Enlisted Social Committee hosted a chili cook-off event at the USU student lounge on March 2 to help shake off the winter blues and build community.

 “This is our kickoff event for the Enlisted Social Committee for 2023,” said one of the event’s coordinators, Navy Hospital Corpsman First Class Ashley Person. “We’re trying to ramp up for a successful, happy year by increasing morale with a chili cook off — and build a little competition and togetherness in a small space.”

Coincidentally, while consuming chili peppers, and their spicy capsaicin, the body releases mood-boosting, pain-relieving endorphins — not a terrible choice for students on the go between classes.

Called the “Chil-ly Cook-Off,” the event drew students, staff, and faculty to the university’s student lounge to act as judges where four different chili recipes were taste-tested and judged on their many merits.

Army Col. (Dr.) Robert O'Connell hands out bowls of his popular chili recipe during a cook-off event at the USU student lounge on March 2. The competition was hosted by the Uniformed Services Enlisted Social Committee. (Photo credit: Ian Neligh, USU)
Army Col. (Dr.) Robert O'Connell hands out bowls of his popular chili recipe during a cook-off event at the USU
student lounge on March 2. The competition was hosted by the Uniformed Services Enlisted Social Committee.
(Photo credit: Ian Neligh, USU)

Alison Beall, an administrative assistant in the university’s Military Personnel Office, won the competition’s first place with her spicy Carolina Reaper creation.

“The bottle says on the Scoville rating it’s 750,000 — so I only put a few dashes in there so it wouldn’t hurt anybody’s esophagus,” Beall said, adding she was at the contest representing her  department’s team called the “Keyboard Killers.”

“We were excited to be involved in goings on around the university — especially since we do customer service for all the students, staff, and faculty here,” Beall said.

To Beall’s left stood graduate neuroscience student Lauren Haacke and her father Dan Haacke with their family’s long-heralded white chicken chili recipe. While their recipe won second place, it’s clear it’s long been number one in her family.

“It’s my dad’s recipe and I learned it from him,” Lauren Haacke said. “We’ve always made white chicken chili. This is one of the top three foods that my family makes.”

Brian Haynes who works for the university’s facilities department took third place with his award-winning chili recipe.

“It’s a white chicken chili that I found out about a year and a half ago…,” said Haynes. “I’m still working on it, trying to perfect it.” 

Army Col. Robert O’Connell, director of the Infectious Disease Clinical Research Program at USU stood on the far end of the table providing bowls of his smoked brisket chili recipe. 

“I saw this as a great opportunity to get to know a bunch of people that I don’t necessarily get to interact with on a regular basis,” O’Connel said, as an enthusiastic line of judges formed at his table.  

Based on the size of the crowd that gathered in the university’s student lounge it was clear from the beginning of the event that the judges were going to be the real winners in this contest.