—THE CHOW 13—
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Four years ago, Brooklyn-based actor and comedian Matt Timms hung hand-drawn posters around Williamsburg advertising a chili cookoff beneath an illustration of a warrior princess riding on a war pig. (“I wanted people to say, ‘What’s that D&D character doing on a chili poster?’” says Timms.) The idea was to get a bunch of amateurs to show up to Bar Matchless with their most original chili. Ticket-holders would get to taste all the dishes and pick the winner. Timms had been hosting chili parties in his home for years, and wanted to “blast” his “living room out into a greater space.”
When the evening arrived, there was a line out the door.
Since then, not a good-weather weekend goes by that New York City doesn’t see some kind of cookoff—a home-brew- and cheese-themed competition, a cassoulet contest, or a “Ramen-off”—from somebody following in Timms’s footsteps. And the phenomenon has spread around the nation. San Francisco had three cupcake bake-offs in October alone.
Timms’s events, still the most regularly occurring, have included themes such as bacon, tofu, salsa, and cookies. Entrants are rank amateurs (in a New York Times article, one judge observed that a competitor’s green tea tofu brûlée looked “like snot”). But the contests’ jovial, “Let’s just wing it!” spirit is their biggest selling point. Timms believes they are an inspiring attack on the deflated, couch-potato America Michael Pollan writes about, the one that watches the Food Network and doesn’t cook. Says Timms: “The seriousness of highfalutin food events, and food in general, has gotta go.”
Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?
“My mom. She made chili every year at this big party, and it was so good. I could have lost my virginity to this girl. We’re about 15 or 16 years old. She was trying to get me to go into the bedroom with her. I had a bowl of my mom’s chili in my hand. I looked at her, I looked at the chili. I looked at her, I looked at the chili. Then I took a bite of chili and dropped her hand. It was one of my biggest regrets, but that chili was so good!”
How can your contestants afford to cook for so many people?
“Typically the chefs pay to make 250 bites, or samples’ worth, of food. It’s not an extraordinary thing to ask people to do that. It can be, based on what the food is. But as I’ve gotten bigger and a little bit more press, I’ve been getting sponsors. For the Lamb Takedown on October 4, the American Lamb Board [gave] the contestants 10 to 15 pounds of lamb—any cut they want[ed].
Do you agree with the characterization of your events as “hipster”?
“I don’t think they really have a demographic. You got a lot of fun twenty- to thirtysomethings, but then again, some contestants are like Ida, a 50-year-old woman who is president of the local Star Trek fan club. [The rock band] TV on the Radio came to one—it was so dope! They were just in a crowd of people discussing so sincerely and seriously all the different recipes they tried. So, it wasn’t really the odious hipster event you may have imagined.”