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Amateur cookoffs heating up and slimming down in Brooklyn

A plate at the Food Obstructions cookoff in Williamsburg (Photo: Winnie Andrews)By WINNIE ANDREWS

Amateur cooks get ready, Brooklyn has yet another cookoff that encourages both economic and culinary resourcefulness.

This cooking competition is called the Food Obstructions, named after five arbitrary rules that cooks must follow. The arena is the Gutter, a dark, cozy bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Under the melodic music of pool-table clatter, 15 amateur cooks compete to impress about 50 tasting participants. Unlike other competitions, cooks are restricted to spending $25 on ingredients.

The competition is part of a booming cookoff craze in Brooklyn. In recent months, amateur cooks have simmered, stirred and baked their way through several different competitions including hot pepper and chocolate, macaroni and cheese, lamb, cassoulet, and risotto, to name a few. At $5 per plate, The Food Obstructions promises glory for the cooks and cheap eats for the judges.

“It’s like a pot-luck, but we decided to have a little fun twist, and have a little competition,” said Cathy Erway, the organizer of the event.

Ingenuity was encouraged at the Food Obstructions in ways other than the $25 limit on ingredients: cooks were required to use something purple, a fruit, a vegetable and a locally sourced item, and could not use bacon. The cooks came up with dishes such as pepper blintzes with blueberry jam, biscuits covered in figs and fondue, and Thai curry butternut squash soup.

Food Obstructions judges at the Gutter (Photo: Winnie Andrews)

Che Flowers, 27, a receptionist from Astoria, Queens, was one of about 50 participants who came to the Gutter to judge and socialize. After filling his plate with small portions of the 15 different items, he sat down at the bar with his score card and a friend. Flower’s vote ultimately went for the bread pudding. “Combined with that pickled grape, every little bite had a different layer of complexity,” he said.

“It was an incredible amount of food for $5,” said Michael LeVasseur, 27, who came with who came with Flowers and also lives in Astoria.

This new style of cookoff attracts urbanites in their twenties and thirties. Joann Kim, 25, a food writer living in Greenpoint, said she runs across cookoffs all the time. In the past month alone there have been at least five cookoffs in Brooklyn. “It’s a great way of bringing folks together and sharing some good food and good energy,” she said.

The cooking aspect draws a crowd as well, “it’s so much fun to just roll up your sleeves and have a long project ahead of you,” said Erway, 27, a freelancer writer living in Crown Heights who organized the Obstructions competition.

The urban cookoff can be traced back to 2005 when Matt Timms organized his first Brooklyn Chili Takedown in Williamsburg.  One hundred people attended that first event. Since then, Timms takedowns have expanded. Timms, 35, said his bacon takedown in March drew so many people he had to turn several hundred away. Timms is now hitting the road and taking his cooking competitions to Nashville and Boston.

Lamb loving crowds at Matt Timms Lamb Takedown in October (Photo: Matt Timms)

Before starting the Chili Takedown, Timms participated in the International Chili Society’s chili cookoffs. There, chili meant only one combination: meat, red chili peppers and spices. No beans, no vegetables and definitely no tofu.

That wasn’t broad enough for Timms. After discovering a recipe for peach and jalapeno chili in his Marlboro cookbook, Timms decided to expand the definition to just about anything, including a chili made entirely of candy.

Nick Suarez is one of the cooks making a name for himself today on the New York cookoff circuit. A recent Saurez success was a casserol of duck confit, butternut squash, potatoes, fried and caramelized onions, bacon and parsley. He entered the dish in a casserole competition in Greenpoint and took home first place.

Suarez began competing last November at Timms’ fondue takedown in Williamsburg, where he won second place, and has been hooked on competing ever since. The 27-year-old Dumbo resident works for a wine magazine, and spends much of his free time cooking. Since his competition debut, Suarez’s kitchen has been filling up with prizes; he now has more aprons than he knows what to do with, he said.

Cooking for competitions requires a certain strategy. “You essentially have to over-season your dish,” Suarez said. “The judges and the audience are only getting one bite, so you have to pack as much flavor as you can into that bite,” he said.

Another of Suarez’s tricks is to include a lot of salt and butter, that’s what our tongues respond to best, he said. He also cooks and seasons the ingredients separately to bring out flavor.

Big taste doesn’t always come cheap and amateur cooks usually foot the bill for ingredients. Suarez spends between $50 to $100 for each competition. He puts in the time and money because he’s addicted to the competition. “It’s the culinary glory that keeps me coming back for more,” he said.

