For almost 75 years, Camp Washington Chili has been a beacon for its city’s namesake dish: Cincinnati chili. In many ways, the story of the restaurant is the story of Cincinnati chili, that unlikely signature dish from Ohio of spaghetti topped with beef chili.
While the origins of the dish are hazy, the general consensus is that it was developed by Greek immigrants in the ’20s, immigrants like those who first opened Camp Washington Chili in 1940. Empress Chili, opened in 1922, is widely accepted as the originator of the tradition. While there's not an old-world Greek tradition of cheddar-topped chili, there is a hazy resemblance to the Greek dish pastitsio, which combines noodles, meat, and cheese. Yet, the proliferation of Greek-owned Cincinnati chili parlors is less about a shared food history than a pattern of following the money: If making chili worked for that guy, maybe it will work for me.
In 1951, Johnny Johnson emigrated from Greece and started working with his uncle, an owner at Camp Washington, a small chili parlor in the heart of the city’s then-flourishing slaughterhouse district. Fast forward a few decades, and a long-simmering dispute with the city forced Johnson to move from his original location to a new building just behind it. Now the home of Camp Washington Chili for 15 years, Johnson's daughter Maria Papakirk says that this new location — bigger, cleaner, slicker — “feels like home.” While they have a different location, the Camp Washington crew is still doing things the classic way. “If you use quality ingredients, you get a quality product,” says Johnson. “Our customers come to our place because they know it’s spotless, they will be eating quality food, and receive the best customer service in town. Our customers feel at home.” When Johnson took the helm at Camp Washington, he made the chili a bit spicier. But the basic cooking process has remained the same. The family even brought their well-seasoned stainless steel cooking kettles from the old location to the new one. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” says Papakirk of her attitude towards the family's cherished chili recipe.
Johnson and Papakirk’s commitment to doing things the right way hasn’t just earned them a generation-spanning clientele. In 2000, the James Beard Foundation honored them with an America’s Classics award, making them the first (and currently the only) Cincinnati restaurant with a Beard award. “We’ve become part of the community,” says Johnson. “We have customers that have been eating our chili for over 50 years. They bring their grandchildren with them now and tell them how you could get two coneys and Pepsi for just a quarter!”
Below, the elements of Camp Washington's Cincinnati chili:
1. The Noodles
For those unfamiliar with Cincinnati chili, the spaghetti at the bottom of the plate stands out as the most unusual feature. A defining ingredient of the dish, the spaghetti at Camp Washington is prepared in a straightforward way. “I know people like al dente but ours is on the softer side,” explains Papakirk. She also notes that while other chains use a thin noodle, Camp Washington prefers a thicker noodle which can better “sustain all the toppings.” Villa Frizzoni noodles are boiled in salted water then transferred to a crockpot with a “secret mixture” including tomato and olive oil for flavor.
2. The Chili
When it comes to Camp Washington's eponymous chili, Papakirk is proud of the fact that the restaurant is doing real cooking on an exhausting 24-hour cycle. Camp Washington purchases bull beef for its leanness; even after simmering for many hours, the leaner meat retains its chew. The decision to use bull beef is a break from the Cincinnati chili norm, Papakirk explains, and so is Camp Washington's commitment to grinding it in-house.
Here's the chili operating procedure: At around 5 a.m., prep cooks start the process by adding oil, garlic, and onions to the restaurant's giant 60-gallon stainless steel kettles. (The simmering mixture “smells amazing,” Papakirks attests.) Next, they add the house-ground bull beef to brown, then the secret spice blend, tomato paste, and water. The morning batch is ready by 11:30 a.m., setting up the team for the lunch rush. And the process is ongoing. They make it continuously, Papakirk explains. “We always have a big kettle of chili in the back that we’re working on through the day and all night long. It’s important for it to be fresh. And we never have leftovers,” she adds, since the restaurant is always open.
A note on the secret spice mix. It is, truly, a closely held family secret, though Papakirk does share some standard components, including chili powder, cinnamon, and paprika. She says the recipe is locked in a deposit box, and only family members are permitted to blend the spices and add them to the chili. Unlike other local chili parlors, Camp Washington never adds chocolate.
3. The Cheese
After the noodles and the chili comes the “ways.” Order a “chili three-way,” and you’ll receive a plate of spaghetti topped with chili and a heaping, two-handful serving of shredded Wisconsin cheddar cheese. Camp Washington is particular about its cheese. Papakirk says her father will flat-out refuse deliveries if the boxes aren’t marked “Wisconsin.” After the 43-pound cheddar blocks make it through that round of inspection, prep cooks use a wire to break it down into 16 smaller blocks. These blocks go into a refrigerator overnight to dry out a bit, which makes them easier to shred the next day. Every morning, the team shreds an “unreal” amount of cheese.
4. The Vegetables
Order a “chili four-way,” and you’ll get spaghetti, two generous spoonfuls of red beans, a topping of chili, and cheese. Order a “chili five-way,” and you’ll get spaghetti, red beans, chili, a dusting of chopped white onion (for extra crunch), and cheese. When it comes to ratios, Papakirk compares a fully dressed chili to a pizza: “If you think of our five-way as a pizza, [the beans and onions] are just like one little topping.”
5. The Assembly
During the busy lunch and dinner rushes, only one station is responsible for creating all the chili three-ways, four-ways, and five-ways. The ingredients are all prepped and ready, so it’s really a matter of efficient and speedy assembly. There’s not much that can ruin the dish, says Papakirk, except for too little chili: “You don’t want it to be dry,” Papakirk says, adding, “Nobody complains if we put on too much of anything.”
Although Camp Washington’s chili has more kick than other local versions, Frank’s Red Hot sauce is a popular addition. Another standard accoutrement is oyster crackers, which for some eaters — including Papakirk — are needed to balance out the spiciness of the dish. Papakirk also notes that “true chili connoisseurs” have a particular way of eating Cincinnati chili: cutting, and not twirling the pasta. “Some people will ask for a knife, which looks a bit formal to me, but it gets a bit of every flavor.” She goes on, “It’s in layers, so twirling doesn’t give you each flavor.”