Mike LaFever doesn't hide his secret chili ingredient.
In fact, he's pretty open about it, but it's just not something most people associate with chili.
The Fenton resident won the peoples choice award with his Sweet 'n' Sassy Chestnut Chili at Sunday's 17th Annual Chili Cook Off at Page's Food & Spirits in Farmington.
"The chestnuts bring the sweet and the chili peppers bring a little heat," LaFever said.
Although LaFever has been using the chili recipe for awhile, it was the first time he's entered competition. He admits he felt a little nervous, but was happy to come out with the people's choice award.
"There was more people than judges," he said. "If people like it, they are going to be the ones that buy it."
LaFever plans to sell his chili in the future. He farms chestnuts in Tyrone Township and has 350 chestnut trees on 70 acres. LaFever said his father always had a blueberry patch, but then he heard from an agriculture expert that chestnuts were an up and coming crop, so he gave it a try and started planting trees. Last year LaFever harvested 5,000 pound of chestnuts. He said 60 percent of his business is U-Pick, but he is also part of a co-op that supplies chestnuts to Whole Foods, Trader Joes and Hiller's.
He said people can make stuffing or desert out of chestnuts, or roast them on their own. LaFever said he makes a pretty good chestnut butternut squash soup that includes apples and onions.
"You can make almost anything with them," he said.
The winner of the competition was Southgate resident Mark Rockwell, who said he named his entry "Occupy Chili", because "one percent of chili chefs make 99 percent of the chili worth eating." His breakfast-inspired chicken chili stood out among 11 entries, winning unanimous approval from contest judges.
Having done chili the usual way, he decided to look at cooking chicken chili and what he might do with it.
"Chickens lay eggs, and what goes great with eggs? Sausage and bacon," he said, adding he used spices inspired by bloody mary mix. "It turned out better than I thought it would ... it has more of a slow burn."
The judges' second place choice was Red Neck Chili, a sweet, red chili created by Ken Trent of Farmington Hills.
Hosted by the Miss Farmington organization, the chili cook off this year benefits the American Cancer Society Relay for Life, held at Shiawassee Park in Farmington May 19 and 20. Anyone interested in participating may attend a kick-off event March 6, 6:30 p.m., at Longacre House in Farmington Hills.