Life Imitates Art With The Office's Brian Baumgartner's New Chili Cookbook - Exclusive Interview

Chili people are serious about their chili, and no one is more serious than chili icon Brian Baumgartner. Baumgartner first became associated with chili during his time on the hit TV show "The Office," where he played the well-meaning but infinitely fallible accountant, Kevin. In one fateful scene, Kevin stays up all night making his famous chili, only to trip and drop it on the way into the office to share it with everyone. No one could have predicted at the time that this scene would resonate so deeply with audiences and would become a pinnacle moment for both Kevin the character and Baumgartner the actor.

Years later, Baumgartner has embraced a life of chili. In addition to being a judge at the 2021 World Championship Chili Cook-off in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Baumgartner has gone on a quest to locate the best chili recipes in existence. Truly doing the world a service, he has put together a new cookbook, "Seriously Good Chili: 177 of the Best Recipes in the World." The book includes not only recipes but also history and fun facts about chili. We got the chance to sit down with Baumgartner to talk about his new book and his time on "The Office."

Becoming a chili icon

What is it like being a chili icon?

Everybody's got to be good at something, right? It's crazy. If you had asked me 10, 12 years ago, however long it's been, if I would still be talking about chili now, I never would've believed it. It was a crazy thing.

I'd never made chili before this event on "The Office" and started making it. I made it as a joke for fun and posted a picture, and people got into it. Then I got into making it myself. One thing has led to another, and now I've got a book out.

It's amazing how that happens.

I know.

In a previous interview, you mentioned that you weren't a fan of oyster crackers or cornbread with your chili. Has that changed with the book?

I don't know. I don't remember saying the thing about cornbread. I definitely now will have some cornbread with it, at times. Most of the time, it's just a cracker if I want something with it. I don't know. Sourdough bread is not bad also. But no, I don't put oyster crackers in and stuff.

Cornbread ... In fact, I was trying to find somebody for the book. I actually approached some of my old coworkers trying to find a great cornbread recipe. Maybe that'll have to be in Volume 2.

Making a cookbook

What made you want to write a chili cookbook?

Well, two things. One, I became interested in chili and the culture around it. Someone said to me the other day that if I had dropped clam chowder or something on the ground, it would not have ever been the same. But there's something communal about chili, about making it, about people gathering together and doing it. People are ultra, ultra serious about it. I attended the World Championship Chili Cook-off and met so many people and tasted so many different things that I never ... I thought of chili as one thing, stupidly, or more like beans or no beans. I know the Texas people don't like beans, and I knew that.

But the wide variety and the types and the culture around it — I loved it. I thought, "People need to be able to make these recipes." They're into making their recipes on their own and to be exposed to so many different ones. We partnered, in part, with the ICS, the International Chili Society, who puts on this thing. By the way, this event has been going on for over 50 years, so this is not like a neighborhood gathering. Everyone who's there is a champion. We were allowed to include a lot of world champion recipes into the book, so that in and of itself made it a huge win.

The book has, what, over 150 recipes for chili in it?

177 — vegan, vegetarian, all different types of meats and combination toppings and so forth, like chili dogs or potato, chili you put on potatoes, and stuff like that. There's a ton.

Of the 177 chili recipes, do you have a favorite?

I have to say mine because it's mine, but I have been mentioning a standout to me when I judged at the World Championship Chili Cook-off. It's very complicated, and I won't bore you with the details of how it all works. But you pass chilies along. You just want to keep going to the final round. In a preliminary round, I was one of many judges. The chili did get passed onto the finals. It didn't win.

The winning one I also tasted and was amazing, but it was very different. It's a smoked chicken, white bean chili. Again, I don't know that I'd ever had anything like that before, or if I had not, with some corn in there and some white beans. It was delicious. I have now made it three times myself, and I'm adjusting and tinkering with the recipe as one should. But that's a standout for me.

[It's] Chuck Edwards' on page 86. I know that one because I've made it a few times. That's a standout for me ... Let me clarify and be clear: If you're looking for something that is not traditional chili — that would be different — I would highly recommend that one.

Finding recipes to share

What was the process of finding contributors for the book?

