Two-time chili cook-off champ Carter Johnson of Preston hopes to add another win to his record in this year’s contest, set to be held in conjunction with the candlelight ski in Preston on Saturday, Jan. 19.
Two-time chili cook-off champ Carter Johnson of Preston hopes to add another win to his record in this year’s contest, set to be held in conjunction with the candlelight ski in Preston on Saturday, Jan. 19.
If you are feeling a bit chilly on the evening of Jan. 19, you can warm those chills with the perfect medicine: chili.

For the sixth straight year, the Preston Chamber of Commerce and the Trailhead Inn will be putting on a Candlelight Ski and Chili Cook-off.

There will be moonlight skiing on the trail from 5:30 to 7:30 and the Chili Cook-off Contest will take place from 5 to 7 p.m.

One person who is looking forward to the chili cook-off with much excitement is Carter Johnson of Preston. The 12-year old son of Mark and Heidi Johnson has won the chili cook-off for the past two years.

"I'm going for the three-peat," laughed Carter, whose interest and experience in cooking has both natural and acquired origins.

Carter's dad was a restaurant manager for 15 years, his mother once a waitress at that same restaurant, and he has an uncle who is a baker.

"I've given him advice from time to time," said Mark, "but he's smart enough to come up with great ideas."

Carter recognizes that his family's history surrounding creating and managing food has helped him. Now, his parents play another role in his life, as taste testers. So far, he's gotten a lot of good reviews, but, "he needs to clean up," laughed Mark.

Carter also attributes idol chefs such as Bobby Flay for inspiring him to experiment more. He's also an avid viewer of the Food Network on television and gets many recipes off of the Internet from websites like Foodnetwork.com.

He says that he has only been getting serious with cooking for the past two years, but Carter is already creating new recipes and adapting recipes to fit his style.

Even though he's only in middle school at Lanesboro, Carter is already considering chef school as a possible post-high school path for himself; specifically, le Cordon Bleu, a top international culinary arts school system. According to Carter, he will raise the money by getting a job at local restaurants as a cook or by "winning a bunch of chili competitions!"

As champion of the past two chili cook-offs at the candlelight ski, he has won large amounts of Preston bucks, so he may well be on his way.

Traci Corson, who owns the Trailhead Inn with her husband, has herself been entering a chili into the competition every year.

"Traci is usually the main competition," shared Carter.

Interest in the competition has increased since it has started, beginning with only four entries and now up to around 15 every year. The competition is held in the Trailhead office and participants are allowed to bring extra items that compliment their chili such as chips, cheese and other condiments.

Carter isn't giving away the secret to how he makes his chili, but all contestants are required to include an ingredient list for allergy purposes.

Carter did say that he doesn't like making his chili hot. "My uncle made a really hot chili one year," he shared, "but people didn't really like that."

One of Carter's strategies to success, Mark pointed out, is his ability to socialize with the competition and people and get you to try his chili. Carter likes sharing the food he makes. A statement made evident by the fact that one year he made glazed doughnuts for his birthday and brought them in to share at school. Carter said that he's looking forward to trying other people's chili.

Everyone that comes to the chili cook-off will be able to try each chili. The Trailhead Inn is providing spoons and bowls for taste-testing the chili as well as hot chocolate, coffee and wine for complimentary drinks. Visitors then get to vote for whichever chili they decide is the best.

"Last year we had judges decide who won," explained Traci, "but people were disappointed that they didn't get to vote, so we're going back to that this year."

That's probably a good thing too because participation in the event has steadily increased the past two years, with numbers going over 100 and even reaching 200. "We have people coming down from the Twin Cities and Rochester," stated Traci, "but the event really promotes camaraderie within the Preston community itself."

In addition to the chili cook-off, the candlelight ski will also be taking place. The mile and a half "out and back" course on the Harmony-Preston Valley Trail will be open for skiers unless there is not enough snow. In that case it will be open for walking.

There will be a bonfire made by the DNR and the local Boy Scouts group for people to warm up by. The scouts also light the candles that line the ski path.

Cross-country skis are available for rent at the Cedar Valley Resort in Whalan and the DNR will also be selling Day-Ski Passes at the Trailhead Inn office for $6.

Once there you can try all the different chilies and see for yourself if Carter's is good enough for a third championship.

Anyone interested in entering the chili cook-off should contact Traci at (507) 273-6903. Contestants are required to bring an eight-quart slow-cooker for their chili, a list of recipe ingredients and any of those extra chili condiments/compliments. They should also be at the Trailhead Inn office by 4:30 the day of the competition.