Q&A with Food Experiment Co-Creater, Nick Suarez

How to host a cook-off and going up against Bobby Flay.
From left, Nick Suarez and Theo Peck.
From left, Nick Suarez and Theo Peck.

If you're an amateur cook in New York who enjoys participating in cook-offs, it's likely know Nick Suarez or have heard of his successful culinary events, The Food Experiments, which he co-created with Theo Peck. But did you know how they got started to begin with? That Nick is Assistant Tasting Coordinator at Wine Spectator magazine? And that Nick competed against Bobby Flay in a Throwdown, or that he started culinary school after having started to host these events? Read on for to find out more and for his advice for hosting your own cook-off.

How did you get into doing amateur cook-offs?
I started competing in local New York City cookoffs in 2008. I loved cooking to begin with and adding in the competitive side came surprisingly easy for me. I placed second at my first cookoff and was immediately hooked. I competed in every local cookoff and have won quite a few of them. One of my favorite cookoffs was winning the 2009 Great Hot Dog Cookoff. It's an exceptionally well organized event and I was really proud of the hot dog I made. I met Theo Peck (co-creator of the Food Experiments) on the cookoff circuit. He was actually my cooking rival at the time, with either him or I winning, but we eventually smoothed over everything and decided to collaborate.

What inspired you to start hosting the Food Experiments?
I started the Food Experiments with Theo Peck because we wanted to create the ideal cookoff. Basically, a cookoff we would want to compete in ourselves and one that was staged on a much grander scale. We wanted bigger prizes for the chefs who put so much time, energy and money into each event and who are the real stars of the show. We started working with larger sponsors as well to carry each event. Ultimately, we tried to create a forum for home chefs to showcase their ideas to the public and bounce ideas off each other. We've had many chefs who have competed numerous times, and it's a great way to meet like minded food people.

Why Brooklyn? Why The Bell House?
We were the first people to host a cookoff at The Bell House. We had been to the space for various music concerts, and we realized it was the only place that was big enough for the kind of cookoffs we wanted. Will Crane, The Bell House's GM put a lot of faith in us and after witnessing the huge success of our first event, the Brooklyn Beer Experiment, the rest is history. There is a large cookoff community in Brooklyn so it was only natural to hold it in the borough.

You’ve hosted six Brooklyn Experiment events, each with a different theme: Beer, Cheese, Chocolate, Taco, Brunch and Brooklyn Roots. How do you settle on a theme?
Theo and I are always discussing future Experiment themes. We have a list of 50 themes that are constantly changing. They range from the Egg and Chicken Experiments to the Chinese Food, Ice Cream and Holiday Food Experiments. The possibilities are endless. Most important though, is that the themes allow for a great range of dishes, from savory to sweet, and also to get audience members excited about the food. We had people clamoring to attend the Brunch Experiment, with people going as far as buying and selling tickets on Craigslist and repeatedly contacting the Bell House for entrance. I haven't met a New Yorker who doesn't love brunch, so it was really a no brainer.

About how many people have participated and can we look forward to more?
We view our events as food-curated parties. We typically have around 20 chefs competing at each event and around 300 plus people in attendance. We have many more Experiments planned down the road for 2011 and would love the opportuinity to take them to other cities.

What goes into hosting a food event with around 20 team entries in each one?
It takes a lot of planning on our part, but seeing the actual event day makes all the long hours worth it. Prior to each Experiment, Theo and I typically approach local food businesses in sponsoring the event and try to involve a good mix of chefs, writers and various food people on the judging panel.  The best part is seeing and tasting each chef's dish on game day. It takes a certain kind of personality and drive to spend all weekend cooking 300-plus samples for a cookoff. You can tell that some of the chefs spend weeks refining their recipes and perhaps the whole weekend preparing. Theo handles the chefs and I handle the press for each event. Our personalities work well together.

What are the three most important pieces of advice you would give someone who wanted to host an amateur food event for the first time?
There are three groups of people you must keep happy. First, are the chefs. Whatever the chefs want, they get. Without them, there is no event. Second, is the audience. They are paying to be entertained and fed, so the event should be well organized. Our volunteers are the ones who make each event run as smooth as possible. Last but not least, are the sponsors and judges who make each event possible by donating prizes and/or their stomachs for judging. If you can create good synergy amongst those groups, then you're on your way to having a successful event. Also, don't eat a large breakfast on the day of the cookoff. You'll never get through all the dishes. From a competition stance, I always say the same thing. You can really win any cookoff with any dish. What it all comes down to is execution and proper seasoning. You can have a delicious dish, but if it's supposed to be served hot and it's not, you are going to lose points.  "Keep it simple" has always been a great motto for the cookoffs.

Since launching The Food Experiments you started attending culinary school, right?
Correct, I am currently attending The French Culinary Institute and will be graduating in late October. I am in the 9-month culinary night program. This year has flown by, but has also been physically exhausting. Managing my time has been crucial to having any sort of normal life during the past nine months.

What lead to that decision and how has it changed your outlook on food?
I've always felt like I was a good cook before FCI, but I didn't know any of the basics or have any structure to my cooking. I kind of just flew by the seat of my pants. Learning to cook is really only possible through experience.  Culinary school gives you the hands-on knowledge and confidence that you need in the kitchen. It was an easy decision to attend. In regards to food, I now worry more about refining my cooking techniques and how I can take my cooking to the next level. My style of cooking is simple. I like taking classic American dishes, and giving them modern twists. I'm fond of trying to give rich, heavy dishes a touch of elegance. It's a great culinary challenge.

How has it changed your approach to participating and hosting the cook-offs?
It has helped me improve my palate tremendously. I feel like I am a better situation now to share what I've learned about food and also be critical of other people's food. I always let my food do the talking.

You went up against Bobby Flay in a Throwdown. What was it like being on set?
Being on Throwdown was the most surreal experience of my life, and as I always tell everyone, it was one of the greatest days of my life. I had so much fun. I was more than honored to be challenged by a chef that I admire. I was also extremely nervous because, first of all, Chef Flay is very talented and secondly, he does competitive cooking on TV for a living! It was definitely a challenging experience for me. At the end of the day, he was extremely gracious after I won.

Did it feel any different than participating in any other competition?
Of course! My friends and family were all there and about 30 crew members watching my every move on camera. Once the competition was on, there was no time for me to think, let alone talk to the audience. I was relieved that my bacon and leek macaroni and cheese hot dogs won and I was afforded the opportunity to share my recipe on national TV. After the episode aired, my website and email was barraged with people across the country wanting to know where they could find my hot dogs. My backyard is it for now! The exposure was great and hopefully I can continue creating new hot dog recipes. I can handle being known for cooking excellent hots dogs.

Any behind the scenes stories you can share about the episode? Things to look for in it that you’d only have known from being there?
The amount of people and work that go into creating a 30-minute episode for TV is mind-boggling. When the Food Network called me and wanted to showcase one of my hot dogs, in the back of my head I kept telling myself that it had to be Throwdown. I had a hidden mini deep fryer in my culinary arsenal all ready to fry up parsley for my dish if Chef Flay showed up, and I'm glad he did! Also, I did all my own food styling for my dish on the show.

What's the next Food Experiment you have planned after the one coming up?
We're excited to announce that our next Food Experiment will be holiday themed! It will take place on December 5th at The Bell House. Everyone has a favorite holiday dish and they are all welcome at the Holiday Experiment. Our only pet peeve is that we're only taking one egg nog entry! Any more and it would be brutal.

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