Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit
Last Sunday, 30 amateur chefs gathered at The Bell House in Gowanus Brooklyn to compete in the Brooklyn Taco Experiment, the brainchild of cook-off connaisseurs, Theo Peck and Nick Suarez.
Though some competing in the Experiment are professionals -- chef Jason Marcus, late of Judson Grill who will soon open Traif in Williamsburg -- the majority of the competitors are amateurs in the kitchen. They're book editors, web designers, commercial producers, and schoolteachers, here to work their magic on the beloved Mexican sandwich.
And, as a sandwich, the taco offers the creative kitcheneer license to plop virtually anything within its shell, regardless of whether or not that filling belongs there. The results of willy-nilly taco creation can swing from sublime to silly to downright scary. Contestants' tables at The Bell House were filled with ingredients that testified to that fact, a freakish hodgepodge of halloumi cheese, truffle-scented chiccarrones, even chocolate mousse.
Peck and Suarez admit that among their primary motivation for creating their Experiments is their love of both competition and prizes.
"We are food competitors," said Suarez. "Just two weeks ago, Theo won first and I won second in a cassoulet competition."
But despite the victory, said Peck, he and Suarez were a little disappointed.
"We left with the desire for more: bigger, better prizes," said Peck. "We felt like people who do this put a lot of hard work in and should be rewarded."
Accordingly, the winner of the Taco Experiment received what Suarez called "one of the greatest prizes in cookoff history: two round-trip tickets to Mexico and hotel accommodations, courtesy of Aeromexico."
Audience votes and a panel of judges determined which lucky winner of the competition would be win their way to Mexico.
Some guests started by trying Andrey Ayrapetov's carnitas taco with his "traditional sauces made untraditionally," including an avocado mousse, and a pickled tequila slaw. Ayrapetov cooked his pork sous vide-style, with the meat swaddled in a plastic bag and submerged in a 70-degree bath for 48 hours. His presentation was vibrant and imaginative, and the finished dish included a horchata shooter, a sweet shake-like concoction made from pumpkin seeds.
Further down the line was Jeffrey Olson, a business event producer who's always "cooking in (his) head." In his own cerebral way, Olson created a taco filled with goat that has been confited in animal fat for twelve hours, accented with a tiger-nut horchada and a beet-jicama salsa.
Another competitor, photographer Adam Courtney, cooked his pulled pork with hibiscus flowers and fresh pasilla chilies that he picked up in Arizona, where he was visiting his grandmother after her bout with ovarian cancer. The fact that Suarez and Peck donated a portion of the proceeds from the Brooklyn Taco Experiment to ovarian cancer research makes participating even more meaningful to Courtney.
At 4:30, all the guests -- some carrying babies, some beer, some both -- gathered in front of the stage to hear the results of the voting. In addition to the audience's choices, a variety of restaurant owners, magazine writers, and local food cart mavens acting as judges bestowed their opinions on the competitors.
The grand prize was awarded to a team known as Serious Business, whose creation was the afternoon's standout. Though the combination of pork carnitas, cotija cheese, and guacamole doesn't sound inspired, the product is transcendent, as the all-organic ingredients come together beautifully atop one of the only hard shell tacos of the competition.
Judges' prizes went out to chefs like Mike Leahy, whose taco featured oatmeal stout-braised beef, and Mike McGowan, who filled his shell with a toothsome combo of shredded osso buco and short ribs.
Once the prizes were awarded, guests, chefs, and their teams, bellies full, headed to the Experiment afterparty. Suarez and Peck surveyed the remnants of their Experiment, declaring it a success. When questioned about a follow-up, they looked at each other.
"Probably in April," said Suarez.
"Eggs," Peck said, with a mischievous grin.