Christopher Ruck is a chilihead.
He loves to eat chili. He loves to cook chili. And most of all, he loves to talk about chili. Especially his own chili: Chris' Double O Chili Rebel Roulette.
And that means Chris meets all the requirements of that exclusive club of chili aficionados known as chiliheads.
But let 12-year-old Chris tell you about chili, his chili. It's the stuff beer commercials are made for. The peppers are so fiery that a few drops of raw juices burn through human flesh. The aroma is so powerful Chris has to cook it on the back porch. And the taste . . . well, it's just the best doggone chili in all of Virginia.
That's not idle brag if you trust the taste buds of the judges at the Virginia State Chili Cook-off held recently in Fairfax County.
The young cook from Clifton beat out 37 other chili chefs to walk away with the top prize--an iron skillet mounted on a plaque--and the chance to represent Virginia at the National Chili Cook-off in Terilingua, Tex., in November. Chris is believed to be the youngest chili chef ever to win a cook-off sponsored by the Chili Appreciation Society International, overseer of official chili cook-offs nationwide, according to his father, Lee, who has done considerable research on the subject.
Chris' prize-winning performance was his first solo competition in a chili cook-off. Early in the contest, he won first place in the novice class for child chefs. But when it came to the real contest, the chance for the iron skillet, Chris took his competitors by surprise.
"They never expected this to happen," the chili champ boasted, hoisting the prized trophy above his head.
Chris' father, a chilihead himself, was one of the organizers of the contest. Lee Ruck is a former attorney for Fairfax County and the judges for the contest were some of his close associates, Fairfax County supervisors.
"Dad said, 'You better not win,' " Chris said of his father's pre-contest warning.
"Yeah, and after he won," said the elder Ruck, "I had to explain how they did blind judging."
So what's the secret of Rebel Roulette?
"You're never supposed to ask a chili cook what his recipe is!" blurted Chris' mother, Virginia, in mock horror. She did say it took trips to five different grocery stores to collect all the ingredients for Rebel Roulette.
"I'm picky," piped up Chris, a chili purist who said he adds no fillers, no beans, no pasta.
Maybe it's the combination of six different kinds of peppers. Or maybe the three different meats: veal, pork and beef. Chris says more than likely it was his last-minute decision at the contest to dump a whole jar of beef bouillon into the batch, rather than the two tablespoons he usually uses.
Even Chris' father doesn't know his son's recipe.
But Chris says he won't hold out much longer.
"The first newspaper that gets to me after the national cook-off gets the recipe," said the publicity-wise chili celebrity, pushing back the over-sized brown cowboy hat that keeps falling into his eyes.
Chiliheads run in the Ruck family. Lee Ruck's interest in chili cooking was piqued by a restaurateur friend in Cincinnati years ago. He began experimenting. And when a chili pod (a club of devoted chiliheads) was formed by rival Virginia and Texas chili chefs in Clifton, Lee Ruck joined up. Two years ago he began entering contests, pitting his Shenandoah Red against the best chilis in the land. Last year, Lee Ruck won Virginia's iron skillet and jokes that he was one of 84 runners-up for 11th place in the national cook-off.
Lee Ruck's assistant on the contest circuit was none other than Chris--who diced onions, chopped peppers and cut meat.
This year Chris decided to branch out on his own.
"I took my Dad's recipe and decided I didn't like it that much," said the precocious prote'ge'. "So I totally changed it--used different spices, different peppers."
Father and son will pit Shenandoah Red against Rebel Roulette for the first time in September when an Alexandria restaurant sponsors a cook-off for the National Kidney Foundation.
Who has the edge?
"I cook the second best pot of chili in this house," conceded the elder Ruck. "I like Chris' better."
But beware, boys. The youngest Ruck, 11-year-old Katie, said she's already making notes on how to improve both recipes.
"I think I'd put in cubed veal," she said, as she eyed the iron skillet.