Despite the heat, heavy lifting and pressure to feed the masses, Amber Wakley’s face and stomach actually ache from laughing so much during the annual Rhythm & Roots music and dance festival.
Amber is a huge part of the traveling medicine show that is the Chili Brothers, who have served their Cajun specialties at Rhythm & Roots since day one. Always entertaining, they’ve got numerous miracle cure-alls – jambalaya, red beans and rice, Cajun crawfish boil, and blackened scallops, shrimp and alligator – all served family-style on picnic tables under a tent.
Producer Chuck Wentworth says the consistent, top-quality food make Chili Brothers the most popular vendor at the Labor Day weekend festival at Ninigret Park. “They’re an institution. Plus, they have the right spirit, the kind of vibe we’re looking for,” he says. “They don’t just sell food, they’re part of the whole scene.”
The Chili Brothers are a colorful crew of family and friends who love being together, goofing around and creating silly rituals, “but we take the food part extremely seriously,” says Amber, who doesn’t like to be called boss, owner or manager. “We’re so much more than that, and no one person is in charge,” she says.
The Chili Brothers Food Company Traveling Medicine Show (yes, that’s the official name) was born in the early 1990s. Co-founders Kenny Lamb and Ken “Pa” Hughes, both native Rhode Islanders, thought they could have some laughs while indulging their passion for cooking authentic Cajun food, all made from scratch. Their first gig was at an earlier incarnation of Rhythm & Roots in Escoheag. “We had more fun than anybody, so we thought we had to do this some more,” Kenny recalls.
With little more than a burner, a pot and a handful of friends, Kenny and Pa began serving up meals at music festivals around New England and New York. As their popularity grew, so did the menu, equipment and crew, including a 12-year-old named Avery Schold.
Avery introduced himself to the Chili Brothers in a windstorm at a festival in the Catskills. He happened to be standing near their tent when a gust of wind tore it from the ground. Avery jumped up and grabbed a pole to keep it from blowing away. Kenny recalls, “I said, ‘Kid, let it go before you go with it!’ ”
He was hired the next summer to wash dishes, and he worked consistently, except for a couple of years in his late teens. Then he showed up at a festival in Connecticut with the Chili Brothers logo tattooed on his arm, Kenny says. “He said, ‘I’m back and I’m back for keeps.’ ”
Amber also noticed Avery. They met while she was working for another food vendor at Rhythm & Roots in 2006. The western New York native planned a corporate marketing career, but within seven months she had dropped her plans and moved to Stafford, Conn., to be with him.
Kenny and Pa were ready to slow down, so the business was naturally sold to Avery. After only a year of ownership, he passed away in 2013 at age 30. Numb with grief, but committed to keep going, Amber, Avery’s parents and their friends continued the Chili Brothers tradition. “Now we run everything as a mission,” Amber says. “We call it ‘feed the people.’ That was Avery’s motto.”
Amber says 75% of the Chili Brothers’ profits go to Flo’s Friendship Kitchen, which serves and delivers meals from a Stafford Springs church, and a couple of families each year receive unexpected, sizable checks from the Chili Brothers to get them through tough times.
They’ve fed Rhythm & Roots volunteers and musicians over the years, often for free. Kenny says all the Chili Brothers have full-time jobs, so it’s never about the money, it’s about having a great time, reuniting with old friends, making new ones and spreading the joy. “We don’t count the money, we count the people, we count the faces. That’s all.”
Rhythm & Roots can be bittersweet too. A tree planted in Avery’s memory is marked with a sparkly peace sign and adorned with Mardi Gras beads every year. Amber became an ordained minister so she could marry Avery’s cousin by the tree last year. And every day, as soon as the sun goes down, the Chili Brothers take a one-minute sunset break, even if there’s 100 people in line. Every customer can join in the toast for Avery and for the gratitude of another day.
With a huge circle of family, friends and returning customers, Rhythm & Roots is more than a music festival to the Chili Brothers.
“The Wentworth family, staff, customers and longtime volunteers mean so much to us,” Amber says. “It’s just amazing the relationships we have built over the years. While we’ve shared in so much joy, we’ve collectively helped each other through those difficult times. The ‘festival family’ is a very real and ever-growing circle. It’s authentic, beautiful and like any family, never dull!”