Both guests and cooks can learn a thing or two at cookoffs. Flowers said that after eating at a sandwich competition, he realized how easy it could be to spice up a chicken sandwich with some cherry tomatoes, balsamic vinegar and cheese. “It changed the way I made sandwiches for a month,” he said.

Cooks also learn from the competitions. Christine Collins, 26, a first-time cookoff competitor from Caroll Gardens who participated in the Food Obstructions event, can now give one important piece of advice: don’t replace wine with wine-vinegar where heat is involved.

Collins made this mistake while concocting a plum sauce for the Food Obstructions; it resulting in a burned pan, a smoke-filled kitchen, and a very stressed-out cook, said Collins.

But despite the mistake, Collins still pulled together a ginger-garlic soy sauce and peppercorn beef in time for the cookoff. The judges approved, and she took home the $100 first prize.

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Home cooks learn new tricks in Brooklyn

Brent Young and his colleagues show how to cook liver the right way.

Brent Young and his colleagues show how to cook liver the right way. (Photo credit: Isabelle Schäfer)


“We’re going to eat a lot of liver tonight, so grab a strong beverage to go with the strong taste!” said Brent Young with a grin to the 10 people gathered around the kitchen table at the back of the shop. Five different sorts of raw liver, shimmering yellow and green, one of them the size of a small pig, were displayed in bowls. Rock music accompanied all of the young butcher’s movements while he smoothly tossed  onions, beat an egg or chopped parsley. The smell of grilled liver filled the air.

The liver class on Thursday night at the Brooklyn Kitchen store attracted a dozen curious home cooks, one of the 15 different two-hour cooking classes the cutlery shop offers every month.

In the past months, demand for classes at the shop, at 616 Lorimer St. in Williamsburg, has grown so much that the owners, Taylor Ekkinen and Harry Rosenblum, decided to expand and open an organized cooking school that will be called Brooklyn Kitchen Labs, just two blocks away from their current location. They are renovating an old house with two floors, building a big teaching kitchen in the basement and a smaller prep kitchen, mostly for baking.  Another kitchen will be upstairs, as will more retail space and a butchery. The opening is planned for Nov. 7.  It will be used in addition to the old location.

The demand for classes may come in part from the economy,  According to Zagat’s 2010 New York City restaurant survey, people eat in restaurants only three times a week, compared to 3.4 times a week the prior four years, “They understand the value of cooking at home better now,” said Ekkinen.

Sandra Lara participated in the liver class and said she loves to cook at home.  “I used to go out to eat a lot, but since the recession started, I cook every day at home. So I really want to learn new recipes” she said, while prodding a piece of liver.  “I usually give liver to my dogs,” she said with a laugh; her specialty is jelly making.

Potential participants have to register online for each class individually. “Once registration is open, the classes usually sell out in a couple of hours,” said Young, who gives butchery lessons and helps out at the store. Most of the new classes are already full, with up to 15 participants in one lesson. “ People are being more comfortable with being adventurous in their own kitchen,” said Young. “And in Brooklyn, people tend to have good cooking space.” Most participants are 20 to 45 years old.

Until now, the Brooklyn Kitchen store could offer classes only in the evenings, when the 10-foot cashier’s table becomes a kitchen table. Interested cooks can learn how to make ice cream and sauces, charcuterie and sausages or how to bake French sour bread and Halloween cupcakes. But there is not much space between the cutlery and the cooking books to get seriously down to work.

“The new location means more room with more possibilities,” Ekkinen said. “We can have classes during the day and on weekends now, for example.” With the new teaching kitchen, participants will be able to actually cook instead of merely watching and taking notes. Twice as many classes will be offered, their price depending on the lesson. Knife skills class, for example, costs $45, while a butchering class can be up to $75 for one session.

At the liver-cooking class, Connie Madeo said she had taken  a pig butchering class, watching for two hours as a butcher cut pieces of meat from an entire pig. “From snout to tail, it was like a puzzle and he used only one small knife,” she said. “It was fascinating to see what I actually eat when I eat chop suey!”

Anne Hynes, who often cooks at home for her children has attended several cooking classes, and now was at the liver class. She has learned here how to make kombucha, a kind of tea, bread and sauces. “I like coming here,” she said. “It’s interesting and the people here are fun” She admitted, though, that  she doesn’t usually cook liver. “Let’s start cooking!” cried out Young. Obediently, she went and observed.

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