Matt Timms threw his first Chili Takedown, a no-rules cook-off for amateurs, five years ago on “a lark.” These days that takedown is a biannual event, while tofu, lamb, cookies, fondue, and more have since gone head-to-head, and a host of other cook-off events have arisen–the Brooklyn Beer Experiment, the Guactacular Invitational, and the Park Slope Pork Off are just a few. Timms is still something of an aspiring actor and filmmaker–a film he shot, Up With Me, was recently picked up by IFC–but the takedowns increasingly take all of his time. In advance of the second-annual Cookie Takedown, happening at the Bell House this Sunday evening, Fork in the Road sat down with Timms at a Williamsburg café.
There are a lot of cook-off events going on in New York right now, though I understand yours was pretty much the first. What do you think is behind our collective cook-off mania?
I think it’s always been here–it’s just harnessing that energy. Even just the idea of competitive cooking–the ICS [International Chili Society] has been around for years. I was able to make this organic by harnessing a fresh take on it that’s not Midwestern moms going to the Pillsbury bake-off each year.
How would you characterize your events as different from some of the others?
Mine are large-scale and totally intimate and unpretentious, totally embracing the amateur. There’s no pressure on the cook, it’s not a major event draped in publicity and sponsorships. It’s just a stupid little event, it always was. Everyone’s smiling by the end of the evening. People make new friends. There’s none of that sort of “professional” vibe–you might as well be in a person’s living room.
The contestants are amateurs. They take these huge risks that are supposedly reserved for somebody straight out of the French Culinary Institute, and they succeed, which is badass–or they fail, and sometimes that’s even cooler.
What are some unusual dishes that people have come up with at the various takedowns?
There was a bacon-blue cheese cookie last year. There was a candy chili. It was like, melted chocolate, chili peppers–it was fun. I saw chili empanadas at one of my chili competitions.
Were you into food before you started doing takedowns?
I’m into food just like every New Yorker. I used to go on Chowhound like crazy, and I swear I know what the best Cubano is, and I know where the best hamburger is, the best pizza.
Where is the best Cubano?
The best Cubano is in Dumbo–Pedro’s. It’s a hit-or-miss Cubano, but when it hits, it’s better than any Cubano I’ve had anywhere.
Burger Joint in the Parker Meridien.
Not Grimaldi’s. It’s over in deepest Brooklyn, the old man runs it…Di Fara’s! And oh, my God, the best ramen is Minca.
What are some other favorite restaurants of yours?
I have a doctor friend who always gets me out to really nice restaurants that have opened up. I mean, I’m cognizant that something has been prepared really well by a chef. But for me, a beautifully prepared plate with a dash of this and a swirl of that never really does it for me. Like wd~50–they do theatrics and it’s fun, but I’d rather eat at something like…Minca.
So you’re more of a fan of low food, versus high food?
Definitely. High food always ends up disappointing. And invariably, the people that go there and eat that stuff, they’re doing it for different reasons than a love of food. If you really genuinely love food, you cook. The people that go to wd~50 aren’t foodies, they’re bankers…I’m just generalizing.
Are the takedowns the main thing you’re doing now?
And are you making a living?
I’ve got to get my business model straight, but yeah, I pretty much am.
Can you give me any idea how that works?
I’m starting to go national with it. I have another meeting today, where I’m going to be talking a multi-city tour, with some sponsors who are working with me. I have another sponsor who wants to do a three-city tour.
What kind of sponsors?
Did I read that you had a sponsor for the lamb takedown?
Yeah, the Lamb Board was awesome. They were my sponsor, and they hooked up all my cooks. It’s great for the food companies, but it’s also great for the cooks. Because I want people to be able to afford to make the food.
What else is coming up for you?
I’m working on a cookbook right now where I’m going to tell people how to host a takedown themselves, all the details that go into it. I’m shopping it around right now. It’s going to be a takedown party planner. I think anyone can do it. They can do it in their house, they can do it at their local. And I’m going to have an Aphrodisiac Takedown around Valentine’s Day.
That’s fun. How do you pick your next events?
Just something that has a ring to it. I wait for ideas to come to me in the shower. I never force myself to brainstorm. I have a hot sauce competition I’d like to do. I want to do a Hare Krishna Takedown–getting Hare Krishnas to cook the food. But I haven’t really discussed it with them yet.