Homecooking With... Matt Lusk
Matt Lusk isn’t the first guy to claim his chili is “the best in the world.” But if his flame-adorned chef’s jacket, competition medals and binders of handwritten recipes don’t convince you, one bite of his chili will: this fella is the real deal. Chairman of the South Carolina Chili Cookoff, (self-named) “Fatt Matt” has elevated chili to an art. While he’ll cook just about anything, chili fascinates him because just one spoonful can evoke sweet, salty, spicy, bitter and even sour tastes.
If you’re lucky enough to receive an invitation to the Lusk home, you’ll be greeted in the entryway by shelves of plaques, trophies and medals accrued during Matt’s chili career. And if you’re even luckier, he’ll have a big pot of chili waiting for you. Not far from the front door is the stove top, and Matt is likely to welcome you from behind it, ladle in hand.
His patiently-crafted chili boasts a complexity redolent of the most sophisticated fine dining experiences, so it’s not out of context to discuss with absolute sincerity the varying flavor profiles of his homestyle recipe. Unexpected are the sweeter notes (owed in part to the inclusion of grape jelly), and allspice and cinnamon give the dish a festive holiday taste. Matt isn’t shy about spice—sweet potato cornbread helps tame the kick.
And let’s face it: even if the chili tasted like mud, it’d be hard not to get caught up in Fatt Matt’s passion. As it turns out, making chili is not really about eating the stuff, anyway. Hundreds of “chiliheads” gather throughout the year and across the country, not only to compete but to celebrate. Good chili is slow-going, and that’s no problem at a cook-off. In fact it may be the dish’s greatest attribute, since it leaves plenty of time for stories and jokes while the pot simmers. If it surprises you that Matt is willing to share the recipe for his award-winning chili, it shouldn’t. “Doesn’t matter,” he insists. “You have to know what you’re doing.” Sharing seems to be at the heart of chili making—one pot, many spoons.
In Matt’s own home, chili is as frequent a topic of conversation around the dinner table as school or dance or piano. As soon as the weather cools down, chili becomes a staple meal throughout the fall and winter. If you ask Matt’s wife Tonya how often they eat chili, she’ll just roll her eyes and say, “Too much!” She’s joking, of course, because no matter how much Tonya and their two teenage daughters may tire of peppers and beans, they are quick to acknowledge the role of this pastime at the center of many of their most meaningful family gatherings. Friends, too, expect a bowl in hand as soon as they enter the kitchen.
Some say chili is a state of mind; others call it a way of life. In the Lusk family, chili is a reason to come together. Nothing is more worth celebrating than that.