Denton’s 20 Years Quest for the Golden Jesus Chili Cook-off

Denton’s 20 Years Quest for the Golden Jesus Chili Cook-off
BEHOLD! Chili Pope Porter offers his liturgy from the sacred Golden Jesus alter of Holy Relics

2024 anniversary celebration honors those here and gone

By Dr. Shaun Treat
Photography by Nite Davis

Some things are so great you wonder, did that really happen? And so it is with the Golden Jesus Chili Cook-off. Part myth and fuzzy memories, this legendary underground showdown began as a booze-fueled backyard bet for bragging rights, lo and the word was made (smoked) flesh two decades ago. It was founded by Dentonite chili-hound Wally Campbell and a few buddies back in 2004. Wally begat a brisket, and the Lord looked down upon the grill and said “that was hella good.” There’s a lotta lore and typical Texas tall tales about how he managed to win that first friends-only contest between 6 teams, which may or may not have devolved into the theft of a urine-soaked yard gnome… but we’ll avoid any speculation into the particulars of the originary shoot-out. What we do know for certain is that the Quest for the Golden Jesus Chili Cook-off evolved into a secretive underground fête in various hallowed undisclosed locations over the years, locations that could only be learned from one of its sainted participants, all of whom have taken their solemn vows to BBQ silence. This is why you’d be forgiven if you’ve maybe never heard tell of the legendary annual gathering, even as the crowds have grown alongside the competition and the underground gone overground at Dan’s Silver Leaf for the past several years, like the Dead Sea Scrolls emerging from their cave. The Golden Jesus even has its own Facebook page nowadays. 

And Lo, a hush falleth over the gathered faithful in rapt anticipation of the Divine Verdicts to be handed down on this holiest of days as sacraments are consumed....

When I quizzed Wally about the history and rules guiding the competition, he responded with a characteristic ear-to-ear Cheshire Cat grin and devilish twinkle in his eye: “Rules? We don’t need no stinkin’ rules. The wilder, the better!” That’s maybe partly true enough, since a jury of judges rank submissions in a religiously blind faith-based taste-testing to render a ranked score out of 50 points. But Golden Jesus Town is not a complete state of anarchy, and there are some guidelines. The competition is limited to 13 teams – with three spots already guaranteed for the prior year’s winners – while all chili must be prepared and cooked on-site with exceptional sanitary standards enforced. Notably absent is the standard Texas “no beans” clause, about which smilin’ Wally just shrugs when asked if beans are allowed in the competition: “We ain’t Terlingua, man, we like crazy explorations, and some have rolled the dice to the expected shit-talk. But it’s the judges’ expectations and assessment of what flavors rule the day that matters.” Golden Jesus accepts you, wind-bearing legumes. There has indeed been some wacky experimentations over the years, with memorable vegetarian and even Spam-inspired offerings, and the great heretical cigarette-butt defilement back in 2017, of which there shall be no speaking. QFTGJ Judges rate each blessed submission across 5 categories on a scale of 1-10, guided only by “The Gospel of the Glorious Table of Final Chili Judgment” 13 commandments … “And the crown shall be placed on the champion’s head, and the flock will rejoice and sing out as one, ‘JESUS that’s good chili!’” The Golden Jesus first-place trophy was a relic of his ex-wife’s grandma and some scrap lumber from his shop, Wally explains, with a second-place Silver Spoon and a ladle or jar of pennies as third-place “bronze” added over time. 

The traveling pilgrim of Team Come and Eat It prepares his savory tithes and offerings for the coming judgment, having oft been chosen ‘worthy’ finalist Apostle by past juries of Holy Hosts.

