Don’t want to hear the backstory? Jump straight to the recipe.
Late one night I went down a YouTube rabbit hole and found the amazing world of 1980-90s fast food training videos. One of the standout videos is Wendy’s “Grill Skills” that teaches new employees how to grill Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers.
One thing that might stand out in this video is that fact burgers that break or have been left on the grill for too long are ground up and frozen to use in chili later. Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas made this genius strategy a long time a long time ago to reduce food waste and provide a healthy side dish. Wendy’s chili is widely considered one of the healthiest and most cost efficient fast food items that you can buy.
I found an old recipe for Wendy’s Chili that was posted to the Old_Recipes subreddit by the user Testostacles (amazing name) from a newspaper clipping that their mom saved from what they remember as being from the Boston Globe around 1990. Like I usually do for these articles, I looked through newspaper archives to try to verify this clipping but could not find anything that resembled to posted clipping. That does not mean it’s not authentic though, newspaper archives are notoriously incomplete.
In my research, I also heard that Dave Thomas himself submitted the recipe for his “Old Fashioned Chili” for a charity cookbook sold by Colorado Schools in 1994 to raise money. I couldn’t find any confirmation that this book actually contained the recipe, or how similar it was to the one that was posted by Testostacles – but I did manage to find an old copy of the book on Ebay that I bought for four dollars. To my delight, right on page 45 was a recipe for “Dave’s Old Fashioned Chili” submitted by Dave Thomas himself.
Comparing the recipes from the cookbook and newspaper showed that they were very similar. The only differences were the addition of a green pepper in the newspaper clipping, and the cookbook version used two cans of different beans compared the one can of beans in the newspaper version.
I went to the Wendy’s website to look at their nutrition information for chili and saw that the chili actually contains at least two types of beans AND green peppers.
As I suspected, each recipe was “almost” the real recipe, leaving out just one ingredient so that you could make something at home that was nearly as good as what you could get at Wendy’s. You can’t fool me though Wendy! I combined both recipes and made a test batch and the results were spot-on. I could not tell a cup of my homemade chili using the combined recipes from a cup bought at Wendy’s.
To make the chili taste more authentic, I used the lessons from the “Grill Skills” video to make a giant burger and then broke that up to use as my chili meat.
- 2 pounds fresh ground beef (80/20 is a good mixture)
- 1 quart (4 cups) of tomato juice
- One 29 ounce can of tomato puree
- One 15 ounce can of dark red kidney beans, drained
- One 15 ounce can of small red beans, pinto beans, or pink beans, drained (I used small red beans)
- One medium onion, chopped (about 1½ cups)
- ½ cup celery, diced (about one large stalk)
- ¼ cup green bell pepper diced (one medium sized pepper, with seeds/ribs/stem removed)
- ¼ cup (4 tablespoons) chili powder
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1½ teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ½ teaspoon oregano
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Preheat a large pan to medium heat with a light layer of oil
- Chop onion, celery, and green pepper. Each piece should be about the size of one your small beans.
- Drain cans of beans in a colander and rinse.
- Spread ground beef thinly across the whole pan, making a single giant hamburger. Press firmly and season with salt.
- When the meat sizzles, quickly flip and press down into pan. When red juices appear at the top of the meat, flip again and press into the pan once more. Again, when you see red juiced flip a final time to complete cooking. Turn off heat, and drain the giant burger by lifting it from the pan moving to a large pot.
- Break up the meat in the pot with a spatula into bean-sized pieces.
- Add the beans, chopped vegetables, and all remaining ingredients to the pot with the beef.
- Bring the pot a simmer and cover. Stir every 15 minutes for 1½ hours.
To serve, stir the pot in a figure-eight shape and scoop out a large portion. Chili can be topped with cheese, chopped onions, crackers, hot sauce, or yellow mustard. For a special treat, try adding a scoop of Tavern Relish.
Refrigerate in an airtight container for up to five days. Chili can also be frozen.