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Family Dog chef takes home first place in chili cookoff

On Saturday, March 19, the Bangor Fire Department hosted its fourth annual Chili and Chowder Cook-Off, where local chef Brian Virgilio took the prize of best chili in the judge’s choice category.

Virgilio, who has been a chef at The Family Dog restaurant in Orono for the last year, was encouraged to participate by restaurant owner, Bob Cutler.

“I definitely said yes! A lot of our employees here in the kitchen take pride in our work, and Bob really gives us the platform to really express ourselves and our skills,” Virgilio said. “It [the cook-off] was just another outlet to do that.”

“I told Brian, I said ‘We’re going to enter, and we’re going to win,’” Cutler added.

This is the second win in a row at the annual cook-off for the Orono restaurant. Last year, the Family Dog’s kitchen manager took home the same best chili by judge’s choice prize.

The idea for this year’s winning recipe, a chili verde served with two different garnishes, took about one month to concoct. The chili features tomatillos, green peppers, poblano peppers, cilantro and lime. The poblano pepper, which features a more subtle spice in comparison to the more common jalapeno pepper, gave Virgilio’s chili just the right amount of heat without overpowering the flavor.

“It’s more palatable and people can enjoy it more because it’s more of a warm heat … I wanted to do something different but I still wanted it to appeal to everyone and not have people be scared to try it,” Virgilio said about the use of the poblano pepper in his recipe.

The chili was garnished with a cilantro lime crema and homemade tortilla chips tossed in a lime salt, a different approach to the sour cream or shredded cheese garnish of more traditional, red chili recipes.

“As soon as someone puts an idea in my head — I mean, my mind’s always going,” Virgilio said about the conception of the chili verde recipe. “I wanted to think of a way to distinguish myself or make it unique … I’m used to a lot of ethnic food, and I love that diversity … that’s really [sic] some of my inspiration.”

Cutler and Virgilio wanted the recipe to echo The Family Dog’s vegetarian or carnivore choice option. Virgilio’s chili verde was inherently vegetarian, but for the meat eaters at the cook-off, the chili could be served with braised pork shoulder.

Virgilio’s chili verde was the only one of its kind at the cook-off.

“It shows people that we have incredibly talented people [who work here] that are creative and can do some great things. I feel like a lot of people still think of us just as like a hot dog joint and don’t realize that we have amazing staff,” Cutler said.

Virgilio also competed in the chowder category with an original salmon and dill recipe. It did not get special recognition, but according to Virgilio it was well-received well, despite its unconventionality.

Cutler said the chili verde recipe will be featured as a special at the Family Dog sometime in the near future.

Virgilio’s win comes at an optimal time for The Family Dog. The restaurant is undergoing large-scale cosmetic changes in addition to unveiling a whole new menu.

The anticipated new menu release is set for late April.

“I think people are going to really be surprised,” Cutler added.

“We’re definitely taking this creativity and bringing it to the right place, and we’ll be able to showcase that, for sure. We’re excited for that,” Virgilio said.

To taste more of Virgilio’s award-winning cooking, visit The Family Dog on Mill St. in Orono. For more updates on the unveiling of the new menu, as well as updates on Virgilio’s chili verde special feature, add the The Family Dog on Snapchat with the username “familydogorono.”

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