Meg Miller: Thanks for bringing over your post-party shallots. Does everyone have to bring something to Showdown?
Molly Lehmann: In general I tell everyone to bring what they have lying around, and then the week before I make a grocery list and email everyone to bring certain things. The first year we put this on we dropped a ton of money. Then it occurred to me that we could split it up. Day of, I was running around and cleaning the house, and our friends were texting me, ”What can I bring?” I kept forgetting that I had already told people to bring shallots.
Laurel Schwulst: Will you describe the set-up of Showdown?
Molly: Three people came up with the system: me, my friend Eva, and my friend Bayley who does camera stuff professionally. The initial problem we had when we first started doing Showdown was that people can’t just stare into the kitchen. Bayley’s already super geared out, so he brings his camcorders over. Eva has two monitors that she brings over. The competitors are in the kitchen and the monitors are in a huge open room right off of the kitchen, where the audience is watching. There’s no audio from the live cameras, but we have the MC bring the mic into the kitchen to interview contestants .
We get volunteers to run the cameras around, and we have three new judges every year. Usually everyone’s pretty professional about it now. But early on there was a dude who was a little bit tired and hadn’t really used a camera before and he was pointing it at the ceiling for five minutes. Bayley just came in and was like, “What are you doing? You need to focus on something or get out.” [laughs]
Becca Abbe: There’s something really uncanny about being 10 feet away or less from something you’re seeing on a screen.
Meg: It’s like watching a reality television show that is also unfolding right beside you. How long have you guys been doing Showdown? Why’d you start?
Molly: This is the third year. We just loved Chopped and cooking shows. We thought, “We can do this. This house is huge.”
Meg: What are the rules?
Jeremy Klemundt: The general format is that we divide the night into 30-minute rounds. The first year we did a round winner and an overall winner, but then we switched to just stand-alone competitions; there’s no overall winner. We match up two people and then see who does better. Before they start cooking, we take them through the kitchen, give people a tour so they know whatsup. Then we give them two to three secret ingredients and say, “Make your dish.” They can make whatever they want, using all of our kitchen’s resources.
It’s usually one or both of us being the puppet master. We pick out the special ingredients for each round, which we either have around or other people brought. The competitors have to use them in their dishes, and we try to make pairings that either clash with or complement each other. Something that’s challenging to put together or just really funny.
Molly: Or they can be really easy. This year there were two special ingredients that went together really well: Sleepytime tea and pizza water [blended pizza]. It sounds really hilarious, but actually it’s just herbs and cheese water. It was too easy. So we gave them a really horrible challenge, where two dudes came into the kitchen and took over cooking for them for five minutes.
Laurel: Were they people off the street?
Molly: No it was two friends. I just asked them if they wanted to do it, because people are still pretty shy in the audience when we ask for volunteers for judges and stuff. There are three judges spots, and we have people sign up to be judges day of.
Jeremy: A lot of people get shy when there’s a camera. Some people really embrace it, but maybe not as many as I wish.
Meg: Is it actually recorded?
Jeremy: This year it wasn’t. We have in the past, but we’ve never done anything with the footage.
Becca: I think it’s almost funnier that there are two cameras around but they aren’t really doing anything, they’re just transmitting the scene from the kitchen to the living room.
Laurel: Has Showdown changed at all over the three years you’ve done it?
Molly: It’s gotten more refined. Last year during the last round I decided it would be really fun to do horrible things to people. We kind of piled it on at the end and they got really stressed out. The cooks had a minute timeout, where they just had to stand there in the kitchen while their stuff boiled over. Then they had to switch dishes. Also, they had to suddenly make it a dessert in the last minute. It was so good. So this year I made sure that along with the surprise ingredients, we also had challenges to give them.
Meg: Have you ever been a judge, Becca?
Becca: No. I’ve only attended one year because I’ve been out of town the past two times. I was apprehensive, not from stage fright, but because I was nervous about what I would be asked to eat. I was very relieved every round. The first round was the “blue round” where the twist was that all the food had to be blue, so everyone used a lot of food coloring. All the judge’s mouths turned blue.
Laurel: Do the judges have to describe what they’re eating?
Molly: Little descriptions. But I think that process usually takes 10 minutes tops.
Jeremy: When time’s up in the kitchen, the two competitors will bring out their dishes. They describe their intentions to the judges. Then the judges will eat both dishes and they assign a number, 0-5.
Meg: Do people get 0s?
Molly: This year someone did. That was a dramatic moment. It was a guy who competes every year, and he got slammed last year, too. So it’s just the sadness of it happening again. His dish was pizza water meatballs with a Sleepytime glaze.
Laurel: Does anyone narrate the night?
Molly: We have two MCs that each get half the night. They yell at the TV, talk to the audience, reference the screens, like “Ooh look at that.” They will go into the kitchen and make the competitors talk to them, which is really funny because nobody wants to talk while they’re cooking.
Jeremy: This year we cleaned our kitchen top to bottom, and it’s really good to do that every once and a while because you find all of this stuff that you forget you had. We had all these things from past years that someone bought and no one ever used, like old cans of sardines. We pulled out this mushroom batter that’s definitely ancient. Someone used it.
