The Time I Made Chili For Willie

The Time I Made Chili For Willie

A country music legend and the quest for the perfect chili.

When Mark Rothbaum calls, you pick up the phone. Mark and I met at a dinner I prepared for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the late 90s to raise funds for Free Tibet. We became friends and I’d say the rest is history, but history becomes rich with details with a friend like Mark. Mark is an Ironman triathlete who looks twenty years younger than his actual age. We share a variety of values, like farm-to-table economies, clean food, benevolence and a genuine aversion to B.S. 

Most notably, Mark is the long-standing and exceptionally effective manager of the one and only Willie Nelson. Mark called me one day a few years back and asked if I could make a good, “real” Texas beef chili. I was happy to tell him that I had actually won a few chili competitions in my life and would be happy to oblige. He explained that Willie was on a determined mission to find someone who could cook a truly authentic Texas beef chili - no beans, no tomatoes, no ground beef. Just braised beef with a sauce composed of the right blend of chilis and spices. 

I loved the challenge, and offered to create both a meat and a vegan version for the Nelsons. I cooked a batch of each, froze them, and mailed them to Willie and Annie, his amazing wife and an excellent cook in her own right. If they liked them, I told them I would be happy to make them chili any time. 

A week later, the phone rang. I picked up to find Mark, Annie and Willie on the other end of the line – all raving about the chili. Annie even gave me a few tips on how to make the already delicious vegan chili taste “cheesy” by adding nutritional yeast – an amazing trick that made it taste like it was made with actual meat. 

To me, our Fiery Veggie Chili will always remind me of this moment, of Mark, and of this amazingly generous family who represent the best and most authentic humanity that can be found in the music industry. Willie Nelson is definitely the Paul Newman and Dalai Lama of the music world, all wrapped into one! 

-Michel Nischan