It was varied. It was important for me that we have fans be able to submit. I wanted that. I wanted it to feel like "The Office" family, that we shared recipes together. We had a lot of those — those were vetted. We went out to chefs, food influencers online, to submit various recipes. Then we had, again, a number of either World Champion recipes or longtime contributors or participants in the World Championship. We have a lot of recipes that date back 50 years.

We were also wanting to have a wide variety. We wanted to be the definitive place to go for chili recipes. We wanted green chili — chili verde — chicken chili, white bean, and then carne and some salsas and what they call home-style chili, which is what has the beans in it. We wanted a wide variety, so we cast the net really wide.

We had originally said we wanted 100, which seemed like a lot to me. I was like, "Can we get 100? I don't know." Then we couldn't say no. There were so many interesting ones. There's a mango one. I'm trying to think of ones that are especially different — some pumpkin.

Yeah, I saw the pumpkin and beer one.

Yes. It kept growing. If we had kept going and had pushed the publishing date, we might have gotten 277, but we're really happy with the ones we have. We feel like it's a good representation. In the interstitials in the book, we try to have fun with it too.

The Office nods

I saw that Oscar Nuñez wrote the introduction for the book. What was that conversation like?

I asked him. He and Angela [Kinsey] were tied in with that experience because ... I tell the story in the book about us having dinner that night. We had a previously planned accountant's dinner that night. He wasn't there for the shooting of that scene — he was at home getting ready. But he experienced me that night, smelling like chili at dinner. We've talked about it for years and years.

Kevin's famous chili is in the book. How did they create that recipe so that it could live up to that kind of hype?

That has basically been taken. We learned that ... I may screw this up, but Peacock, in their terms of service — if you were to read every word of Peacock's terms of service — embedded in the middle of that is the recipe for Kevin's famous chili, which they did as a joke. People have found it. This is my understanding of what I've been told. They basically took the elements that existed that Kevin describes and created as close a match to that as they could.

Is the secret truly undercooking the onions?

That is for me. I know that's become the most famous, recognizable line from that. If we want to talk seriously for a second, when you caramelize onions — everyone who's had caramelized onions on a sandwich or on whatever — it has a very specific flavor, which can be overpowering. That is what I always tell people is that the biggest tip that I got from Kevin — to not overcook the onions. Translucent is what I call it. Get them translucent, get them in there early, but so that they are with everything. But don't let them get burned or caramelized.

Getting into chili

What is one ingredient that all chili needs?

Ooh, I don't know. I will tell you my biggest tip that I have learned, which is ... when you are browning the meat — whatever it is, if it's ground turkey, ground beef — initially, let it get about half-browned and add in the tomato paste then. I feel like that acts as a great combining agent that it helps combine all the flavors at the end, when that's added early. It's not the second that you add the meat, but once it's half-browned, it's starting to sizzle and cook in there.

Add in the tomato paste there, and finish off the browning process with the tomato paste in there as opposed to adding it later. You really can taste the difference when the tomato paste is added in early, in terms of combining everything, as opposed to tasting meat and then the tomato stuff. It combines it. Anyway, that's my biggest tip.

That's so smart, because then you also get the toasted tomato thing.

Yes, exactly.

What's a piece of advice you would give people who are just getting into chili?

Have fun with it. That's the thing. I said this to a group — I was writing something, and they were like, "Well, isn't that insulting about people who've submitted recipes for the book?" [I'd told them] basically to make the recipes and then don't be afraid to play. Especially with chili, great recipes ... This seems like a stretch, but I believe it is like a game of golf. I'm a big golfer. I play a lot of golf.

There's no perfect round of golf. Every single time, you're trying to get a little bit better, working on certain things, trying to get better. With chili, the same thing applies. You may have a great recipe that's unbelievable, but don't be afraid to try certain things if there are flavors that you like or different methods, different meats that you want to use, or go vegetarian or whatever.

Don't be afraid to explore. I have my recipe in there. I think it's damn good, but I will continue to evolve and change. If we were to come out with a second edition of the book, my recipe would probably be a little different.

The famous chili scene

You've said that you did the famous chili scene in one take.

That's right.

What was the hardest part of getting that scene right?