This is how it went down on the 4th day of the second month in the year of Our Lord 2024:

Competitors began to arrive at Dan’s around noon to set up and begin the 5-hour rapture for judgment, the tight-knit circle of chili connoisseurs good-naturedly trash talking all the while. But this weren’t no love-in for Jesus. Make no mistake, the competition was fierce, and the focus turned serious as ingredients were parsed and added precisely. Over the hours of simmering spicy delights, however, the aromas and music would mix with laughter, Lone Star beer and conversations about experimental variations of chilihood. Quality-control tastings are frequent. The diversity of spices and flavorful ingredients were exquisitely adventurous. Local foodie legend and QFTGJ dragon-chaser Pam Chittenden offered a bold green and red Thai/cayenne fusion; Wally was the smoky meaty standard-bearer; and other notable experiments included wild game and lamb. Some savory secrets went unrevealed, set to go to the grave with their QFTGJ creators. At 4:00pm, as foretold by the prophets, the judging began as the invited jury went from team table to team table, sampling the spicy manna offered up in plastic cups. (FYI and by-the-by, I’ve learned over the years that samples are freely available while supplies last if a tribute beer is laid piously upon a chef’s alter). Master of Ceremonies Scott Porter and High Priestess Kelly Pound dutifully oversaw the tallies of judges’ rankings with whispered consultations for the 5pm announcement of winners. At Scott’s hearkening, the gathered flock of ye faithful shuffled out onto the back patio of Saint Dan’s cathedral to breathlessly await the final judgment for this year’s chili apostles. A reverent hush fell over the gathered masses. Nobody even farted, hardly.

The yearly pilgrimage for this Quest For The Golden Jesus has not been without its challenges and disruptions or losses, like most epic odysseys. Scott Porter remarked upon the significance of this twentieth anniversary year of its backyard founding and then delivered a liturgy for the high priests of chili who were absent from the communion tables this day: the saintly Andy Knapik and Justin “Repo” Sires [who is being remembered March 2nd in a celebration of life here] were named to prayerful nods from the choir. The ‘lost years’ of 2020-2021, the darkness of the COVID global pandemic – or even a 2017 cancellation – might have well portended the end for Golden Jesus had not Saint Dan Mojica and his angelic Silver Leaf hosts (blessed be their names) stepped up to offer his punk honky-tonk as reliable refuge from fickle Texas elements for our scattered faithful. Gratitude quickly turned celebratory as Chili Pope Porter ordained the third-place and second-place winners to raucous hoots and applause (names of the worthy prelates sadly lost to my ears in the din of religious hysteria). After a dramatic pause, Scott anointed the 2024 QFTGJ chili champion: Chef Brook Ray, founder of Wine2 and devoted acolyte of the order of the Brisket, a person of the Grill if ever there was one. Cheers did erupt and much rejoicing did commence, punctuated by a brief speech of appreciation from Chef Brook for all the love in the room. Chef Brook and her team basked in the glow of hearty congratulations, including the highest compliment of them all, a beatific smiling “two-fingered salute” from the snubbed-yet-again Pam, Food maven of the Denton food scene. Oh, God, oh God, why hast thou forsaken Chef Pam Chittenden?

(L to R) 3rd place Christ Rodger’s, QFTGJ 1st place Chef Brook Ray, 3rd place Team Come & Eat It… 2024 Sainted Champions.

Twenty years is a long time for anything to last, and this tribute is a humble if flawed attempt to capture a glimpse of the joy and camaraderie that the Golden Jesus blesses us with in its Denton orbit. In attempting to preserve a record for public memory, I welcome any and all corrections or additions to my gaps in remembrance to be canonized in the comments here so more names can be written and more untold legends revealed for posterity… So maybe linger a moment to share a fond memory you cherish. I can say myself without hesitation or hedging, however, that every single sampled delight I’ve savored at QFTGJ is truly deserving of its sacred credo: “DAMN that’s good chili!!!” 


2024: Chef Brook Ray


2022: Team Come & Eat It

2020-2021: The Lost COVID Years



2017: cancelled

2016: Bradley Franklin Santulli    

2015: Andy & Nic

2014: Team SoBo

2013: Harlan “Meatguns” Anderson and Isaac Hoskins

2012 winner: Team Larry

2011 Team Jackson

2010 Aaron "Harlin" Anderson

2009 Aaron "Harlin" Anderson

2008 Aaron "Harlin" Anderson

2007 Team Jackson

2006 Aaron "Harlin" Anderson

2005 Peter Farmer/J.P. Hossley

2004 Wally "Sir Wallace" Campbell

Dr. Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past. Be sure to check out our local museums curated by the fine folks at the Denton County Office of History & Culture, and follow Discover Denton to stay abreast of local happenings.