Bragging Rights

At kitchen smack-downs, Brooklyn cooks get their game on.

Mike O’Neill is on a roll. At the Bacon Takedown, his Bourbon ice cream laced with crisp bits of brown honey-baked bacon won first place in the audience’s vote. At the Tofu Takedown, his ginger crusted tofu with sweet soy glaze came away with second place in that category, and placed third with the judges.

And tonight, pots and pans are strewn around the kitchen of his Red Hook apartment. He places bags of produce from the Borough Hall Greenmarket beside a bottle of sake and a sack of cannelloni rice like a casting director sizing up his actors. Although it’s two weeks away, he’s test-driving his entry for the Risotto Challenge. He scratches his chin-length chestnut hair in concentration and reaches for the radishes.

Cook-off fever has spread over Brooklyn like oil across a hot skillet and O’Neill, a 27-year-old freelance TV and film location scout, has been in it to win it since the beginning. In his first Chili Takedown (the original “Takedown” cook-off created by Matt Timms back in 2005), there were 15 contestants (including myself ) and about the same number of spectators. Since then similar amateur, bar-housed brouhahas have become increasingly frequent—and fervent.

Cook-off fever has spread over Brooklyn like oil across a hot skillet and O’Neill, a 27-year-old freelance TV and film location scout, has been in it to win it since the beginning. In his first Chili Takedown (the original “Takedown” cook-off created by Matt Timms back in 2005), there were 15 contestants (including myself ) and about the same number of spectators. Since then similar amateur, bar-housed brouhahas have become increasingly frequent—and fervent.

Contestants hungry for kitchen kudos put as much as $100 worth of ingredients—and several days over a hot stove—into their clever takes on the dish du jour. But seldom would the top prize even cover their costs. So what keeps the crowds coming back?

The potluck’s competitive cousin has a healthy history in America (and shows like Iron Chef and Top Chef delight the telly set). But while the hallmark foods of borough cook-offs—chili, casseroles, apple pie—kitchily riff on classic American cook-off categories, the Brooklyn incarnation of the cook-off is its own animal. At large national competitions like Pillsbury Bake-offs, as well as smaller, community-based barbecue brawls around the country, contenders are typically middle-age and the only vote that matters is the judges’. Here entry rules are limited at best, contestants are often in their 20s (aside from a certain Chili Takedown haunt in her 50s), and the audience vote is commonly coveted over judges’.

It all began innocently enough.

“Big vats of anything in your fridge are great when you’re broke,” recalls Timms of the genesis. “I was making chili every week, and couldn’t eat it all.” So in 2002, he began hosting chili parties in his home. He soon joined the International Chili Society, a sprawling organization that oversees “official” chili contests with strict rules for every event and entry, and in 2005 he held the first Chili Takedown at Bar Matchless in Greenpoint; 100 people packed the house to cheer on their friends and favorite chilis of the night. “I knew I was onto something,” Timms said.

Also in 2005, Jaime Eldredge, co-owner of the Greenpoint bar and restaurant Enid’s, went apple picking upstate with a carload of friends. On the ride back, they vowed to throw a contest at the restaurant to see whose apple pie reigned supreme. (“I love seeing how proud people are carrying in their pie,” says Maria Falgoust, 27, a librarian-and-part-time server at Enid’s who was on that fateful trip and has helped organize the bake-offs since, making trophies for winners and badges for judges).

Indeed the cook-off stars were aligning. That same year, the great minds at nearby Barcade bar in Williamsburg were thinking alike. Their first chili contest was among staff, and bar-goers sat in judgment. Since then they’ve opened the gates to the public, and crowds swelled so much that by its third induction last October, co-owners Paul Kermizian and Jon Miller decided to draw contestants from a box placed inside the bar for several weeks beforehand, not unlike lotteries for a spot in the marathon. “Otherwise we’d have 50 or 60 chilis,” Kermizian said.

Other once-casual cook-offs in the borough have experienced similar spikes as each competition grows more sophisticated—and more crowded. Standing atop a concrete divider in the patio of Union Pool in May, Harry Rosenblum, proprietor of the Brooklyn Kitchen in Williamsburg, regaled the attendees of the store’s third annual cupcake cook-off with stats: “The first year we had about 15 contestants. The second year, we had 30.