I never thought that it would be the moment that, in some ways, people talk about, about the show. But it was a fun thing for me because there was a lot of rehearsal involved because the stakes were so high to not keep going over and over. With so many scenes in the show — what do they say, "Tape costs nothing"? — we could play and go on and on and improv and try different jokes. This was really important because of the mess that it was going to make. It was all about the moment of the spill.

Once I was on the floor, we were able to play around a little bit, and I could try different things, grab the file stuff and try to get it back in. There was a lot of stuff we could try, but it was about making the moment of the spill believable. But we did it one time with the chili. There was a lot of rehearsal about exactly ... A lot of times on that show, things weren't marked. The cameras were meant to find us. But we wanted to be sure it happened around the area that the cameras could get us the best, again, because we wanted to do it as few times as possible. I don't think people thought we would get it in one, but thankfully, we did.

How long did it take for the smell of chili to fade after that scene?

It was a while. What's funny was we shot it on a Friday night. I don't remember the set smelling still when we came back Monday. I don't remember that, but I smelled like it for a while. My hands were an orangey color for a few days, for sure.

Do you know if there will be any chance of an "Office" revival?

I don't know. Everybody talks about it. It's in NBC's hands and Greg Daniels', if he comes up with an idea that we can do. I don't know about a revival. It's more complicated, the idea of coming back. Again, what I always say to people is, "What are you coming back to?" Kevin was fired. Jim and Pam live in Austin. Michael's in Colorado. Stanley's in Florida. Creed might be dead or in prison. I don't know. I don't know who all's still there and what we would be coming back to. But much like the last episode of the show, the idea of us finding a reason to get back together seems plausible to me.

Fan interactions

Both in the book and on Busy Phillipps' podcast, you talk about how part of what you feel resonates truly in that scene is that there's this very human element to it. It's this guy who does one thing well that is at the heart of it. Do you feel that's why it's latched on and people identify with that scene?

I hope so. There [are] some people that come up to me [and] talk about it being the funniest thing that they've ever seen. I say, "Thank you," because I guess I did my job in some ways. But for me, the moment is indeed much bigger, because there's such a buildup and so much pride that Kevin has in this thing that he says is the thing he does best in the world.

Again, it's about chili. It's why the idea of it being chili was so brilliantly chosen by the writers. [Chili] is something that you work on and takes a lot of time. You know the effort that he must have put into doing this, to bringing it in and wanting to share it with everybody. Then, of course, in this instance, it fails. I find the moment very sad, and a lot of people tell me the same thing. They find it very sad.

At its heart, that is what the show is about. It is about celebrating ordinary people who occasionally do great things or beautiful things. Even though it didn't work out for him, the idea is that this is something that he ... It's not made as a joke. It's not something he thinks he does well, but nobody else does. The idea is it is a moment worthy of being celebrated. The comedy comes with it not working out, but ultimately, it's about exploring that beautiful moment from him that makes the moment resonate.

Food for thought

In the book, you mentioned that you've had interactions with fans around that chili scene, some of which are strange. You tell a story about being in Pittsburgh ...

That was probably the best because it was so surprising to me. I was working; I was sitting at the hotel bar by myself, having dinner. I'd finished dinner — I remember I had just finished because of what happened next. I was on my phone or something, and I wasn't really paying attention, but the food had been cleared away. Shortly after that, a bartender came and set food down in front of me. I instinctively looked up and said, "Oh, no, I've already eaten."

He leaned down and said in this — I don't know; I always say in this '50s noir movie way — he was like, "This is from the woman at the end of the bar." I looked down, and it was a bowl of chili, and I looked over at her. It caught me so by surprise. I was so surprised. Nobody had done that before, so it made me laugh. She got a conversation out of me, I'll put it that way. We both had a laugh about it.

Who is one chef that you would love to have cook dinner for you?

Great question. Emeril Lagasse ... I love New Orleans, and I'm from the South. I would love some good, authentic New Orleans cuisine by Emeril. That would be fun, and would be something that I wouldn't or couldn't make on my own.

"Seriously Good Chili: 177 of the Best Recipes in the World" is available for purchase now.

This interview was edited for clarity.