Becca: I was just remembering the one where Bela broiled a grapefruit, and the MC was saying, “I’m hearing this is the first time the broiler has been used in this house.” And then she pulled out the Searzall. I learned something, because I had never seen a Searzall before. It gave it that “wow factor.” Does it make you nervous to have people in your kitchen using tools they’ve never used before?
Jeremy: I went in there and told her what surface she should use it on, but anyone can do it. It’s interesting to see what kinds of techniques people pull out with limited time and limited environment. It’s surprising that someone baked something this year. There was some pretty good battering and frying.
Molly: I fried something for my round, too. It was dough that I rolled out, flat, oiled it, and then one of my ingredients was a pickled garnish thing that went really well with ground beef so I rolled it up and made it into a spiral and fried it. For that round the surprise ingredients were the pickle stuff and then this hot dog seasoning from Olneyville System in Rhode Island, and Gatorade. I had garlic scapes and shallots so I simmered them in the Gatorade and vinegar. But then the challenge was to make a side soup, so I poured the Gatorade onto ice, chilled it, whisked in a raw egg with lavender. I tried to make it savory so I put some five-spice in it. But it really wasn’t working out, so I just put some rose ice cream in it to make it pretty.
Becca: Woah. I wanted to ask you about Chef & My Fridge, because I know you mentioned it as an influence.
Molly: We love that show. It’s a Korean cooking show where they bring in two famous people’s fridges. And then they set them up and there’s a panel of eight chefs. They go through the fridge and make fun of whoever’s fridge it is. They’re like, “Ew this is expired!” There are also all these animations on the screen; when they’re embarrassed, a fridge bops them on the head and all this food falls out. Then the chefs use crazy techniques to cook something good out of those ingredients. That’s where I got the rolled spiral pastry from.
That’s why I like cooking shows, because they’ll really outline tricks. Like chilling down batter with ice, so that when you fry it there are no pockets of air. It’s good to watch them doing it while they’re stressed out, too—you see the ingredients they intuitively grab. That’s a good way to learn to cook.
Laurel: Have you have learned anything from the cooking shows that you then use at Showdown?
Jeremy: When I was competing, I made a custard in the microwave, which I had seen done on a cooking show recently. It was pretty easy; it works.
Meg: It sounds like you guys are approaching this party like you would as producers for a cooking show. You’re thinking about narrative and drama and what will make the most entertaining scenario for your live audience.
Jeremy: Yeah, we did a lot of recapping recently, thinking about what worked and what didn’t. The goal is for all of the participants to be really fun, really zany. To say a lot, and for the night to actually tell some story.
Molly: I really like to pair up people who know each other, so that it’s a good combo. Bela and Laura did this awesome thing where they were pretending to be nervous and then mad at each other. At the beginning of the round they’d be like, “Your ass is toast.” It’s good when the participants make the round their own.
Meg: Have either of you worked in TV?
Molly: I’ve done a lot of prop stuff. Kat, who does half of the MCing, is part of a production trio that makes comedy videos. I help them sometimes with art department stuff. I’ve done some event stuff as well, where I’ve picked up some organizational skills. Doing the thing itself is an insane learning experience.
Meg: Would you ever consider being like the producers on The Bachelor or something who will kind of seed anxiety or discordance within the participants, egg them on off-screen, just to heighten the drama?
Molly: I feel like that’s more of what the MCs do. They do a good job of being like, “ARE YOU EVEN GOING TO BE DONE ON TIME?” My thing is more that I really like the extra challenges, and delivering them at horrible moments. It’s not my job to be a personality, I mainly just run around and answer questions. I let the MCs be the instigators.
Becca: Something about being a participant at the party is that it feels so effortless. As an audience member you don’t think about how much work it is. It’s just really cool.
Molly: It’s important that these people are friends. It’s really is just a lot collaboration. It’s me choosing people for large roles because I know they’re going to be great. There’s no way I could do all of this myself.
Meg: Do you think about Showdown as specific to your house? It sounds like you guys have a unique situation.
Molly: Yeah I think it is specific to that house. In general my thoughts about the house are that we have a huge spot with a front yard that we can have parties at, so I try to have them often. Sometimes they are just dinners where people can go to the table, eat, go to the couch—we can create two different spaces pretty easily. It’s just rare. It’s a giant asset to have this huge house in New York, so we try to use it.
There’s a basement floor, where we have studios, then a main floor where it’s a huge open spot, bathroom, kitchen, then the top floor is the bedrooms and a bathroom. The house is on this triangle, and directly to the left there’s a cemetery. On the right there’s a truck loading zone. Across the street there are some apartment buildings. But it’s coming out of the industrial zone out of Williamsburg so there aren’t many houses.
Meg: Are your roommates involved in Showdown?
Jeremy: They are uninvolved. The one who’s been there for a long time just pretends that nothing is happening. We’ve had roommates in the past who have just come home to a crowd of like 40 people. That’s happened twice.
Molly Lehmann and Jeremy Klemundt live together in Queens. Molly is a multimedia artist who not only makes tassels but also zines documenting architectural ornament. Jeremy is a mold maker and fabricator. He spends most of his free time compulsively grocery shopping, blasting curbs throughout Queens, and 3D printing little sculptures.
Becca Abbe is a designer and programmer thinking in New York. She works on commercial, collaborative, and personal projects under the name Cdxs.
Laurel Schwulst is a designer, artist, and teacher living in New York.
Meg Miller edits the Are.na blog.