Two Macedonian brothers opened a small restaurant next to the downtown Empress Theater in 1922 and started a culinary phenomenon in the United States with their spice-flavored chili. The Cincinnati Chili is a very tasty dish. But, did you know that two brothers from Macedonia invented this local dish in the United States of America, which was voted among the twenty most famous dishes in the United States in 2013? And thus conquered all of America?!!! No?
Then read on, We’ll tell you the story of Tom and John Kiradjieff and the Cincinnati Chili Sauce…
But before we get into the two brothers who once left Macedonia to find a better life overseas, let’s see what the Cincinnati Chili is.
Cincinnati Chili—Ways and Coneys
The Cincinnati chili is a meat sauce with a Mediterranean flavor that is used as a topping for spaghetti (Two-Ways) or hot dogs (Coneys). Both dishes were created by Macedonian immigrant restaurateurs in the 1920s. In 2013, the Smithsonian magazine named it one of the 20 Most Famous Dishes in America.
Ingredients include ground beef, water or broth, tomato paste, spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove, cumin, chili powder, bay leaf, and in some home recipes, unsweetened dark chocolate in a soupy consistency. Other toppings include cheese, onions, and beans. Certain combinations of toppings are called “Ways”. Ways are often served with oyster crackers and a mild hot sauce. Cincinnati chili is almost never served or eaten in a bowl.
Its name is often used for comparison with the well-known chili con carne. But the two dishes differ in consistency, taste, and serving methods. The Cincinnati chili is more akin to pasta sauces like Bolognese, or similar to the spiced hot dog topping sauces common in other parts of the US.
While this dish is served in many local restaurants, it is most commonly served with the over 250 independent and franchise “chili parlors” (restaurants specializing in Cincinnati chili) in the greater Cincinnati area with franchise locations throughout Ohio as well as in Kentucky, Indiana and Florida. A small chain also has locations in the Middle East. The dish is the most famous regional food of the Cincinnati area.
How did the Cincinnati Chili get to Cincinnati? Via Macedonia!
Macedonian brothers Tom and John Kiradjieff invented the Cincinnati Chili. The brothers were native to Aegean Macedonia, the part of Macedonia in what is now northern Greece. They fled overseas from the village of Rupišta (modern Greek: Argos Orestikon) in the Kostur (Kastoria) region.
Aegean Macedonia was occupied by the Greeks in autumn 1912 and was granted to the Greek kingdom a year later at the peace conference in Bucharest. From then on, the living conditions of the Macedonians in northern Greece began steadily and rapidly to deteriorate.
Atanas “Tom” Kiradjieff and Ivan “John” Kiradjieff were both born in the 1890s and emigrated from Rupišta in 1921. The brothers fled the Balkan wars, ethnic rivalries and bigotry that were rampant in Aegean Macedonia.
They had several small jobs, but their breakthrough came with their own restaurant in Cincinnati, near the Empress Theater. However, it took time. They initially offered the usual dishes in their restaurant. But they quickly realized that you have to offer something unique, something of your own, something that had never existed before in order to attract the attention of customers. Their restaurant wasn’t the only one around the theater!
Thus, in October 1922, the Macedonian brothers began serving a “stew with traditional Mediterranean spices” as a topping for hot dogs. They called this new creation Coneys at their hot dog stand, next to the burlesque theater. The Empress was also the namesake for their restaurant.
Tom Kiradjieff used the sauce to modify a traditional dish that was/is also common in Aegean Macedonia. According to the American press, Pastitsio allegedly used Moussaka or Saltsa Kima to develop a dish he called chili spaghetti.
He first came up with a recipe to cook the spaghetti in the chili, but changed his method at the request of customers and began serving the sauce as a topping. Finally, he added shredded cheese as a topping for both the chili spaghetti and the coneys in response to customer requests.
The Macedonian brothers also invented the “Ways” ordering system!
After the dish was a big hit, they served their chili in different ways, the Macedonian brothers invented the so called Way System to make customer orders more efficient.
The style has since been copied and modified by many other restaurant owners, often Greek and other Macedonian immigrants who had worked at Empress restaurants and then, inspired by the Macedonian brothers, opened their own chili parlors. Often following the exact same business model, some even set up their restaurants next to theaters – like the Kaladjieffs’ original model.
The Way system
Ordering Cincinnati chili is based on a specific set of ingredients: chili, spaghetti, shredded cheddar, diced onion, and kidney beans. The number in front of the chili’s “Way” determines which ingredients are included in each chili order.
The different ways contain the following ingredients:
- Two-way: spaghetti with chili (also called “chili spaghetti”)
- Three-way: spaghetti, chili and cheese
- Four-way onion: spaghetti, chili, onions and cheese
- Four-way bean: spaghetti, chili, beans and cheese
- Five-way: spaghetti, chili, beans, onions and cheese
Some chili parlors also serve the dish “inverted”: the cheese is served on the bottom to melt better. Some restaurants, including Skyline and Gold Star, do not use the term four-way bean, instead using the term four-way to refer to a three-way bean plus the customer’s choice of onions or beans.
Some restaurants add additional ingredients to the Way System. For example, Dixie Chili offers a six-way that adds minced garlic to a five-way.
