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Chef Lamont Henio shrugged his shoulders and wiped his brow at the New Mexico State Fair grounds Wednesday afternoon, nearly an hour after presenting his work to a table of four judges. A notice from the loud speakers stated that a winner would be declared in 30 minutes.
Henio has worked at the Ancient Way Café in El Morro for the past six years and has entered the fair’s annual green chile cheeseburger competition since it began in 2009. Each year, Henio has walked away empty handed.
“Everybody says we have a good chance this year,” Henio said. “Who knows?”
Henio was one of 12 competitors at this year’s New Mexico State Fair Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge. Each year, chefs and representatives from restaurants throughout the state flock to the state fairgrounds to test their spicy burger’s bite.
The challenge kick starts a series of themed days at the New Mexico State Fair, including a Military and Veterans Celebration Day and a Red Ribbon Relay Day. Each contestant in the competition must cook on a closed propane grill and serve the burger with New Mexican-grown green chile. The winner of the competition will be placed in the New Mexico Tourism Department’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a publication featuring green chile cheeseburgers throughout the state.
Rusty Childress, owner of Rockin’ BZ Burgers, is this year’s returning champion. Childress, whose restaurant opened in Alamogordo in 2012, said last year’s win helped bring in a crowd to his burger joint.
“Winning the championship last year kind of expanded our business,” Childress said. “People would come from other parts of the state to actually taste them.”
Since winning last year’s contest,Rockin’ BZ Burgers has opened a location in Las Cruces.
Competition newcomer Fred Schaller said he understood he faced fierce competition.
“The people I’m up against are people that have worked with green chiles for a long time and I’m still very new to them,” Schaller said.
As the general manager of BRAVO Cucina Italiana, Wisconsin native Schaller said he has entered smaller food competitions in the past — he competed in a Memphis rib cook-off in May.
Schaller said he entered a burger not yet served at BRAVO, which features ground Delmonico rib-eye with a chipotle crème sauce, topped off with green chile from Sichler Farms, thinly sliced lettuce and a mix of provolone and American cheese.
“Modestly speaking, I can make a mean green chile cheese burger,” he said.
Badlands Burgers & Tortas co-owner Alfredo Garza Jr. sought to regain the championship’s title, having won the competition in 2009. Garza Jr. said a day competing beats a day working behind the grill.
“It’s nice not having to be at the restaurant and busting our ass all day, to just kind of come and relax at the state fair and take a day off,” he said.
Garza Jr. presented their burger on a Kaiser roll with cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, with green chile that had been marinated for 30 minutes in freshly squeezed lemon juice, soy sauce and garlic. A small plastic American flag in the top bun declared the meal complete.
Garza Jr. met Henio and the rest of the competition’s chefs at 5:15 p.m. as the event’s winner was about to be announced. The judges left the inflatable hamburger that sat upon their table to meet Stephanie Bailey, this year’s New Mexico State Fair Queen and presenter of the award. Garza Jr. smiled for the camera after winning third place; Childress held on to his award having winning second; co-owner of Sadie’s Jim Garcia air-pumped his fist after being declared this year’s winner.
Brian Stafford, executive chef and co-owner of Sadie’s, said their burger stood out thanks to their select choice of meat, chile and bread. The burger is topped off with a slice of American cheese and a green chile sauce, complete with diced tomatoes that have a tendency to roll off to the side of a plate. The patty is nestled between two slices of French bread, a tradition, Staffor said, that dates back to his Aunt Sadie Koury in the 1950’s.
As Garcia accepted the plaque, he waved one hand out as he acknowledged his competition.
“There were so many great green chile cheeseburgers this year,” he said.
One man’s fair
Craig Vencill’s love of the New Mexico State Fair began not as a child but as a family man. Vencill, with his son and in-laws, would head out every year to the state fair in the late ‘80s.
“We would probably drop thousands of dollars at this place over the course of those years,” Vencill said. “To watch my son and his grandfather ride these crazy rides and just have a ball — it was fun.”
Vencill is the New Mexico State Fair’s Theme Days coordinator charged with organizing each day’s theme during the fair.
Vencill said he has returned to this volunteer position every year since 2009 to connect with the people of New Mexico.
“The history of fairs used to be farming and agriculture and it used to be about the future and state of that industry … now really, it’s kind of a place of looking back at history and culture and the richness of culture in New Mexico,” he said.
Vencill said he is a third-generation New Mexican, with a grandmother who was baptized at the Saint Francis Cathedral in 1871. His grandfather helped start the small town Vencill, which sat beside the state’s winding railroad — the town vanished after World War II.
“I’m part of the fabric of this state, I guess. I’m close to New Mexico,” he said.
Vencill said personal moments that occur throughout the fair keep him excited to come back to work each year. During Vencill’s first year working at the state fair, an award was presented to the Navajo Code Talkers. After a performance from the New Mexico 44th Army Band, he said a wife of one of awarded code talkers approached the front stage and began to sing the Marine Corp Hymn in her native language, Diné Bizaad.
“The place was silent, she sort of dumbfounded everyone. The whole place was just at a stand-still, nobody could really breathe after that, it was so heartfelt. You get the people like that who just show up here, the little nuggets of moments of greatness that show up at the state fair,” Vencill said.