Tangy kimchi. Fatty bone marrow. Smokey hot dogs. Musky pumpkin. These are not your typical chili ingredients but these are some of the flavors simmered into the 26 different chilis at Brooklyn’s Chili Takedown. At this homemade chili cook-off for amateur chefs, brainchild of Matt Timms, anything goes. Timms flickers around the place making sure that everyone is having a good time. He can’t sit still; he is the life of the party. The 42 year old from Pittsburgh, MA is an actor, filmmaker, comedian, poker player, hot sauce maker, and food lover. He has called Brooklyn home for the past 16 years but enjoys life on the road when his food competitions, known as “The Takedowns,” bring him to different cities across the country. This is where home chefs serve up their interpretation of a different food or theme of Timms’ choice. Past Takedowns include lobster, meatball, ice cream, chocolate and homebrew. The events are usually held at trendy venues like speakeasies, shuffleboard clubs, and rock joints that turn the competition into a party where creativity and personality take center stage.
Do you see a difference in taste and creativity between different cities?
When I did a mac and cheese takedown in Wisconsin, they absolutely crushed it because they live, breathe and die by cheese, ya know, it’s just Wisconsin. I did an avocado takedown in Los Angeles and it was incredible. The one rule with the avocado takedown was no guacamole so they had to get creative and do anything else with the avocado. Someone made butter out of it, someone made bread. Sometimes I tailor it to the city. In Boston, I want to do a chowder takedown soon. A gumbo takedown would be really good to take to New Orleans, I think they would kill it.
What is your favorite Takedown food theme?
They’re all good for different reasons. There was the food on a stick takedown; that was kind of cool because everyone experimented with that. Experimenting is key. I like them all. It’s not about the food for me, it’s about the people. That’s why I’ve been doing it so long. As far as the food, if I only had one favorite, then I wouldn’t do the others.
Are there any specific foods that a competitor has made that really stands out in your mind?
I’m just trying to make sure that everyone is partying and having a good time. I don’t always even eat the food because if I have 20 bowls of chili, I’m going to fall asleep. I have to be a hummingbird around that place and make sure everyone’s happy. With that being said, if I do a bacon takedown, I think it’s kind of cool that people will bring empanadas, soup, ice cream and chocolate bars and pixie sticks, all with bacon in it. It’s the diversity that I think is exciting in a lot of these events more than anything else.
This is now the 13th year of The Takedowns. How did you come up with the idea?
I love being the center of attention. I’ve always thrown parties and as I watch my friends get older and having kids, I’m just trying keep the party going. Now I get to do it everywhere with these food events. People just flocked in a way that I didn’t think they would. Obviously, in big cities especially, people fetishize eating out and the next best restaurant and who the fuck is the new celebrity chef. It’s never been that interesting to me, partly because I’ve never had a ton of money or expendable income to spend on crazy restaurants. I’ve always been proud of my own home cooking and obviously, there’s a million people in the world who think like that. So this gives them kind of a big bullhorn to do that.
How has it evolved over the years?
I haven’t really taken my events to a next level because I worry that with bigger events, they get so corporate. They take over creatively, all the beautiful little things that I do might disappear. My events are small and quirky and authentic. The people are actually happy, no one’s trying to sell you anything. They’re so much better.
What is your favorite thing about The Takedowns?
I love that they’re still mine because of this labor of love that I’ve always done. I control the music, I can play all the death metal I want to play. I’m really proud of all the incredible artists that I get to do the art for the posters. It’s my event, I’m on the microphone, I’m meeting new friends. It’s like this constantly changing party with real people. And the food is really good.
Sometimes it’s not good. Sometimes, I’ll catch the attention of people with a great idea for a theme, other times no one will give a shit. Like a soup takedown: I was like, “Oh my God, it’s winter, everyone loves soup,” and that didn’t go very well the first year.
What is your favorite food in general?
Whenever I’m in a new city, I make sure to find out what the old school hamburger joints are like. I eat hamburgers in every city that I go to.
Are there any foods that you hate?
No, I eat everything.
Do you have any favorite spots to eat in New York?
I like going to the various ramen places. I love going to Thai restaurants in Queens. There’s some really good authentic places in Hell’s Kitchen. Have you ever eaten at Dirt Candy? It’s this vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan and it’s one of the best places I’ve ever eaten in the city.
What do you do in your spare time, other than eating?
I went to film school and worked in film for a long time. I shot a movie that my friend directed that did really well – it’s called “Up With Me.” It won Best Ensemble Cast at South by Southwest in 2008. I’m all over the place. I used to do commercials all the time. I’ve been in McDonalds commercials before, Times Warner, News 12. I still go to auditions. I’m always listening to new music and seeing live shows. It’s one of my things. Right now, poker is playing a big part in my life so I really love playing casinos in different cities. I also do comedy. For years now, I’ve been doing stand-up.
Didn’t you used to make your own hot sauce?
I did used to make my own hot sauce a couple of years ago, called Face Melter. It was an underground business, I made it in my kitchen. I’m one of the judges for the NYC Hot Sauce Expo, which is amazing. Every year I have to taste about 150 hot sauces. It’s really fun.
Doesn’t it burn to taste that many hot sauces?
Yes, you got to start low and you get a jug of milk and drink it in between. You start with the Tabasco level stuff and you end with the reaper pepper hot sauces, which are the absolute craziest. By the end of it, you’re really hurting. You definitely have diarrhea.
Edited for content.
Published in NYU Magazine 3/19/16