Cincinnati chili is also used as a hot dog topping. This specific hot dog is called a Coney, a regional variation of the Coney Island chili hot dog that is topped with shredded cheddar cheese, a so-called “cheese Coney”. Standard Coneys also includes mustard and chopped onions. The three-way and cheese Coneys are the most popular varieties.
Few customers order a bowl of Cincinnati Chili. Most chili parlors do not offer regular chili as a regular menu item. Polly Campbell, food editor for The Cincinnati Enquirer, commented on ordering a bowl of chili: “Ridiculous. Would you order a bowl of spaghetti sauce?”.
Empress faced competition from Greeks and Jordanians
Founded by the Macedonians Tom and John Kiradjieff, the Empress restaurant grew into a franchise. Empress was also the largest chili parlor chain in Cincinnati until 1949, when a former Empress employee and Greek immigrant, Nicholas Lambrinides, founded Skyline Chili.
Later, in 1965, four brothers named Daoud, immigrants from Jordan, bought a restaurant called Hamburger Heaven from a former Empress employee. Noticing that the Cincinnati chili outperformed the hamburgers on their menu, they changed the restaurant’s name to Gold Star Chili.
As of 2015, Skyline (130+ locations) and Gold Star were the largest Chili salon chains in Cincinnati, while Empress had just two locations, down from over a dozen during the chain’s most successful period.
In addition to Empress, Skyline and Gold Star, there are also smaller chains like Dixie Chili and Deli, as well as numerous independent companies including the renowned Camp Washington Chili. Other independent companies include Pleasant Ridge Chili, Blue Ash Chili, Park Chili Parlor, Price Hill Chili, Chili Time, the Orlando-based Cincinnati Chili Company and Blue Jay Restaurant, which has more than 250 chili parlors in total.
In 1985, one of Gold Star Chili’s founders, Fahid Daoud, returned to Jordan where he opened his own restaurant called Chili House. Outside of Jordan, as of 2020, Chili House had locations in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Oman, Palestine, Turkey and Qatar.
In addition to chili parlors, a version of Cincinnati chili is commonly served at many local restaurants. Arnold’s Bar and Grill, the oldest bar in town, serves a vegetarian Cincy Lentils. A dish ordered in “various ways”. The Melt Eclectic Cafe offers a vegan 3-way kitchen. For Restaurant Week 2018, a local mixologist created a cocktail called the Manhattan Skyline, a Cincinnati chili-flavored whiskey cocktail.
The history of Cincinnati Chili shares many similarities with the seemingly independent but concurrent development of the Coney Island hot dog in other areas of the United States. “Virtually all” were developed by Greek or Macedonian immigrants who passed through Ellis Island while fleeing the aftermath of the Balkan Wars in the first two decades of the 20th century.
Miscellaneous about the Cincinnati Chili
Cincinnati Chili is the Cincinnati area’s “Best Known Regional Food”. According to the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, Cincinnatians consume more than 910,000 kg of Cincinnati chilies topped with 850,000 kg of shredded cheddar cheese each year. Total industry revenue in 2014 was $250 million.
Anthony Bourdain called it “the history of America on your plate”. National food critics Jane and Michael Stern wrote, “As connoisseurs of blue-plate food, we consider Cincinnati chilies to be one of America’s staples” and “one of this nation’s most distinctive regional dishes.”
The Huffington Post named it one of the “15 Beloved Regional Dishes”. In 2000, Camp Washington Chili won the James Beard Foundation’s America’s Classics Award.
In 2013, Smithsonian named Cincinnati Chili one of the “20 Most Famous Foods in America” and named Camp Washington Chili as their chili of choice.
John McIntyre, writing in The Baltimore Sun, called it “the most perfect fast food.” In 2015, Thrillist called the dish “the only food you need to eat in Ohio.”
But there are also critical voices towards the court. The Medium Eater called it “America’s most controversial pasta plate.” It is common for those unfamiliar with chili con carne and expecting chili con carne to “scorn” it as a bad example of chili. A 2013 piece published by sports and culture website Deadspin even called it “terrible diarrheal sludge.”
In the American media, the dish is often touted as a “Greek invention”, whereby the origin of the inventors is not taken into account, but rather the fact that the hometown of the two Macedonian brothers is now on modern Greek territory.
You got hungry? Than, here you go:
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 large onion, chopped
1 pound extra-lean ground beef (hamburger)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon red (cayenne) pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
1 (16-ounce) package uncooked dried spaghetti pasta
Toppings (see below)
In a large frying pan over medium-high heat, sautonion, ground beef, garlic, and chili powder until ground beef is slightly cooked.
Add allspice, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne pepper, salt, unsweetened cocoa or chocolate, tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, cider vinegar, and water. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, 1 hour 30 minutes. Remove from heat.
Cook spaghetti according to package directions and transfer onto individual serving plates (small oval plates are traditional).
Ladle Cincinnati Chili mixture over the cooked spaghetti and serve with toppings of your choice.
Oyster crackers are served in a separate container on the side.
- Oyster Crackers
- Shredded Cheddar Cheese
- Chopped Onion
- Kidney Beans (16-ounce) can
Makes 6 to 8 servings.