DJ Ayres. All photos courtesy of DJ Ayres.
In my years in the music game, I have found DJs to be amongst the most discriminating food connoisseurs. This is no coincidence. When travelling, you're being taken to pre-gig meals, usually at a local flagship. When throwing parties in your own town, you're taking guests to dinner or hunting for late night eats. When home relaxing, you're making up for all the gut-buster airport tour food by whipping up some good home cooking. And of course, you're instagramming it all.
In this space, I'll be bringing you recipes and food stories from the globe's most cookin-est DJs, paired with carefully selected music for culinary enhancement.
Today, New York DJ, producer and label honcho DJ Ayres cooks us his crock-pot chili and A-Trak's holiday party guests take it for a test drive. Ayres, best known as co-owner of T&A Records and one-half of NYC DJ crew The Rub, tells us about his acid trip of a life story growing up in the Deep South. Read on for tales of life as a late-20th-century Southern beau—stripping at bachelorette parties, eating road kill, selling shrimp out of a dumpster for crack money; old ladies giving away used porn found in hotels, and a restaurant run according to the dietary laws of Leviticus.
THUMP: Hi Ayres. Happy New Year. Before we get to your recipe, tell me a little bit about your cooking credentials.
DJ Ayres: I grew up in Mississippi. I worked in a bunch of restaurants in high school and college before I started DJing.
My first real job was when I was 15, washing dishes in a greasy Mexican restaurant called The Cantina in Natchez, Mississippi. They didn't have an automatic dishwasher, just a sink. The cooks were middle-aged ladies who listened to Clarence Carter all day, and the food was all fried—tostadas and nachos and hard shell tacos with ground beef. That was a brutal job but I did get to mix up the frozen margaritas in a five-gallon gas can and pour them into the machine.
The next job I had was bussing tables at a nicer French and Cajun restaurant. The dishwasher was named Ms. Classy and she was so old that when she cut her finger it wouldn't bleed. She also cleaned hotel rooms and she would try to give us the used porn magazines left behind at the hotel. I got promoted into the kitchen because the line cook got fired—he was hiding boxes of frozen shrimp in the trash, then after the restaurant closed he would dig them out of the dumpster and go sell them to the Chinese restaurant and spend the money on crack.
For a while I worked at Gordo's Fine Foods, an operation in the back a deli where we made those sandwiches that go in vending machines. That was great because the guys who ran it were young and smoked pot and let us listen to our punk and rap tapes while we worked. Once they made me strip at a bachelorette party.
Not to get you off this roll here but you are going to have to explain the stripping before we move on.
Yeah it was awful. I'm not a big guy in any sense, or a very good dancer, and the bridal party were all laughing. I don't even know why I brought it up, it's a pretty shameful memory.
OK let's bury that then.
A few summers later I was at The Granary in Jackson, MS. It was run by Seventh Day Adventists, and they had all these dietary restrictions based on Levitical Laws. Like they are lacto-ovo vegetarians—they can only eat food grown locally and they can't drink alcohol, caffeine, or anything hot or cold, so we couldn't serve ice water, even in the summer. All this stuff was super kooky for Mississippi in the 1990s, but the straightedge kids ate there and my ex-girlfriend was a waitress and got me a job.
Damn dude. Any other Southern epicurean tales before we get to your recipe?
Well I grew up on a farm and we had guns but we had to eat whatever we shot. So I remember shooting a squirrel with a .22 when I was pretty young, and then my mom helped me skin it and cook it. I've definitely had possum, goat, snake, cow brains, frog legs, alligator, chitlins, rabbit. We also grew vegetables in a garden right next to the house and we had chickens and cows, and we fished a lot in the ponds on the farm, so we cooked a lot and ate well. There was one time when a cow jumped over the fence and was hit by a car, so my dad had it butchered and we ate the meat. So I guess technically I've eaten road kill.
"Waste not, want not" I suppose. OK, so what are we cooking right now?
Party Chili—who doesn't love chili in the winter? It's pretty easy to make it exactly how you like it, since you can keep seasoning it and tasting it and tuning it up, even after it's cooked. And you can stretch it out into a bunch of meals: put it on hot dogs, make Frito Pie. In St. Louis they put it on spaghetti and bury it in cheese, so fuck it, go crazy, Superman that chili! [Ayres may be mistaking St. Louis for Cincinnati -ed.]
How did you discover this recipe?
I've tried a whole bunch of chili recipes over the years and I kept all the tricks I liked, so it's at the point now where I make it from memory and do it a little different each time. Writing it down was weird because I haven't paid attention to the measurements in a long time.
Do I have to be a genius to make this? What's the trick to making the dish work?
Not at all. The trick is to start with really good meat—instead of the shitty low-grade hamburger meat from the Kroger, hit up the fancy grocery store and get the best ground beef you can find: grass fed, organic, free range, artisanal, farm to table, organic, Ivy-League-sister-school fucking cow meat. It might seem obvious but it's always going to be better if you start with good fresh ingredients.
The other trick is to cook it the day before you want to eat it, because it's a lot better after it sits in the fridge overnight.
