Meet Erin Wilkey – Server Extraordinaire and Chili Aficionado
If you’ve ever dined at Jack’s BBQ you may have been fortunate enough to have Erin Wilkey serve your table. Not only does she know her BBQ, but she’s as sweet as the famous Pecan Pie that Jack serves up for dessert. Erin has been at Jack’s since we first opened and she’s also got a secret – her family pretty much owns Chili Cookoff competitions in Washington and nationally! Here’s a bit more about Erin as well as a few tips for you chili cookers at home.
Where are you from originally?
I was born and raised in Shoreline just north of Seattle and I still live nearby in the Northgate area. My dad was a dentist and he just recently retired – now he’s going to travel around and cook chili. In fact, he’s going to Florida soon to try to win a cook off there.
I went to UW-Bothell for society, ethics and human behavior and I’ll be going real estate school soon. I’m getting married in August and then I’ll take the class but will also stay in the restaurant business as I ramp up my own client base.
How long have you been at Jack’s?
Jack hired me before the place was even open. The buildout was going on and I ended up waiting for a few weeks before I got started. I was working with a friend at a restaurant called The Fisherman’s down on Seattle’s waterfront and they told me about this place. I met Jack and it was almost like acquiring a new family. Jack just wanted people that smiled and were happy so I fit the bill.
Did you have any background in the food industry?
I’ve been working in food for about 12 years now. I started at the Wild Horse when I was 15 and it’s closed now. It was a little bar in Richmond Beach. Then I worked at Canyons which is also closed now. And then I moved on to Ricky’s Bar and Grill which is also closed now!
Why do you like working here?
It’s so vibrant and fun. The people that eat here are always so happy when they come in and the staff is one of the most amazing groups of people I’ve ever worked with in my life. Orr differences meld well together and Jack is great as are the managers. It’s a very family-like group and this is definitely my second family. I mean – half the people that work here are in my wedding!
Tell us about your chili championship experience?
Well, my dad is really into it and so I got into it. I’ve won the Washington State championship 5 times already. I’ve also been to the World Championship competition in Vegas 5x and I made it to the final table once. It was really fun and I was so surprised – my heart was pounding. I’m one of the youngest cooks in the chili society and was only 18 at the time.
That’s great that you learned this from your folks. What kind of prizes can you win?
Well, if you win the World’s you get 25 thousand dollars. Both of my parents have won it. My dad won in 2005 and my mom won in 1993 – it’s serious business in our family. You’re competing vs. 140 people and you have to have the right flavor and consistency to even make it through the preliminaries.
So what’s your secret?
I usually use the same recipe and tweak it a bit. I like it a bit spicier but my dad likes it more mild. I’ve tried to do different things throughout the years and I want to keep the consistency of the puree. I don’t want to see anything floating. Plus, you’ve got to find right balance of sausage and meat. If the judges see something floating you are automatically out.
Do you have any tips for folks that want to learn to make great chili?
When it comes to chili, the best advice I can give is to find the perfect peppers that you think are going to have the most flavor. The second piece of advice I can give is taste as you go. My mom and I are advocates in that you won’t be able to fix something at the end of the pot – so taste as you go and you will be able to adjust your outcome.
The recipes we use are on chilicookoff.com – and both my parents have their World Champion recipes on there if anyone wants to try it. I would love to help and get more people involved in the International Chili Society.
How are chili’s judged?
It’s really difficult now – and a lot look the same. You’re not allowed to use Ground Beef so everyone uses tri tip. When you are looking at 25 different chilis at the World Competition it can be pretty tough to judge. Last time I went I judged green, which is chili verde, and I picked all three winners!
What is your favorite thing on the menu at Jack’s?
If I was to come here to eat I’d order the Double Trouble with brisket, jalapeno cheddar sausage, mac and cheese and Texas caviar. Whenever someone orders that here I think – that’s exactly what I would have!
What’s your favorite local restaurant to go out to?
We’re really picky Joe (my fiancee) and I. I like divey places – if I were working somewhere else it would def be a dive bar. We just went to Sisters and Brothers in Georgetown last night and it was amazing.
What’s your favorite drink?
Probably a Vodka screwdriver – we fresh squeeze the orange juice here and it’s my favorite. There’s nothing like fresh squeezed juice.
What is your karaoke song?
Oh I don’t know. I guess it would have to be Ironic by Alanis Morissette!