Showdown: BBQ, Takedowns & Cooking In Greenpoint With Jenn de la Vega

Jenn de la Vega, photo by Collin Clark

Baste it, taste it and tweak it again. Showdown is a cookbook about feeding the conversation along with the person.

This week, we sat down with Greenpointer and self-described “meat-head” Jenn de la Vega to talk about how competing (and winning) local competitions sparked Showdown, the cookbook.

GP: Hey Jenn! Tell us about Showdown.

De la Vega: Showdown is a compilation of 100 recipes I’ve entered into competitions. It’s not only about the ones that won. I think the big part of the story is the failure and journey along the way, building a strange cooking career out of competition, creativity and personal challenges.

GP: Did you always want to be a chef?

Jenn breaks out into a big grin.
De la Vega: Actually, I never had intentions of being a chef.

GP: Really? So, what did you want to be?

De la Vega: I was working in the music industry, sending CD promos to college radio stations! That was a very fast-moving life, I made a lot of friends and met a lot of bands. It was really fun.

GP: And now you’re a food blogger, chef and caterer? Kind of a strange leap, no?

Jenn-de-la-Vega-by-Colin-Clark-3
Jenn de la Vega. Photo: Colin Clark

De la Vega: Well, Greenpoint played a huge part. It’s very important to me, I love this neighborhood. I moved to New York eleven years ago with five roommates from Davis, California. We were all college radio DJs, all living together, crammed in because we were all creative people wanting to make it in the city.

I decided to start making grilled cheeses for my friends, just to get away from it for a second. And it turned into this thing where every Sunday, I would try to make a new grilled cheese. The awesome challenge was not making the same thing twice, so I started innovating more and more. People were showing up to my house. And then we’d go over to The Diamond [43 Franklin St] after, and it would just be this messy, messy day. There was a point where one of my friends said, “You know you could do this, right?”

GP: How did you start cooking in competitions?

De la Vega: Cooking competitions sort of happened on the side. My roommate (after all this grilled cheese stuff was happening) forwarded me an email for “The Takedowns” hosted by Matt Timms. I interview him in the book. I started with a Chili TakeDown. I tried it. I lost.

(Jenn laughs). The very first time I made a chili, I couldn’t find the lid to the pot. So I just put foil over it and got into a cab. I assured this guy that I had all these towels and wasn’t going to spill it in the car.

GP: That’s pure danger.

De la Vega: Yeah I know! It went from that to screaming, “Where are my tongs!”

But he (Timms) encouraged me to try again. The emphasis was always on the people’s choice awards. Even if you lost, there were people coming up to you saying ”Oh I tried yours four times, I wanted you to win!” I got addicted to that, I really did. So every quarter I would try and make a new chili, which ended up being the first chili chapter in the book.

GP: So what was your first big win?

De la Vega: The first time I won was The Bacon Takedown. It was really, really fun. I made a Bacon Peanut Curry Nacho.

GP: A bacon-peanut what?

Jenn laughs again.
De la Vega: I’m Filipino. And I think a big challenge with Filipino cooking is that it’s usually really stew-y and hearty and served over rice. And I guess I started to think differently about how a dish is supposed to look or taste or feel.

GP: Ok, so obviously you have a very different approach. What sparked the turn into BBQ?

Jenn de la Vega. Photo: Colin Clark
Jenn de la Vega. Photo: Colin Clark

De la Vega: I was eavesdropping on a conversation at a bar, and the bartender was talking about a BBQ competition. I was just coming off the high of my big Bacon Takedown win. Oh my…I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I didn’t go to (culinary) school. So I had to read all these classic books to make up for it. We were combining all these old techniques with all these wacky flavors that you wouldn’t think to associate with Southern BBQ. Filipino, Thai & Vietnamese influence and some old French techniques. And we won second place! It was such a unique and wonderful experience.

GP: What do you love best about BBQ?

De la Vega: I love the conversation. I love talking to people, feeding off of that energy. It’s about new ideas, new ingredients, in a format that’s very familiar.

GP: A lot of the recipes in Showdown don’t use smokers. Isn’t that blasphemy?

De la Vega: I know that real BBQ connoisseurs are shaking their heads, but I think I’m advocating for people who have never cooked to get into it, explore that, and maybe someday they *do* get a smoker. Maybe they start remixing my recipes, that would be a dream!

GP: How have your experiences with people shaped how you approach food?

De la Vega: When I’m at these competitions, you gotta have your elevator pitch. In 20 seconds, someone’s going to walk by and ask “What is this?” and you gotta be ready to convince them that it’s totally worth it. I am always looking for feedback about the food. I only learn from that. Food changes and evolves with each person, location and the time and place it was made, who it was made for.

GP: How do you want people to use this cookbook?

De la Vega: You know, I really want people to take away my bibliography. I want them to steal and interpret. A lot of chefs are like, “Oh, that person stole my recipe.” And yeah, there’s a terrible practice of not crediting people. But I’m happy for the interpretation and innovation. I value that more.

I want to hear about the way something worked or didn’t work. I made these things in a very specific time and place in Brooklyn. But I want people to be able to absorb these skills and make something new with it. Keep experimenting, that’s what it’s all about.

Jenn De La Vega is the author and creator of Randwiches and editor-at-large for Put an Egg on It. Her first cookbook, Showdown is available at WORD (126 Franklin St).

About Margie Chidley

Margie Chidley is a writer and creative director out of New York.
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