You told me you were gonna take this batch of chili out for a test drive at a holiday party right? How did it go over?
I brought this batch to A-Trak's annual non-denominational winter holiday potluck. Dave One said, "Your chili was the biggest hit of the party," and he's a man with excellent tastes! It all got eaten up, so I was really pleased. Oh also I brought it in a very futuristic backpack, which A-Trak was thrilled with for some reason.
Thanks Ayres! Bon apetit.
DJ Ayres' Party Chili
Cook time: 3-4 hours, or if preferred, leave it in the fridge overnight and reheat it.
2 lbs of ground beef (the best you can find)
1 lb steak - I used ribeye this time
3-4 strips of bacon
2 bell peppers
1 big onion
3 15.5 oz cans of beans (I like pintos and kidney beans)
1 or 2 28 oz cans of whole tomatoes (I like fire roasted)
1 or 2 jalapeño peppers
1/2 cup of chili powder
Red pepper flakes
2 tbs each oregano, rosemary, thyme
Optional, to taste:
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 tbs ground cumin
Up to 1 can of tomato paste
Chipotle peppers in Adobo sauce
1 cup red wine or 1 can of beer
1 tbs vinegar
1 tbs Beef buillion
Garnish Ideas: grated cheese, tortilla chips (or Fritos or Saltines), diced raw onions or green onions, sour cream.
1. You can cook everything in a soup pot. But I like to start all the ingredients in a cast-iron skillet and transfer them into a Crock-Pot as I go. This is slower but it's pretty fool-proof because the chili won't stick to the bottom of the Crock-Pot and burn like it will in a regular pot. The Crock-Pot also takes for fucking ever to heat up if you put a bunch of cold ingredients in it, which is why you get them going in the skillet first. So first thing: set the Crock-Pot on high.
2. Dice the onions, stem and de-seed the chiles and bell peppers and chop them up. Pro tip: if you want to keep from crying, rub the chopping block with a lemon. If that doesn't work, stick your head in the freezer.
3. Most chili recipes will have you start by cooking the meat, onions and peppers in a little oil, but I like to cook some bacon in the cast iron skillet first, put it on the side, then cook the veggies and meat in the bacon grease. You can skip the bacon if you want and use vegetable oil or even lard—it's your chili. So anyway put the chopped onions in, cook them for a few minutes stirring every so often, add the bell peppers, cook another 3-minutes or so, keep stirring, then mash in the ground beef and brown it. Keep stirring! When the beef is brown, strain that whole skillet into a colander so the burger grease drains out, because that stuff is gross and it will make your chili taste bad.
4. Transfer the ground beef, onions and peppers into the Crock-Pot and stir in your spices: the diced chili peppers, 2-4 tablespoons of chili powder, 2-3 teaspoons of salt, a baby fistful of herbs, and I like red wine and cumin so I'm putting those in. You're going to tune it up in an hour, so if you're not sure what you're doing, take it easy on the spices at first.
5. Cook another strip of bacon in the skillet and put it on the side, salt the steak and cook it medium rare, then put it on the side.
6. Drain the beans and dump them in the skillet along with a can of water, heat them up and transfer them to the Crock-Pot.
7. Drain the tomatoes, but save the juice—heat them up in the skillet, slicing them up in there as you go, then transfer to the Crock-Pot. I like two big cans of tomatoes without all the juice poured out and no tomato paste, but you can also use less and add tomato paste as you see fit.
6. Slice the steak into small pieces, trimming the fat, and add that to Crock Pot, along with the bacon—if you haven't eaten it yet—chopped up.
7. Once everything in the hotpot is bubbling, switch it to low, and let it simmer for a total of 3-4 hours, stirring occasionally. After about the first hour, you can start tasting it and tuning it up. Don't worry, it's going to look and taste way more like chili once it's simmered the full time, then rested in the fridge overnight.
8. Tuning it up: there's a million things you can do to chili to get it to taste how you want. I usually end up adding more salt and more chili powder at this point. I personally don't like my chili so spicy that I can't taste anything else. But if this recipe is not hot enough for you, add spicy stuff until it is: more chili powder, chili peppers, cayenne pepper, Tabasco sauce, whatever you're into. We don't judge. You can thicken it with two tablespoons of flour or cornstarch mixed into a little water, or with tomato paste (or just take the lid off and simmer it some more). To thin it out some, add more water or the juice from the tomatoes. If it's too spicy, you can add another can of beans or eat it over rice. You can experiment with Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, sugar, cloves, nutmeg, vinegar, more herbs, carrots—there isn't a wrong answer here as long as you don't overdo it.
9. Invite some friends over and have a chili party!
DJ Ayres' upcoming record with Tatiana Owens is called "Beautiful People." OkayPlayer and Legitmix are now sponsoring a remix contest, open until January 14th. You can enter it here. Follow Ayres on Twitter at @djayres.
Michael Fichman is a DJ, record producer and label owner living in Philadelphia. He prefers his chili over spaghetti. Follow him on twitter at @djaptone."