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Exclusive: Bacon Gets Taken Down

Back in January we spoke with Matthew “Chili Takedown” Timms about the growing popularity of his themed cook-off series and his place in foodie culture. On Sunday, he threw his most successful event yet, the Bacon Takedown, where amateur chefs competed over the most tasty and improbably pork-packed treats. Some bacon lovers braved long, pungent lines to sample and eventually vote for their favorites among 30 bacony dishes, including avocado ice-cream, cupcakes, soup, applesauce, and truffles. Even Good Morning America was in attendance (back in the studio, one host got excited enough to describe the bacon bourbon ice-cream as “Kentucky porn” — good morning, indeed). Flavorwire checked in with Timms again, and then spoke with two of the event’s winners, Jonathan Proville (Judge’s Winner) and Mike O’Neill (People’s Choice/Grand Prize) to discuss the competitions, food trends, and swine.

Flavorwire: Matt, despite some bacon backlashers, this Takedown was kind of a madhouse.

Matthew Timms: Bacon backlashers are just waiting for bacon to poop the bed — and it may take a year or two or never. I’m guessing never. Consider the Rocky Mountain Oyster Festival, frying up bull nuts for seven years and still growing strong! I definitely struck a nerve with bacon that had the media out with a fury. And the crowds were great too. I unfortunately had to turn some people away and that is never cool, but the Takedown is growing — the last chili takedown was huge as well.

FW: Do most participants seem to be professionals in the local food scene or are they just home cooks with a passion for the specific food in question?

MT: The Takedown is always about the amateur chef — but that is nothing to sneeze at. These dudes are one-upping their neighbors with crazy innovation and super-bold ideas. The “food scene” is an elastic word around Brooklyn. Some of these people have blogs, some are trying to sell their cupcakes at local stores. I had a roofer come in and make bacon rolled truffles that were exquisite!!!

FW: What other five food types would you like to compete over?

MT: I’ve done cookie, salsa, chili, fondue and now bacon Takedowns. I’m planning a Curry Takedown in a few months to benefit my sister’s not-for-profit in India. And I want desperately to do a Tofu Takedown, coming very soon. Don’t groan. It’s going to rule.

FW: Are there any particularly trendy foods now?

MT: I didn’t really know bacon was hip — I seriously got lucky. I’m not a great guy to ask about hip. I am personally hot and stylish but I have no idea what I’m doing.

FW: Were there any epic fails?

MT: I didn’t think avocado bacon ice cream could ever work — but one of the Good Morning America announcers couldn’t stop talking about it! I never actually get to try anything at my events, I’m always running around and my stomach is tied up in knots because I’m always so nervous for it to go well. I’d like to find a sponsor who can help me award all the contestants in some way or another, because they work their brains down to a nubbin at these competitions. There were some grumpy people who didn’t realize they had to wait in line for as much as an hour and a half – but everyone ate all the bacon they could — and it worked out great. And obviously I’ve got a legion of people who have their own ideas about how this thing should be run, and they all have lots of advice. I will definitely be taking some of it! This thing is growing crazy wicked awesome.

FW: Thanks, Matt. Jason and Mike, tell us about yourselves.

Jonathan Proville: I’m on the editorial team at StarChefs.com. We’re an online magazine (the audience is chefs and foodservice professionals) but produce events. We do the Rising Stars awards and organize the International Chefs Congress in NYC every year. I’m from LA originally. My parents decided to move back to Europe when I was 10, so I grew up in around the cows and vineyards in Geneva, Switzerland. Then I went to college in Montreal. Amazing food city and Canadians rock. Right now I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where I have a sweet backyard with a CharGrill Super Pro and a side firebox.

Mike O’Neill: I do location work for film and television, which usually means I’m the person you get to yell at when a film crew takes your parking or shines bright lights into your apartment. I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, OH, and currently live in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

FW: Is this your first cook-off-type competition?

JP: I put on some elaborate dinners for friends and there might be a supper club in the works. I’m still trying to convince myself that I shouldn’t dedicate my life to working in kitchens. I did participate in one of Timms’ Chili Takedowns. I had a Texas-style smoked chili. I had smoked the beef cubes on the BBQ before stewing them with beans.

MO: I’ve been cooking competitively for a little more than a year now, I started with a Chili Takedown in December of 2007, and have done a Fondue Takesown as well. I’ve also competed in the Brooklyn Kitchen’s 2nd-anniversary Ramen cook-off and an Apple Pie bake-off at my local farmers market. I made an apple pie cheesecake for the bake-off and while everyone loved it, no one voted for it because it wasn’t a true apple pie.

FW: What was your dish?

