You might say Chris Everhart and chili were a predestined pair.
The Key Largo resident grew up ensconced in cowboy ethos as the son of a successful Colorado rancher who also worked cattle herds in Havana before the Cuban revolution.
That quake in history forced the family to Guatemala, and it was there Everhart, aka Colorado Chili Cowboy, would spend his youth.
The nickname has its genesis in the car trips from Guatemala through Mexico, the American Southwest and up to Colorado that Everhart took as a kid.
"The biggest memory of those trips was all the great roadside tacos and wonderful food we ate along the way," he said. "Everything had great, fresh produce and products, and of course, all these varieties of chiles that just imported all these flavors in everything."
He recalled the food, but mostly the chiles, in southwestern Oaxaca and Veracruz with a wide grin.
"I'd say Dad seasoned me with a predilection for chilies," he laughed.
Perhaps it's no surprise that Everhart -- whose day job is general manager of an Upper Keys yacht club -- would go on to be a major player in the world of competitive chili cooking.
He was recently at the Islamorada Moose Lodge preparing for the Chili in the Keys Regional Cook off on Feb. 16 and the Florida State Chili Championship the next day.
This is one of the state qualifier for the big-time $25,000 International Chili Society (ICS) World's Championship in October in Palm Spring, Calif.
The best chili cooks in the country and Florida are making their way to Islamorada to compete in three categories:
• Traditional red or Texas-style chili: Any kind of meat or combination of meats cooked with red chili peppers, various spices and other ingredients
• Chili verde or green, also known as New Mexico-style chili: Typically includes pork with green chiles, various spices and the prominent use of vegetables not typically included in red chili, though.
There is also a salsa contest with less stringent rules.
Habanero peppers or fruit, for instance, may find their way into a salsa entry, but not in the two fiercely regulated red or green chili entries.
Everhart knows the rules well. He's the 2012 mid-Florida Chili Verde champion, the 2009 KISS Country's Chili Cookoff in Pembroke Pines and the reigning back-to-back 2011 and 2012 KISS Country's salsa champion.
But it's the big stage where Everhart has shined, as he has qualified and competed in the ICS World's Championship the last few years in all three categories -- red chili, green chili and salsa.
Everhart has also bottled two hot sauces based on his competition recipes -- his Colorado Chili Cowboy Medium Red Table Sauce and the fiery Prairie Fire Red Hot Sauce. Both are available at Peppers of Key West, 602 Greene St., and at www.saucecrafters.com.
And he's been on TV with fellow Islamorada chili-cooker Don Van Lehn as part of cable Channel TLC's "2010 Ultimate Chili Challenge" reality show that followed several cooks.
Van Lehn edged Everhart in 2012 and is reigning Florida state Chili Verde champion.
"Like Chris, I think we all do it for the camaraderie, the competition and to help the charities," said Van Lehn, who works by day as a sales manager for a digital media company.
This year, proceeds from the Islamorada Moose Lodge cookoff will go to the Coral Shores High School Athletic Association, Good Health Clinic and Islamorada Boy Scouts.
Islamorada Moose Lodge Manager Marcia Declue expects as least 20 tents for the event.
"We're in our fourth year here and it's been such a fun event for us that raises good money for great causes," Declue said. "And it draws just about everybody from all over -- the amateurs as well as the professionals."
Van Lehn has been competing for 15 years and this year he's fine-tuning his recipes that the judges might like. As expected, both Everhart and Van Lehn keep the specifics of their recipes close to the chest, but said curious cookers should question the chefs.
"It takes a while to really learn all the techniques, but one of the great things about these ICS events is that most of the cooks are more than willing to talk to everyone about what makes a really great chili," Everhart said. "They might be a little secretive about all their ingredients, but this is a friendly, families-welcome, kind of event."
The Keys may force some cooks to use a bit more lime, mango and heat in their salsa than they might in other regions, which is part of the artful competition, he said.
"I'd say keeping it simple usually yields the best result," Everhart added. "That's the thing -- there's as many varieties of chiles as there are cooks."
He said it with the same grin he sported earlier recalling those childhood road trips through Central America and Mexico.
"The flavors are as diverse as the chiles and all the different regions where they're grown," he said.