“It looked really good, but I think you guys forgot it had to taste good too.”
They vigorously defend clients against formidable courtroom adversaries. They advise on the most complex of transactions. They overcome steep hurdles to bring issuers to the public markets.
But for some fearless V&E lawyers there is one challenge that overshadows them all: Chili.
Once a year, the firm’s attorneys and staffers roll up their sleeves – literally – to do battle in a chili cooking competition dubbed the Chili Extravaganza. Divided into teams, V&E-ers consult recipes, mix, and cook, often into the night, driven by their desire to produce the Chili of all Chilis. A day or two later celebrity judges – aka clients and friends of the firm – bravely dip their spoons into these concoctions and declare a winner.
This annual battle of the crockpots takes place on Go Texan Day, the unofficial kickoff of the giant three-week-long Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. It’s a day to celebrate all things Western and Texas, including the state’s official food, chili.
V&E launched the Chili Extravaganza in 2001, taking on the tradition of a renegade band of transactional lawyers from Hunton Andrews Kurth that had recently defected to V&E. The first adopters were lawyers in the Houston office’s Mergers & Acquisitions and Capital Markets practice, later joined by other practices in Houston.
The annual competition eventually spread. The most recent chili fest, held on Friday, Feb. 22, included teams from Austin, New York, and Washington D.C., marking the first time V&E-ers outside of Houston dared to put on aprons and stir. In all, there were 21 entries, the largest ever for the firm.
The Prophet of Chili
Like other great movements, this one has a visionary leader, V&E partner David Palmer Oelman. In the days leading up to the Chili Extravaganza, Oelman’s alter ego, “David Chili-Bowlman” takes control to organize the event, rouse the troops, offer encouraging words to the competitors and chili-shame his colleagues into joining the fun.
Oelman delivers his missives in a series of tongue-in-cheek emails. Chili is called the “ultimate weapon,” lawyers-turned-cooks are “Leonardo da Vincis of Chili” and the contest judges are praised for “sacrificing their tongues and intestines to our cause.”
Competitors who get cocky and conspire to add exotic ingredients like peanut butter and Cap‘n Crunch to their chili are warned not to do so. “Don’t be tempted to throw those bananas in the chili no matter what happens tonight,” Chili-Bowlman warns.
Chili logistics, or how to fly chili across state lines without making a big mess
For those outside of Houston who entered the contest this year, Problem No.1 was making the chili. Problem No. 2 was transporting it to Houston.
Members of the D.C. office did some advance research, going so far as to ask a TSA agent if chili could be carried on to a flight. The answer: No.
It was time for Plan B. V&E associate Misty Howell, after tirelessly cooking alongside her colleagues at the home of V&E partner Craig Seebald, on Thursday evening, agreed to wake up early Friday morning and fly to Houston with the team’s precious chili in her checked bag. Her teammates, associates Brittany Harwood, Caroline Colpoys and Sheldon Nagesh also flew to Houston to attend the competition.
Luckily the D.C. team packed their chili in a large Tupperware container, wrapped the container in Saran Wrap, and duct taped it. They then placed it in a bag and added five ice packs and a towel to keep the container from moving around.
“Thankfully it made it there in one piece and the cooler wasn’t completely covered with chili,” Colpoys said.
Team New York braved a fierce snowstorm to cross the East River and cook chili on Wednesday evening in the Brooklyn home of V&E partner John Kupiec. They decided to freeze their chili, and send it via FedEx to Houston.
New York had agreed to join the competition at the eleventh hour, finally giving in to Chili-Bowlman’s prodding. In spite of the mad rush, “it was a ton of fun and a nice excuse to get together,” Kupiec said. Alas, neither Team D.C., which called itself “Shutdown Chili” in honor of the recent government shutdown, nor Team New York, which went by the name “The Chili That Never Sleeps,” would sway this year’s panel of distinguished judges, Russ Porter, the CEO of Freedom Oil & Gas, Trevor Turbidy, a founding member of AEC Partners, and Cullen Coleman, an analyst at Credit Suisse.
Redemption in 2020
In their remarks regarding D.C.’s entry, “the judges said something like, ‘It looked really good, but I think you guys forgot it had to taste good too,’” Nagesh said.
Team D.C. will seek “redemption” in 2020, Howell said. “We’ve got some ideas.”
In the end, the 2019 trophy went to members of the firm’s Energy Transactions & Projects practice, marking a second consecutive win for the group.
After the winner was named and the last spoon was licked, Chili-Bowlman gave his final remarks via email.
“LIFE FLIGHT JUST DEPARTED FROM OUR ROOFTOP TAKING RUSS PORTER, TREVOR TURBIDY AND CULLEN COLEMAN TO TRAUMA CENTER AT HERMANN HOSPITAL – PLEASE PRAY FOR THEM AND ESPECIALLY FOR THEIR INTESTINES!! 21 Chilis w/ lots of peppers make the annual affair at Coney Island look like a fun run compared to this CHILI IRONMAN. WE THANK OUR JUDGES!” Oelman wrote. “YOU ARE FREE TO RESUME YOUR NORMALLY SCHEDULED ACTIVITIES AND THIS IS THE LAST YOU’LL HEAR FROM BOWLMAN FOR 11.5 MONTHS!!”