JP: I made home-cured bacon. I loosely followed a recipe by Chef John Toulze of the Girl and the Fig in Sonoma. First I bought 30 lbs. of pork bellies at my butcher on Smith Street called Los Paisanos. That place is unbelievably awesome. You want pig’s trotters? Check. You want beef cheeks? Check. You want 30 lbs. of pork bellies in a box? Check. Pedro is my main man there (shout out!). Then I cured it in a mix of salt, sugar, and spices for 4 days. Then I rinsed it, dry it in the fridge, and smoked it for about 6 hours over cherry and apple woods. Then I took this $34 electric slicer I bought on Amazon and proceeded to slice everything. That took hours and hours. The next day I glazed each slice (over 400) with agave nectar and grilled it over over a very hot direct hardwood charcoal fire. That was grease-fire city and then it started raining. I grabbed an umbrella, which then created a horrible smoked dome. The only solution was to stand there wearing ski goggles. It totally worked out. My extra addition was ground Szechwan buttons. I don’t know if I had enough to make it really noticeable, but in the end I didn’t want to take out people’s taste buds for 10 minutes.

MO: I made bourbon bacon ice cream. I did one test run for a cook-out I had a few weeks ago. Originally it was going to be bacon ice cream with just a little bourbon, but after trying the first batch I decided it needed more. My original idea had the ice cream on top of a candied bacon waffle garnished with a piece of candied bacon, and smothered in maple syrup. Time constraints and the ever-rising price of maple syrup forced me to scale it back to just the ice cream on top of a waffle. However, when I tried to plug in my waffle iron, I blew the fuse in the kitchen, so I ended up serving just the ice cream.

FW: What do you like about bacon?

JP: I love bacon, but I really like all sorts of cured meats. I probably love prosciutto and cured pork leg more. Where I grew up, in the Haute-Savoe department of France, it’s the land of cheese and cured meats. The Sunday market is ridiculous. Bacon has always been popular, but it has gotten trendy thanks to resurgence of food interest in popular culture. It’s fatty and salty, it’s a breakfast staple, and while it might not be as umame rich as an anchovy, its damn near there. The media craze will be over soon, but bacon will never go out of style. It’s like chocolate or pizza.

MO: I just like it. I’m not really sure if bacon is trendy. I’ve been using it forever and so have my friends that cook. There may have been a time when people weren’t comfortable with liking bacon when healthy eating was all the rage, but bacon is a classic ingredient, and I don’t think of it as being more popular now than it was five years ago.

FW: How did the crowd react to your dishes?

JP: I was super stoked about the judges’ prize. A lot of people told me they appreciated the straight-up bacon and I got excellent flavor reactions. I thought it would work well because it was very salty from the cure, yet the agave syrup balanced that out. Also, the cuts were from all parts of the belly, so they weren’t uniform. This is true bacon. It doesn’t all look the same! That’s not reflected in the Oscar Meyer packaging.

MO: I showed up for the last Chili Takedown and there were so many people I didn’t even try to get in, so I was expecting a crowd that big. I had maybe three people flat-out refuse to even try the ice cream, which I didn’t really expect.

FW: Is there a certain non-bacon food you’re like to compete over?

JP: I’d have to say deep-fried items, pickled foods, sandwiches, homemade pizzas, or maybe beer?

MO: I love competitive cooking. I will enter pretty much any cooking contest out there if I have the time. I would really like to try a cheesecake bake-off. Everyone loves my cheesecake, but I’m curious as to how it would do against other versions.

FW: Any thoughts on what the next big things are with food obsessives?

JP: Charcuterie, man. Shit’s already nuts in restaurants all over the country. You see how much people like bacon!

MO: As for the next big food out there, I’m probably the last person to ask. I’ve always just liked what I like and I try not to follow trends too much. Two things that I see happening that interest me are people trying to have as much control of their food as possible. People are growing their own food at home and going to great lengths to ensure they know exactly what they’re getting.

UPDATE: Jonathan was kind enough to offer his award-winning recipe.

ELECTRIC BACON
JJ Proville – Brooklyn, NY
March 2009
Yield: 40-50 slices

Ingredients
Cure:
3 pounds salt
1 pound sugar
1 pound brown sugar
5 bay leaves, ground
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried thyme
½ tablespoon freshly ground allspice
1 tablespoon red chili flakes

Pork:
1 4-5 pound pork belly

Cure, as needed:
1 pounds applewood chunks
2 pounds cherrywood chunks

To Assemble and Serve:
2 cups agave nectar
1/2 cup ground Szechuan Buttons

For the Cure
Combine salt, sugars, bay leaves, pepper, thyme, allspice, and chili flakes.

For the Pork
Submerge the pork belly in the cure for 3.5-4 days. Remove from the cure. Rinse thoroughly twice. Let the bacon air dry uncovered in the refrigerator for 24 hours. In a smoker of grill over indirect heat, smoke the bacon using a mix of cherry and apple wood chips or chunks for 6 hours. Remove from smoker and reserve in a chilled place.

To Assemble and Serve
Using a meat slicer, slice bacon. Preheat a hot grill using hardwood lump charcoal. Brush or drizzle agave nectar onto slices. Grill the bacon slices for 1 minute per side or until crispy. Sprinkle evenly with Szechuan buttons and serve.

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