It all started over charred pork belly and beer. Two cook-off rivals, Nick Suarez and Theo Peck, put their personal quests for culinary glory aside for one mission—to create the best cook-offs in the world. That night at a barbecue joint in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, these two key players on the New York cook-off scene decided to join forces for the good of amateur chefs and foodies around the city. A flurry of rapid-fire emails brainstorming cook-off ideas ensued—and the rest is history. Since these adversaries became friends, their epicurean opportunities have erupted and their scope has expanded beyond cook-offs and beyond New York City.
Together they created the Food Experiments, a series of cook-offs for amateur chefs with one theme and plenty of room for creativity. They wanted to give contestants legitimate incentive, so they made better prizes a priority—which in turn inspired more ambitious cooking.
Their first experiment, in June of 2009, was with beer. Innovation was encouraged and they ended up with not only home-brewed beer, but also chefs who made beer-based bites. It sold out the venue, a large concert space in Brooklyn's Bell House. The incredible success of this first event came as a surprise to them, and before long they unrolled the Cheese Experiment, the Chocolate Experiment, the Taco Experiment, and the Brunch Experiment. Each sold out and each delivered increasingly heftier prizes. They had struck foodie gold with their never-really-done-before blend of elements.
Those components? Exceptional food, plenty of alcohol, and great music. Each experiment feels as much like a party as it does a food event. Eaters munch through the thirty entries at leisure, filling a plate and enjoying before round two (or rounds three, four, five....). Several hours into the event a call for votes is made and ballots—dripped-upon and smudged with a variety of food items—are tossed into a box. In the end, contestants storm the stage and Suarez and Peck, the hosts, award the prizes.
The audience award is the most cherished award and delivers the biggest prize, such as a round-trip airplane ticket to Mexico for the Taco Experiment winners, but each experiment also has a panel of notable judges. Andrew Knowlton, the restaurant critic for Bon Appetit magazine, has judged at every experiment to date. Other previous judges include restaurant owners and chefs from around New York City, correlating to the particular theme of the experiment.
Suarez, who has over a dozen awards from prior cook-offs, said, "There is a formula to winning." He insists that he and Peck both knew the formula, and that is why they were always neck-in-neck. What is the winning formula? Suarez would only say that it involves "creating the perfect bite. It has to be balanced [in texture and taste], and probably is heavy on butter and salt."
Aside from their cook-off cleverness, Suarez and Peck are noticeably dissimilar. They have nearly opposite personalities—each charming in his own way—and they dress strikingly in accordance with their distinct dispositions. You are likely to see Suarez dressed to impress with a button-up and skinny tie, while Peck is confidently clad in blue jeans and a cotton shirt (likely also sporting a day's worth of stubble). Suarez talks business with a thoughtful demeanor and has an easy laugh, whereas Peck quips sardonic witticisms so frequently it can be hard to distinguish truth from joke. In competition, their differences were exacerbated, but in collaboration they seem like a natural pair; the ying and yang of culinary event-planning.
When asked about their unexpected friendship, Theo retorted, "It's assumed we like each other now." He may joke, but their chemistry is undeniable.
Both men were bit by the cooking bug at an early age and come from a background of food. Suarez's mother is a chef and his father is a food photographer. He is currently enrolled in the night school at the French Culinary Institute in New York City and has a full-time job at Wine Spectator as the Assistant Tasting Coordinator. Not to mention his Food Experiment endeavors. When does he find time to sleep? He doesn't. "I sleep about four hours a night," he said. Talk about a passion for food.
Peck's great-grandfather owned one of the longest-running restaurants in New York City, Ratner's in the Lower East Side (it was founded in 1905 and closed in 2002), and his mother is a chef. He went to culinary school in Vermont at the New England Culinary Institute and has worked in restaurants and clubs since, including forays into entrepreneurship.
They both feel that healthy competition in the cooking world is a good thing. "The innate element of competition [in cook-offs] makes it fun," says Peck, "It's like the Slip 'N' Slide at a birthday party...everybody wants to go the furthest." This sense of fun is a tangible quality that Suarez and Peck infuse in their events. They insist that it is their "passion for food that informs everything [they] do." For these guys, that passion means rowdy, delicious fun.
The cook-off world is a tight-knit community and a culture of its own. Participants tend to be serial contestants and certain people tend to leave victorious more often than others. (Perhaps they have cracked the code of Suarez's winning formula?) There is an undeniable draw to cook-offs, and Suarez and Peck use the bulk of the money from one cook-off to re-invest in the next event. When asked about their favorite experiment to date, Peck answered, "Always the next one. They're getting better and better, as is the caliber of the food. It's always a letdown after they're over."
The most challenging part of hosting? "Eating all 30 entries!" said Suarez with a laugh. Both Suarez and Peck give their own awards, so eating absolutely everything is mandatory. And the most rewarding part? "Running around the city finding sponsors," before the event takes place. Peck added, "We love the chefs. They're crazy in a great way."
After half a dozen cook-offs and a variety of catering events like a Kentucky Derby party, a pastrami face-off at the Taste of Williamsburg, and this weekend's Epic Prom, Suarez and Peck are looking to the future. In June, Peck will be catering his own wedding ("The Wedding Experiment," he joked). Beyond that, they envision moving beyond cook-offs. "The Experiments are a launching pad," said Suarez. They hope to use their success in the cook-off community as a vehicle to do larger-scale events and more catering.
Production companies have contacted these kings of the cook-off with interest in a television series and they are working with sponsors to take the experiments on a national tour. "Cook-offs can be done everywhere, in any place where people want community," said Peck. He is adamant in the community-building aspect of a cook-off, based on his personal experience. He views food as a way to create community, and that cook-offs can be successful wherever there is that desire.
As for the next food experiment? They are still brainstorming what the theme might be. Their list of potentials is lengthy: hot dogs, Chinese, beans, sushi, even a round two of beer. Nothing has been solidified but whatever they choose is sure to inspire novel and unusual dishes. They have taken New York by storm, and that's just the beginning for these two cook-off connoisseurs.