This year, we have a total of 60 cupcakes.” He paused before the teeming mass of bakers. “We’re going to have to find a bigger venue.”

And competitors have to up their game. Oft-spotted contestant Karol Lu, 29, has entered dozens of contests over the years—her sweet potato-studded vegetarian chili earned an enormous trophy replete with glued-on doodads back at Barcade’s second chili cook-off—and she admits these days she’s taking more calculating approaches. In a one-off Ramen Cook-Off held by the Brooklyn Kitchen last year, Lu made a “pizza” with a thick crust of cheesebound ramen, while at the Guactacular Invitational this spring, she explained that every cook-off entry must have a “wildcard” factor—and hers had been pomegranate seeds studding the guac. Despite plans to take the Takedown on the road, the competitive cooking strain that’s stricken Brooklyn youth seems set to grow right here; several contestants have gone on to host their own cook-offs: 28-year-old champion Melissa Rebholz’s mac-and-cheese cook-off last fall (called, of course, the s’macdown) brought out a riotous crowd armed with elbow macaroni, while Peck and Nick Suarez, who have swept many a competition, launched a home brewing and beer-based cook-off this summer.

It’s getting intense. If you can’t take the heat—get out of Brooklyn.

Cathy Erway is a Brooklyn based food writer who, when not cooking for a competition, is probably judging or planning one. While she now does eat out, she runs the well-followed blog noteatingoutinny.com, launched when she spent two years doing exactly that.

FORECAST: CHILI HANGOVER

I was a judge at the Brooklyn Ale House’s fourth annual chili cook-off, and I’m still recovering.

“You wouldn’t believe the sh—stuff I put in here!” one exuberant entrant shouted over the crowd as I approached the groaning table. Fourteen Ale House regulars had lugged in gallons each and it was the job of us judges to eat from every last one, declare the winner and somehow make it out alive.

We gave the artfully shaped Phamous Penis Cornbread a bris, washed it down with Miller High Life and got to tasting. This crowd had been hitting the Crock-Pots—hard. We sampled vegan chili, lamb chili, chili handed down through generations, chili adorned with cilantro and cheddar, chili studded with hominy, and chili seasoned with Libyan fig marmalade and 80 percent dark chocolate. The contestant serving chili cooked in a clay pot revealed that the secret was to sweat everything together—which we judges were doing as she spoke.

A woman lunged at us from the crowd, asking “Are you guys professionals? ’Cuz I’m a really good cook myself and I’m getting rather drunk so hurry the fuck up.”

Two eavesdropping bystanders tried to discern our deliberations in the din, reporting, “Exit polls like the Que Pasa Chili. We’re from CNN.” (Yeah, right.)

Upon tasting the last entry, Fiesta in Your Mouth, fellow judge and Brooklyn Kitchen owner Harry Rosenblum wailed that his mouth was ready for a siesta. It was time to huddle. The bar’s on-staff canines barked when the crowd got especially rowdy, and one drinker from Kansas suggested helpfully, “F the judges, just put the bowls on the ground and see which ones the dogs go for.” Nonetheless we compared the notes we’d scrawled across a damp copy of The Onion, then climbed up on a bench to announce the champions.

Though it might have been illegal to do so in a crowded bar, the creator of one artfully named entry screamed, “Ass On Fire!” We turned a hearing-impaired ear to his lobbying. The vegans didn’t stand a chance. Second place went to God Made the Meat and the Devil Cooked It, an entry blessed with ground beef, ground pork, short ribs, country ham and stew meat. The cook was awarded our heartfelt gratitude and, courtesy of the Brooklyn Kitchen, a copy of The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. Not like he needs it.

The blue ribbon, and a gorgeous Dutch oven, we bestowed on the first chili we tasted, the poetically titled 5 Meat, starring roasted pork, grilled steak, ground sirloin, chorizo sausage and bacon. As we genuflected before the champion, he raised his ladle high and with a rebel yell, cried “REAL CHILI HAS NO BEANS!”

– Gabrielle Langholtz

Sumptuous Showdown: Cunning cupcakes bedecked with bacon. Author Cathy Erway samples the entries; cookoff guru Matt Timms at this spring’s Bacon Takedown, which drew lines around the block at Williamsburg’s Radegast Biergarten.

 

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Gabrielle Langholtz is the former editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan.