03/16/2012 04:44 EDT | Updated 05/16/2012 05:12 EDT

International Chili Society's world championships return to W.Va. this fall

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The planet's top chili makers will be returning to West Virginia this fall. And for the first time, the International Chili Society's annual world championship cookoff will have a "homestyle" category without restrictions on ingredients.

The San Juan Capistrano, Calif.-based non-profit group announced Thursday that more than 400 cooks are expected to compete Oct. 5-7 on Magic Island, a park on Charleston's west side along the Kanawha River.

Charleston hosted the competition in 2009, the first time the ICS held its championship east of the Mississippi River — traditionally it's been held in California or Nevada. It was contested in Manchester, N.H., the past two years.

The world championships involve red and green chili categories, along with salsa. Competitors must first win a regional title from among dozens held around the United States and Canada. A "last chance" cookoff also will give competitors who have yet to qualify one final try to enter the event.

This year's competition will introduce a "homestyle" category that includes a cook's favourite combination of ingredients. There are no restrictions or requirements, as long as the entry is homemade and has a chili pepper flavour. Garnishes will be allowed.

The goal of the category is to welcome a new breed of chili connoisseurs.

"Competition chili does not have beans, and we've been turning people away for 46 years," said Carol Hancock, owner and CEO of the ICS. "Our homestyle category will be the cook's discretion."

Doug Wilkey, a Shoreline, Wash., dentist whose version of traditional red chili won the 2005 world title, welcomed the homestyle category's addition and the potential for new competitors.

"I think it's fine, especially for West Virginia," said Wilkey, who attended the 2009 event in Charleston. "There's a lot of people that like to cook chili back there, and they like to have a ball doing it."

Cars and chili may not seem a great mix at first. But city leaders are banking on that concept, scheduling the chili cookoff at the same time an annual custom car show is being held just down the block. Last year's Rod Run & Doo Wop brought in 960 cars — and thousands of tourists — from the eastern United States.

"Our city will be the place to be in this part of the country," said Charleston Mayor Danny Jones.

It took four decades for the world championships to head east due to concerns over fickle weather, and Mother Nature played a big part in the 2009 cookoff. Severe storms dampened spirits on the first day in Charleston. And the weather was sour in New Hampshire, too, Hancock said.

But she liked the way Charleston organizers handled the 2009 event. The city beat out other potential suitors from California, Florida, Kansas and Nevada. She wouldn't identify the cities.

In 2009, the typical competitor "hadn't been to West Virginia and this part of the country. They had a great time," Hancock said.