Cook's chili the stuff of dreams

Kathryn Rem

After tinkering for years on a recipe for the perfect chili, it came to Richard Zillion in a dream.

“I went to bed one night and dreamed the formula. I got up, wrote it down and then went out and bought the spices. I finally hit on it,” said Zillion, a lifelong chili aficionado who sells his bottled spice blend — Zillion’s Chili Bowl Chili Mild Seasoning Mix — at a number of regional outlets and farmers markets.

Zillion, 66, a three-time competitive chili cook-off winner, is the kind of guy who never gets tired of eating a bowl of red.

“I’ll eat chili if it’s 500 degrees in the shade. I order it wherever I go. It’s good for breakfast, too.”

Once in a while, he’ll order a horseshoe from Ritz’s Lil Fryer, add a dollop of chili and a sprinkling of Tabasco sauce and down the concoction for his morning meal.

The retired Secretary of State security guard and bread-truck driver first started selling the chili-seasoning blend after his prophetic night of sleep in 1976. He keeps the recipe in a safe deposit box and will only reveal that the mix contains chili powder, onions, paprika, a little salt and “other spices.”

“There’s one spice in there that balances everything out, but I won’t tell you what it is,” said the Springfield man.

Over the years, he’s tried various types of packaging, labels and sizes. Now the mix is manufactured by Baron Spices & Seasonings of St. Louis. It comes in 4-ounce shaker bottles for about $5 and in 1-pound containers for $15.

The seasoning is available locally at Schnucks, County Market in Springfield and Chatham, Humphrey’s Market, Cook’s Spice Rack, Country Market, Shirley’s Touch of Class, Springfield Novelty & Gifts, Noonan True Value, Reflection Hair Design, Suttill’s Gardens, Niles Barber Shop in Rochester and the IGA stores in Riverton and Pawnee.

Zillion and his wife, Judy, sell the blend at the Old Capitol Farmers Market (Adams Street west of the Old State Capitol from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays through October) and the Illinois Products Farmers Market (Commodities Pavilion at the Illinois State Fairgrounds from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursdays through October). At the fairgrounds, he also sells bowls of chili made with his seasoning mix when the weather is cool.

To order for shipping, call (217) 789-7285.

The avowed chilihead suggests using the blend in salsa, taco meat filling and Spanish rice, as a rib rub and sprinkled on fried potatoes, chicken, steaks, corn and anything grilled.

“It’s complete. You don’t have to add anything to it,” he said.

Zillion learned to cook at age 16 at the old Don’s Drive In on MacArthur Boulevard.

“I started as a carhop at 50 cents an hour. Then they took me in and made a cook out of me. I got a raise to 75 cents.”

A born-again Christian who prints Bible verses on some of his business literature, Zillion is a member of First Baptist Church of Divernon.

“Ten percent off the top goes to the church. It’s always paid for itself,” he says about his chili.

A longtime volunteer at the Mary Bryant Home for the Blind, Zillion does the weekly grocery shopping for residents and has cooked chili for the home’s annual fall fundraiser for at least 20 years. He’ll make more than 210 quarts for this year’s Oct. 17 chili supper.

Sue Lederbrand, who works at the Mary Bryant Home, said Zillion’s chili is a big draw.

“It’s awesome,” she said of the flavor, adding that it is mild and well-balanced.

After eating thousands of bowls of chili during his lifetime and making “a good ton of it,” Zillion has some advice for amateur chili cooks.

“You got have oil on top. Not a lot, but you want a bite to it. The oil carries the flavor,” he said. He prefers kidney suet, which he gets at Humphrey’s Market, Y-T Packing/Turasky Meats, Shop ’n Save or Midstate Meat Co.

“Kidney makes oil; meat trimmings make grease.”

Watch the temperature on the chili pot, he cautioned.

“Don’t boil it. The beans will get mushy and end up like stew,” he said. He makes it in a slow cooker.

“I get the temperature to 165 degrees and then back off to 140 or 145,” he said.

For the meat, he buys 80/20 ground chuck (80 percent meat, 20 percent fat). For the beans, he likes Brooks canned red chili beans. And he prefers to make chili the day before he needs it.

“It’s like spaghetti,” he said. “It’s better the next day.”

Zillion’s Chili Bowl Chili

1 1/4 pounds ground beef

2 to 3 tablespoons Zillion’s Chili Bowl Chili Mild Seasoning Mix

1/4 pound kidney suet (optional)

1 cup stewed tomatoes

12 ounces tomato juice or beef broth

1 or 2 (15-ounce) cans chili hot beans or red beans

1/4 cup water

Brown ground beef. Add seasoning mix. For oily chili, add kidney suet. Simmer 15 minutes. Refrigerate overnight.

Blend stewed tomatoes in blender so there are no chunks. To the seasoned ground beef, add stewed tomatoes, tomato juice or beef broth, beans and water. Cook in slow cooker 1 to 2 hours. Makes 6 to 10 servings.

Kathryn Rem can be reached at (217) 788-1520