Correction, February 15th: On February 10th, Downes posted a video entitled “The Master Chief Chili Controversy (SECRETS REVEALED!)” on his YouTube channel. In it he addressed the brewing controversy about his recipe, saying that he didn’t spell out which spices to use so people would feel free to make their own decisions. He also said he uses spices like red chili flakes, chili powder, and a secret mix only available in a certain area. Unfortunately, this update came too late to save me — by the time it was uploaded my co-workers had already been shocked and horrified by the original, and I had already made and eaten a bowl of the spice-less meat soup. The following story was written without the knowledge that even Master Chief uses spices.
It was a peaceful morning until Ash Parrish dropped the tweet into Slack — it was from Steve Downes, the voice actor for Halo’s Master Chief, and he was sharing a recipe which he calls “Master Chief Chili.” Instantly, my chef senses perked up. A chance to cook a meal potentially enjoyed by one of the most iconic video game characters of all time? And to blog about it? It seemed too good to be true.
Yet, as I read the recipe, I felt my heart sinking, the joy slipping away. I was left with one immediate question: not “where’s the beef” so much as “where’s the spice??”
Co-workers familiar with Deep Halo Lore informed me that there may actually be an in-universe reason for why a battle-hardened Spartan would prefer this “chili.” According to the books, the SPARTAN-II program did terrible things to the kids subjected to it, and their sense of taste believably could’ve been affected by it, getting turned up to 11 at some point in the process.
But the majority of my co-workers are not familiar with this lore and saw only food crimes. Chaim echoed my concerns about the appalling dearth of spices, while Alex Cranz asked us to bring her the fainting chair. Adi Robertson was confused about why you would grate an onion but eventually began pondering the nature of beef farming in the far-future world of Halo.
Executive editor TC Sottek saw only content. A beautiful blog (perhaps with a quote from world-renowned — and certainly not busy at all — chef Gordon Ramsay), which would only require the sacrifice of my intestinal tract, and that would be fit to grace the hallowed pages of sites like RecipEZ4U and that cooking blog that wrote 2,000 words on how to make a cheese quesadilla.
I decided that I would bring my utmost literary skills to bear upon the Halo chili — perhaps Microsoft would even reach out to me with a book deal for the next Halo novel…
(Note: I tweeted the recipe at Gordon Ramsay asking for his thoughts but didn’t get a response. I did find this (quite NSFW) video of him making chili, and he does add quite a few spices to his.)
Downes’ tweet got a lot of attention on Twitter, but it’s actually not the first time he’s shared his chili recipe — there’s a documentary about him where he’s cooking it and says that it’s “the best chili you will ever have in your freaking life.”
Who better to put that to the test than a 25-year-old who’s never been south of Texas but is pretty sure they’ve had decent chili before? We didn’t think Downes claim would hold up but had to know for sure.
So I went shopping.
Walking into the store, I immediately realized I had a problem — the list of ingredients is annoyingly vague. “Potato?” “Onion?” Both of those come in several varieties, and which type I chose could make a significant difference. How are those tomatoes supposed to be processed? Should they be whole peeled, crushed, diced? Even “ground beef” isn’t specific enough for me. Would Master Chief go for 90 percent lean to stay in fighting form, or does he prefer the added richness of a 15 percent fat blend?
Lacking a sentient AI like Cortana to help me make these decisions, I guessed. I went with a russet potato because they seem hearty enough to exist in space (I wasn’t able to pin down exactly what kind of potatoes Matt Damon grew in The Martian). I also went with a sweet onion out of some vague hope that the sweetness would make the grating process less of a tear-fest. As for beef, the Good Stuff was on sale, so I went with that hoping it would bring at least some flavor.
When I got home, I grated the onion — the sweetness did not help. As I fought back tears, my wife yelled that she could smell onions from upstairs. After re-reading Downes’ instructions to “combine ground beef and grated onion, brown in pot,” I was dubious about not putting oil into the pot before adding ingredients, but the recipe didn’t call for it — so I gritted my teeth, ignored my instincts, and followed the recipe as written.
The onion and beef seemed to brown fine.
After adding the tomatoes, I ran into another frustrating limitation of the notes app screenshot recipe. “Simmer 2 hours” is the only instruction, with no mention of how often you should stir or whether you should cover the pot. I set a timer and decided I’d go for a half-cover and stir the pot every time I finished a round of Halo: Infinite.
After two hours of pro gaming (alright, I’ll be honest; an hour of pro gaming and an hour of cleaning the kitchen and additional prep), I added the beans and diced potatoes and crushed up the tomatoes a bit.
And, okay, it’s probably time to address the M313 Elephant in the room. This chili recipe has potatoes. No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before. Yes, those potatoes held their color and shape even after cooking.
By the time it was done, cooled, and ready for the fridge, it was almost 2AM — this is not a quick weeknight meal. Not having undergone extensive biological augmentation like Master Chief, I wasn’t strong enough to try the chili as breakfast. That meant I had to wait nearly 12 hours to sample the product of my labor.
I prepared my favorite East Fork bowl; gently skimmed the grease that had congealed upon the surface as directed by the last instruction in the recipe; fought off my cat, who was desperately trying to lick the chili bowl, probably out of jealousy; and glopped the cold chili (which had the consistency of wet cat food) into the bowl.
As my microwave sang its song to let me know it was done heating up the Chief’s chili, I could almost hear the monastic chants of Halo’s theme song in my head. I raised the spoon to my lips — smelling only the faintest of beefy odors.
And folks… it was not good. I mean, it wasn’t terrible; I was able to finish a bowl of it. I just wouldn’t call the experience “enjoyable.” I also don’t want to eat any more of it, which is a shame given that I’ve got like 4 quarts of this stuff.
The most striking thing is that there’s almost no flavor — I know that sounds obvious, given the lack of spices, but it really doesn’t taste strongly of anything. It’s mainly beef and tomatoes, so my wife predicted it’d end up tasting like spaghetti sauce. But it doesn’t! There’s almost no tomato flavor or acidity at all.
The whole thing tastes vaguely beefy and salty, kind of like you mixed beef tallow with pasta water. Despite the ample amount of salt I added, it just wasn’t enough to make up for the lack of other flavorful ingredients. Credit where credit’s due, though — it does absolutely resemble the descriptions of military food that I’ve heard from some family members who spent a lifetime in the service.
Oh, and the potatoes were, in fact, a bit of a relief — the ground beef got real mushy after four hours of simmering, but the potatoes are still reasonably firm. Would I rather they be chunks of bell pepper? Yes, but at this point, it’s any port in a storm or any sense of texture in one’s salty beef soup slop.
I don’t want to say that this is a definitively bad recipe and that you shouldn’t try it — if it sounds like exactly your type of thing, go for it! Food is very subjective, and I’m not here to judge anyone’s tastes, 1,500-word blog post withstanding.
Clearly, Downes and Master Chief have a different sense of flavor than I do. Which is why, in the grand tradition of Binging with Babish, I figured I’d offer some ideas on how to improve the next batch and maybe rank Onyx in the next cookoff:
- Add flavor.
- Cook the beef first and just drain the grease. Maybe leave a little bit to brown the onions with. When one is scooping chili into one’s gob, one shouldn’t have to be dodging tiny blobs of beef fat.
- Get fancy — my co-workers recommended cocoa powder and a good dark beer to enhance the beefiness and play off the spice you will presumably add.
- Alternatively, add raisins. You’ve already committed to making this stuff, so give yourself some extra textural surprises.