Inside Chicago’s Chili-Synthesizer Cook-Off, Music’s Spiciest Night

Inside Chicago’s Chili-Synthesizer Cook-Off, Music’s Spiciest Night

One night each year, the Windy City's experimental community rallies around hearty stews and modular setups.
March 22, 2017, 3:10pm

Lead photo by Meal Makeover Moms on Flickr, all other photos from the Chili-Synthesizer Cook-Off by the Author

What would a pot of Lebanese-inspired chili sound like as a song? What's the right synth patch to represent a splash of lemon juice setting off the complex interplay between meat and spice?

That's the challenge posed annually by the Chili-Synthesizer Cook-Off, held for the past seven years at Chicago's Empty Bottle. Or at least that's how it was interpreted by composer Natalie Chami at this year's event this past Sunday when she performed a gorgeous sonically and emotionally complex original composition about a batch of chili she'd brought with her to the club.

The Cook-Off's rules are high-concept but relatively straightforward. In each installment, four artists from various corners of Chicago's diverse electronic music scene are asked to cook up a batch of chili and create an original composition that's supposed to embody the recipe in some way. Samples of each chili are served up while its creator performs its sonic interpretation. Attendees vote on which song best represents its recipe, and at the end of the night, a winner is crowned.

For Chami, a member of the abstract electro-psychedelic trio Good Willsmith who usually performs solo under the name TALsounds, the Lebanese direction of her dish was a no-brainer. "I'm Lebanese and I cook a lot of Lebanese food," she explained. The sonic interpretation was a little more involved: a complex suite of classically inspired ambient pop with layers of melismatic vocals washing over looping arpeggios provided by a Juno and a Moog module. It sounded a little like Kate Bush sliding into the vocal breakdown from a Mariah Carey song and spliced with a '70s science documentary soundtrack.

"I thought about how it's more of a smooth taste and there are thicker pieces of meat in there rather than ground meat," Chami said of her process. "So I tried to incorporate it with the full-bodied bass at the end. And I had splashes of lemon on top so you could consider that anything trebley or twinkly or vocals if you want."

The Chili-Synthesizer Cook-Off is the creation of two long-standing members of Chicago's synth-geek community, Beau Wanzer and Brett Naucke. The idea first came to them during a phone call in 2009. "He was cooking chili and I was cooking chili," Wanzer remembered. "And we were just talking about chili."

"If was like an hour after our conversation," Naucke continued. "You left a message were you were like, 'Why don't we have a chili synth cook off where you vote on your favorite chili combo.' It was actually verbatim that, and I think it was a month later that we decided to do it."

Synths tend to encourage an analytical, engineering-like creative mindset, where chili cooking rewards improvisation and gut feeling. So if the idea of mixing synthesizers and chili seems silly, that's sort of the entire point. As with most electronic music scenes with an experimental bent, Chicago's has a tendency towards gearhead self-seriousness that Naucke and Wanzer both enjoy tweaking. "It's supposed to be a joke," Wanzer said. "Electronic music's so serious, you know what I mean?"

"We didn't want it to be an environment where it's a whole bunch of people who've come out to talk about synthesizers," said Naucke. "We didn't want it to be like a synthesizer fetish event. The most rewarding thing to me is listening to people talk, like, 'I really liked his chili, but I didn't like his set.' It's a hilarious thing to get people to talk about."

After Chami's opening set, the evening took a techno-inspired turn. Ken Zawacki, a bartender at a Korean-Polish restaurant in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood, served up a bulgogi-based concoction while delivering, from behind a console of Elektron synthesizers, an uptempo track that put harsh EBM synths on top of jacking Chicago house beats. Towards the end the song morphed into something much slower and dubbier. "I went with a set about 130 beats per minute to start," he explained afterwards. "You eat a good chili quick. And then near the end when you're done, I slowly slowed the set down to about 83 beats per minute when you're ready for whatever you do after chili. Sit down, take a nap. You're done." During his set a lone dancer spun circles in the space in front of the stage.

Jason Letkiewicz, who served the most traditional chili of the night (inspired by a recipe he grew up eating), followed with a composition that started out evoking a breezy Balearic atmosphere before finding a Kraftwerky throughline that it followed for a while before splintering into the second dub breakdown of the night, followed soon after by the third. "I sort of approached the set with the idea of having a palette of different sounds/musical ingredients that all worked together," he texted later. "But weren't planned out with respect to having defined tracks."

Returning champion Mike Broers, who won last year with an African-inspired harissa chili, took the stage last, opening with a Jan-Hammer-on-Xans beat based on the pork-studded chili verde he'd cooked this time around. (There were no vegetarian options in this year's lineup, and in true Chicago style, no vegetarian chili has won the cook off yet.) After establishing a groove, the song hardened into clanging downtempo techno, then straightened out into something more straightforwardly Detroitian.

After a while it became clear that Broers was going for a full-on mixed PA of uptempo, eminently danceable techno delivered from a rack of modular synths he'd mostly built himself. Was the returning champ using his prime headlining slot to unfair advantage? It seemed possible, but from the number of people in the crowd who were moving—admirable, considering that they were four servings of chili deep into the evening—it seemed like an effective strategy.

As ballots were being collected, the night's MCs, Alejandro Morales and Mariapaz Camargo, who seemed to be getting steadily more intoxicated throughout the night as they roasted the event's performers and organizers between sets, returned to the stage to make a few jokes about the sex lives of people who hang out at synthesizer-fetish events. Finally, they were ready to announce the winner. "There's been a lot of effort put into this," Camargo cracked. "Whether or not it's worth it." As the response to his set had suggested, Broers won again.

Afterwards Broers sat on a beat-up couch backstage basking in his victory and what seemed like a decent night's worth of drinking. "It's an incredible honor," he intoned slurrily. "And a lofty burden." The only other two-time winner in Chili-Synth Cook-Off history moved away from Chicago before he could attempt a three-peat. Broers vows to be back again next year.