Artisanal cheese taste-offs, cupcake bake-offs, beer experiments: These events now dot the New York (to be fair, mostly Brooklyn) cool calendar, attracting the kind of DIY-inclined urbanite who trawls Chowhound message boards, watches Top Chef, and traipses through the outer borough hinterlands in search of "authentic" fare. All the while, of course, vehemently insisting that he or she is definitely not a foodie.
One such DIY-inclined Chowhound-trawler is Matt Timms, whose cook-off events, the Chili Takedowns, have launched a bumper crop of underground culinary expos. Puttering along on his moped in a star-stickered helmet, Timms, who is 37, might be geek chic's answer to Rod Kimble. To judge by the reaction of the barista at the coffee shop where we meet to talk, Timms might also be something of a hero. She's the sous chef to the People's Choice Award-winner at Timms's Bacon Takedown, and she longingly recalled her teammate's "Baco-Avo Goat-Lato" and all of the people who were "super-stoked about the bacon and the booze but definitely took their voting seriously."
"I’m someone in the underground whom sponsors can use to access a totally different audience."
Ten years ago, when Timms was a penny-pinching, aspiring actor-filmmaker new to Brooklyn, he began cajoling his friends into making vats of inexpensive chili at "half-assed potlucks" he ran out of his apartment. Before long the events became decidedly less half-assed, and were held at a succession of increasingly large Brooklyn bars. A decade later, he's parlayed his side job into his main gig. Against a backdrop of heavy metal and beer, sellout crowds pay to sample amateurs' wares and vote for their punnily-titled favorites. (Speaking of which, on January 23 Timms embarked on his most audacious experiment yet, a jerky competition he's dubbed "The World's Biggest Jerk-Off.") The Takedown empire has grown to include bacon, cookie, and tofu, and large national sponsors such as Hormel Black Label Bacon and the American Lamb Council have bankrolled Takedown roadshows in cities around the country.
In the following interview, which has been edited for length, clarity, and lots of cheerful profanity, Timms talks to Gelf Magazine about discussing the Jerk-Off with a straight face, what non-professionals add to the New York food scene, and whether or not being pretentious about food is a good thing.Gelf Magazine: Where do your Takedowns fit in the New York food scene?
Matt Timms: I see Takedowns as very much a part of the underground Brooklyn scene, meaning that whole local, artisanal crew that makes Roberta's its hub. We definitely owe a lot of our popularity to food bloggers like Cathy Erway from Not Eating Out in New York, who embraced the Takedowns early on. That kind of grassroots PR is probably less apt to happen nowadays, because the scene has gotten so much bigger, but it was really through meeting different writers and restaurant people that we started growing. Of course, the area is grey now that so many high-end kitchens are using artisanal ingredients. That means the "underground scene," such as it is, is fairly ambiguous. But even if we're not total amateurs, I'm definitely not a professional cook. I'm just some dude.
New Yorkers are so entitled about eating out at these fancy places. But guess what? You'll forget the meal that you ate at Per Se a day later. If you're a professional chef from a culinary-school background, you're a craftsman using a factory-based, assembly-line process. Any Takedown cook, even one with middling skills, is apt to be incredibly caring and careful over the finite quantity of food that they're serving. So it's bound to be better than any fancy restaurant meal. OK, maybe not better, but definitely made with more love.
Gelf Magazine: Artisanal jerky's been attracting a lot of hype recently, and now you're running a jerky Takedown for the first time. Is that how you tend to come up with your new Takedowns? Do you try to capitalize on trendy or buzzy foods?
Matt Timms: Well, I knew I had to do the Jerk-Off because the name is gold. But in general, not at all. That's what was so great about my first Bacon Takedown. I thought it up on my own, just brainstorming all the million different ways you can cook with bacon. And hey, it's bacon! Who doesn't like bacon? The fact that the Bacon Takedown tapped this perfect storm, with the introduction of the Bacon Explosion wrap, and a million bacon fansites cropping up, was a total coincidence. As soon as that happened, of course, everyone made this big, ridiculous deal about how bacon jumped the shark. Maybe certain things about bacon jumped the sharkbacon chapstick, bacon jokes, bacon candybut bacon itself didn't jump the shark. I mean, it's a food item.
Gelf Magazine: I've actually never tried bacon.
Matt Timms: You're not missing too much.
Gelf Magazine: Really? You just waxed rhapsodic about how great it is.
Matt Timms: No way! I'm definitely not going to wax rhapsodic about bacon. I can't stand it when I'm talking to someone, and it slowly dawns on me that he has nothing to talk about but food. People that think they're inventing jokes about bacon are the worst. I've seen all the T-shirts and sometimes people at my events are all wink-wink, haha, bacon. Come on, it's just food.
Gelf Magazine: Have you ever tried a Takedown that flopped?
Matt Timms: I ran a salsa event a couple of years ago that shat the bed. People were used to sitting down at a restaurant and getting salsa at their tables for free. They didn't want to pay fifteen bucks for just salsa. Maybe this Jerk-Off event will flop, too. Fingers crossed!
Gelf Magazine: As a person who constantly thinks in double and triple entendres, I really admire the way you can earnestly reference the "Jerk-Off" while keeping a straight face.
Matt Timms: It's hard. I know for a fact that this one cook is planning on being simply insufferable on stage. She told me she has millions of puns to break out.
Gelf Magazine: As the Takedowns have grown more legit, have competitors grown more risk-averse?
Matt Timms: There have only been a few truly wiggety-wack entries, and those tended to be early on. There was one chili made with canned crab. One woman, who is admittedly certifiably insane, made a spicy candy chili out of melted chocolate and candy. Someone else made Cheez Whiz fondue featuring these bright orange balls glowing up at you from the pot. That entry got one vote.
