Ten years ago Matt Timms started cooking chili in his Brooklyn apartment, inviting friends over for chili parties. Who could have imagined that ”America’s most important food competition” would grow from such humble beginnings?
Since then, Matt has been taking his themed amateur cook-offs around the country, drawing crowds of 200 each time, with awards for juidge’s favorite and people’s choice. Now there’s a Takedown for everything: fondue, cookies, even avocados. Bacon is huge, but chili still reigns supreme. So after all these years, his recipe must surely be the best, right?
How did the Takedowns happen?
I was making chili for myself, because I was starving in my apartment. So I’d make a ton of it, and it only gets better in the fridge. Then I joined the International Chili Society (ICS), and started making chili for my friends, for cook-offs. And then it just got big.
After all the chili recipes you’ve tried, is yours the best?
No, mine is never the best! I mean, I do have my own recipes that I’m passionate about, but especially now that I’ve done all these Takedowns and tried so many, they just blow my head off. I had a pineapple chili awhile ago, which was amazing.
Do participants in New York take the chili Takedowns as seriously as those in the South?
Oh yeah, but a different kind of serious. And I’ve always shied away from that. In everything that I’ve done, the concept of getting too serious about food is insanely boring to me.
It’s critical that my chili Takedowns don’t follow those stringent Texas chili rules. I want vegans to enter. I make it so you can cook with any type of meat. As opposed to the ICS chili, where everything has to be cubed just so, no visible herbs, their chilis are more of a chemistry set.
How do you choose the theme?
It’s just whatever I love, whatever hits me on a gut level. Something that multiple people are going to like. I started with chili, and chili’s always been a national obsession, so I just joined that obsession.
Do people get upset when they lose?
It happened in Denver. This contestant actually cried, and I felt so bad for her. But at the end of the day, everyone’s partying.
Why do you think the Takedowns are so successful?
I’m really concerned about the quality and fun of the events, so I never oversell. I have zero complaints.
It’s become a little community, which is fantastic. I have repeat offenders that take part in Takedown after Takedown, and I’ve become friends with many of them. And I give 10% of all sales to my sister’s charity, Women’s Education Project.
Would you ever do a really obscure Takedown?
Avocados are pretty obscure, people were making drinks with them and baking cakes with them. But there’s a reason the themes are so universal – even people in New York who would get excited over something like a miso Takedown, that’s only interesting to a few. I’d rather talk to people who freak out over a bowl of chili.
What Takedowns would you really love to do?
I was thinking of doing a Jewish Takedown, but that might get too intense. I really want to do a Game of Thrones Takedown, and I’d love to do a Treme Takedown.
What’s coming up for you?
I’m really looking forward to the ice cream Takedown at The Bell House in Brooklyn on July 8th. I’ve got Il Laboratorio del Gelato, Adirondack and Blue Marble coming in as judges. And I’ll be selling these awesome tea towels designed by my friend – could be my best idea ever!
I’ve got more bacon Takedowns in San Francisco, Chicago and Brooklyn, and the 10th anniversary chili Takedown in November!
Which Takedowns have been the most memorable for you?
The guy that won the mac and cheese Takedown presented a ‘mac and cheese experience’. It had grated truffles, came with a chaser of mushroom veloute, it came in a couple of different cups, you ate one, then the next, and the judges were really impressed by that. But the majority of people were there for the mac and cheese.
I did a chowder Takedown at Jimmy’s No. 43, and this guys shows up with his version of chowder. He did an Asian broth with mussels or oysters, claiming that chowder essentially means a fish soup and you can make it however you like. I was looking forward to that Takedown – I’m from New England! Everybody knows what chowder is. So when people get a little too clever, it just affects them. The crowd wants chowder!
The cassoulet at Jimmy’s is always great, and it’s a fundraiser. But hey, the chili is the most meaningful to me. It’s where it all began.