SoNo Fest heats up North Park, drawing more than 20,000 people to taste, judge unique chilis at 13th annual event

The chili cook-off raises money to support art, math and garden
at McKinley Elementary School in North Park

What do cardamom, Parmigiana reggiano, pumpkin, crispy polenta, ginger, 18-year aged balsamic vinaigrette, kidney beans, Wagyu beef, Fritos, duck and pepperoni all have in common?

This collection of ingredients spans a wide array of cultures and culinary styles, yet this weekend they were featured in some of the chili recipes created by local chefs competing during the 13th annual SoNo Fest Chili Cook-off Sunday. The fundraiser for McKinley Elementary School drew more than 20,000 people to the North Park festival, raising thousands of dollars to benefit the school.

This year’s winners were Bivouac Ciderworks for Best Overall Chili, Kindred for Best Vegetarian Chili and Shank & Bone owners Han Tran and Jay Choy winning both the Most Unique recipe and the People’s Choice Award for their Vietnamese Pho-inspired chili.

Lara Worm, Bivouac owner and CEO, is no newbie when it comes to competing in chili cook-off competitions, having competed for the first time as a kid in the fifth grade.

Worm was raised in a family of San Diego chefs with a grandfather who owned a restaurant called Roadside Bar BQ on Mission Gorge, which opened in 1958. That later became Bekker’s Bar BQ and was run by her father, and now her mother and brother operate the business as Bekker’s Catering.

The secret to making Worm’s chili — which also won the SoNo Fest Overall Award in 2019 and 2020, and the People’s Choice award last year, is not using a recipe.

Going for a more traditional-style chili, which will be on sale at Bivouac through the end of December, she uses a blend of spices, adds it to ground beef mixed with both kidney and pinto beans, then tops it with fried polenta bites, a crowd-favorite appetizer at her restaurant.

“I never really write down a recipe, so it’s a little bit different every single year,” Worm said. “I always like to go for a traditional chili because I think that with the chili cook-off, people are coming here for nostalgia.”

For McKinley Principal Jonathan Morello, the annual event shows how much the community rallies to support the nearly 600 students attending the school, which has students from universal transitional kindergarten to the fifth grade.

“The teachers tell me all the time, ‘I’m working with my best friends,’ so there’s this love within the campus between the staff members and also between the parents, the teachers and students,” Morello said. “It’s just everybody’s coming together to really provide something amazing for the children.

“I wish all schools could be like this. This is very unique. This doesn’t happen in many places.”

Morello, who has been the school’s principal for two years, said the event organized by the school’s parent-teacher club is one of its largest fundraisers.

SoNo Fest co-chair Katy Strand — who has a student in transitional kindergarten at McKinley and a son who promoted out of fifth grade last year — said last year’s event raised more than $86,000 for the school.

Money raised during SoNo Fest and other fundraising events throughout the year allows McKinley to provide students with Spanish, arts, ceramics and gardening classes. While students are spending time in those alternative class settings, teachers get two free hours per week to develop and fine-tune their curriculum as part of the International Baccalaureate program.

Second-grade McKinley teacher Janell Small said funding provided by SoNo Fest will also support teachers in learning new math teaching methods to help better support students and raise standardized test scores. Overall, she said that having a variety of classes for students can benefit them in myriad ways.

Mayor Todd Gloria, who announced the People’s Choice Award, said that the event is one of the largest volunteer-led events throughout San Diego, telling the crowd that in supporting the fundraiser, “What you are doing is helping those kids get set up for a lifetime of success.”

This story was first published in The San Diego Union-Tribune online and in print on Dec. 3, 2023 and in print Dec. 4. To see the rest of this story in its original form with images, click the link above.  


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