During SXSW, 23 cheesy competitors congregated at Shangri-la to meet their fate at the "brie-for-all" that was the Mac and Cheese Takedown. Creations ranged from Austin Facial Hair Club’s “Concha y Queso” (a “Texas-sized” shell smothered in liquidy cheese) and mac and cheese sausage from Goldis Sausage Company, to chocolate mac cheesecake and beer-infused casseroles.
Though it was all "gouda" in the end, stakes were high: winners received coveted kitchen gadgets from Analon, Wustoff, and Cuisinart. Mary Helen Leonard of Mary Makes Dinner swept Most Innovative for her cheddar ice cream with fried macaroni and strawberry and jalapeno jam.
The judges (Addie Broyles of Austin 360, Luis Mendoza of Southby Free Noms, and Hilah Johnson of Hilah Cooking) also gave out awards for a muffaletta mac by Party in Your Mout and Half Baked’s cornbread mac. First place went to Amber Gulley and Serafina Smith for their Little Bites of Heaven, devilishly delicious deep-fried cubes of mac and cheese.
People’s Choice for third place went to Nicole Matthews for creamy green chile mac, while Bringing Sexy Mac took home second for a five-cheese mac with Italian sausage and sriracha aioli, and the Cream Team won first place for a delectably smooth concoction entitled "Science B-tches." The secret ingredient? Sodium citrate, which turned the six-cheese blend of vintage cheddars to a Velveeta-like consistency (the same duo just won the Quesoff this summer, too).
Since 2003, Takedowns have given home cooks a chance to flaunt their culinary skills while competing in a fun, laid-back environment curated by the animated Matt Timms, who’s based in Brooklyn but travels the country bringing edible throwdowns to different cities. CultureMap caught up with high-octane producer Timms to pick his brain on the most important food competition in America.
CM: How did the Takedown idea come about?
MT: I was a member of the ICS, International Chili Society, and would judge these varsity sanctioned chili competitions, and thought how strict they were ... these events were a blast, and I'd meet the world's coolest most dedicated home cooks but the rules of the events were antithetical to my kitchen philosophy, which is essentially to f--k up a lot, throw in all sorts of ingredients, and mess up my kitchen.
I started a small local no-rules "takedown" to get like-minded chili heads to make non-Texas chili: beans allowed, tomatoes allowed, tofu allowed. It was only a matter of time before I considered other takedowns: cookies, meatballs, soup.
CM: Do you know how many Takedowns you've hosted since 2003?
MT: I guess by now I've done about 60 or 70 Takedowns. I started slow for the first five years, but then I told a friend I thought I could quit temping and do this for a living and he laughed at me, so I thought maybe not. Then, as luck would have it, I was fired from my temp job for "gross incompetence," whatever that is, and the takedown was all I had. So I started throwing more takedowns all the time!
CM: How has it evolved through the years? Or has it basically stayed the same?
MT: I always consider new Takedowns. The World's Biggest Jerk Off a few years back featured 30 different jerkies and boy, oh boy, I didn't realize how yummy jerky could be! I should do one of those in Austin. A lot of businesses tend to strive to get bigger, and they lose something. I only sell a small amount of tickets, so the home cooks aren't stretched to the limit. I don't ever allow in pro chefs, who bring with them a seriousness, a professionalism and a sense of entitlement I don't like.
Not to mention a whole host of weird issues, because all chefs have serious issues. I like my events to at least have a whiff of those takedowns I first hosted in my living room. It's just a party is all!
CM: Do you have a favorite Takedown of all time?
MT: I'm kind of partial to my meatball takedown right now. A good meatball is so yummy!
CM: What about a least favorite? Or a category that was just kind of disgusting?
MT: I never do a takedown of a food group I would hate. I've been floating the idea of an insect takedown, but to be honest I don't want to eat bugs that bad, and I'm not starving, so there's no reason for it to come up. Every now and then, some freakazoid will go way off book and show up with a crazed version of the dish I asked for. And I'm just glad they exist. They could be a hero or a villain that day at the takedown, but if you show up with an ice cream to a mac and cheese takedown, people are going to talk about it. Which is super dope.
CM: I see there's another Mac and Cheese Takedown going to Brooklyn next. Have you done others in the past?
MT: In the past five years I've brought Mac and Cheese Takedowns to Brooklyn, Boston and Milwaukee, where it got pretty cheesy actually. It never gets old, because mac and cheese is the happiest dish in the galaxy.
CM: What were your impressions of this Mac and Cheese Takedown?
MT: I loved that even as SXSW gets in full swing, I didn't really see a lot of lanyards — it had the stink of a real local Austin event. Nice little secret gathering for the cooking underground. I love that the Austin Facial Hair Club always represents, and that people like Missy Farahani and Amber Gulley are such loyal regulars to a takedown! I had some faves, but I love all my takedowners, and real cool of Hilah and Addie to come judge! Always so rad to be in Austin, for real.
CM: Any other projects you're currently working on?
MT: Well I'm pretty serious about my pillows right now. I introduced Snack Monsters a few years back, which are monsters that love to eat junk food. I've already got a mummy that loves ice cream, a werewolf that eats cheeseburgers, and a swamp monster that only likes pizza. I'm developing some more characters, and want to make that a thing!
I just introduced a series of Painting Takedowns, which I love. I get 20 people to paint a Bob Ross, or a velvet Elvis, or a ca, and I auction them off at the end. I've already raised $12,000 for local Brooklyn charities with these, and I'd love to take it on the road. I'm also working on a Takedown cookbook as well, which should be pretty readable.
CM: Any plans to take this global?
MT: I was just in Tokyo and New Zealand earlier this year. I think it's got legs to get it global. But I'd only do it for a goof. I don't currently have a sponsor to get serious about a global tour, but would love to host a yakitori takedown. Or a Hangi (Maori pit barbecue) Takedown. Wow, right?