Gelf Magazine: Isn't all that talk about how your events are just about this wild and crazy time a little disingenuous now that your sponsors include companies famous for selling $300 Dutch ovens and fancy knives?
Matt Timms: I'm actually so paranoid right now that I'm coming across as this reflexively anti-foodie person with some anti-pretension agenda. The truth is, maybe there's something inherently pretentious about the fact that these self-taught cooks believe that they can create complex, intricate dishes without professional training. In a certain sense, pretense is a good thing, because it means that you care enough to try. Takedowns demand that competitors make samples to feed 250 people, so cooks will always be fairly serious. I don't even call the contestants amateurs anymore, because that implies the food is going to blow.
Gelf Magazine: Plus you can rattle off lists of your favorite joints in the city, just like any self-respecting foodie. I hate to break it to you, but the kind of person who just airily referred to the best meal he's ever had taking place in some "old grandmother's house in South India, in a little village you'd never find on a map?"
Matt Timms: Yeah, as much as I decry the New York food scene, I'm sort of in it. I should just own it.
Gelf Magazine: Do you think people come to the Takedown ironically? How much of its appeal is due to a kitschy thrill for slumming it at a fondue cook-off?
Matt Timms: I don't think it's about the kitsch element at all. When we first started, New York Magazine ran a writeup mocking these hipsters in Brooklyn who think they know how to make chili. But as much as we've been stamped with this hipster badge, we're not just guys in sunglasses and glow-in-the-dark jackets. At the end of the day, cooking is just not that cool.
Gelf Magazine: You've expanded the Takedown beyond its humble Brooklyn roots to places like Austin, Chicago, and San Francisco. How do you choose your destinations?
Matt Timms: Well, I'll give the sponsors a list of cities that I'd like to visit. I really wanted to hit up South by Southwest in Austin, and Chicago is a huge city for meat eaters. Our interests have to align a bit, so the sponsors will veto a city where they don't have a market presence.
Gelf Magazine: Have you ever gotten pushback from audiences that accuse you of being a New York carpetbagger?
Matt Timms: We ran a lamb takedown in New Orleans that got tons of press coverage but still ended up being pretty small. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but I think the turnout had something to do with how set New Orleans residents are about their local cuisinetheir muffuletta sandwiches and famous restaurants. All my Takedowns have local entrants, but maybe the mere idea of a visiting New Yorker aroused skepticism.
Gelf Magazine: Any other differences you've noticed across cities?
Matt Timms: San Francisco is 10 times more of a serious foodie town than New York. No matter how much lip service I'll pay to keeping things about the good times more than the food, it won't matter in San Francisco, and the crowds there will come out only for grass-fed lamb. New Yorkers just hate waiting in line. I'm really proud of the tricks I've devised to streamline the process, but every so often I'll have to placate someone who thinks it's simply unacceptable that he has to wait in line for 45 minutes.
Gelf Magazine: Your national sponsors like Hormel Black Label Bacon and the American Lamb Council supply raw ingredients to contestants, dole out prizes such as a year's worth of ham, and coordinate your PR efforts when you hit the road. What do you bring to the table for them?
Matt Timms: Any company that approached me was impressed at the amount of media impressions I was getting. Hormel and the Lamb Council already have standard ways of targeting print readers and magazine consumers. My value is in the internet buzz that I generate among food bloggers and Twitterers. I'm someone in the underground whom they can use to access a totally different audience.
Gelf Magazine: So when you're speaking with food bloggers on the road, do you make sure to remind them to mention Hormel?
Matt Timms: Sure. I need to plug my sponsors if I want to continue creating value for them. Dealing with a PR department paid for by Hormel can cloud the issue. There are times that I'll set up shop in some city, and I'll be speaking with a food writer who thinks he's covering a full-blown Hormel event. But ultimately, who cares? I'm making enough money, so I drop the name and get on with it. And I don't think that matters very much to the participants, either. Despite companies slapping their names on stuff, Takedowns don't feel like corporate NASCAR events at all.
Gelf Magazine: But isn't there an anti-corporate sentiment propelling a lot of the underground, DIY food scene? Are you worried you may alienate people in the scene by partnering with big corporate sponsors like Hormel?
Matt Timms: If there's a backlash, it's been behind my back. Maybe a couple of people won't compete in my contests because the meat doesn't meet their ethical standards. But lamb is so expensive that no one would enter my contests if they had to plunk down $300 to make 300 bites of lamb for strangers. Ultimately, there are hypocrisies everywhere. Vegetarians disagree with locavores who eat grass-fed meat, but then there are plenty of horror stories about the dairy industry, too.
Gelf Magazine: Are you agnostic about your food choices outside Takedowns?
Matt Timms: At the end of the day, I think about my health. The only two things that matter to me are portion control and getting enough exercise. In New York, I'll try to keep a mostly vegetarian diet, only eating meat if it's going to be really well-prepared (even if it's not necessarily the highest quality). If I'm trekking out to deep Queens to eat at SriPraPhai, I'm certainly not going to deprive myself of the experience of trying the pork dishes there. And sure, I'll try that raw whole milk that they sell in those glass bottles at the store, but only because I'm curious. Am I going to buy it every time I shop? No. That seems a bit much.
Beyond that, I don't really look at environmental or ethical considerations. I guess my choices are actually pretty arbitrary. I should really try to be more thoughtful. The big lesson from this interview is that anything I claim to believe can be easily discounted.
This article was originally published on February 22, 2011.