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Make a chili worthy of Kevin from ‘The Office’ with Brian Baumgartner

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
The Office Chili
Total time:1 hour, 10 mins
Servings:8 to 10 (makes 14 cups)
Total time:1 hour, 10 mins
Servings:8 to 10 (makes 14 cups)

Every once in a while, we can pinpoint a pivotal moment that alters our lives. Actor Brian Baumgartner does just that in his new “Seriously Good Chili Cookbook.” He writes: “On April 30, 2009, at roughly 9:02 p.m., my life changed forever. I became known as the chili guy.”

Baumgartner, who played accountant and chili aficionado Kevin Malone on NBC’s “The Office,” captured hearts and spawned a multitude of memes in Season 5 when his character magnificently spills a giant pot of his precious chili on the gray carpet at Dunder Mifflin.

Recipe: A chili pasta casserole that’s great for game night — or any night

“I’m serious about this stuff,” his character says in a voice-over just before spilling a giant pot of his treasured creation.

In 2009, when the scene was filmed (in one take, by the way), Baumgartner, an avid cook, had never made a pot.

That was Kevin who was serious at that time, but now Brian has definitely developed an appreciation,” he said by telephone from Scranton, Penn., where he was signing his new cookbook.

In that book, he, of course, shares “Brian’s Seriously Good Chili Recipe,” which we have dubbed “The Office Chili,” along with 176 other recipes from the International Chili Society’s collection of cook-off winners, chefs, bloggers and fans of the show. The book also includes fun facts about the dish, a “hot pepper heat scale” and a smattering of QR codes that take you to videos, including one of him making his chili.

“They wanted 100 recipes,” he said of his publisher. “I thought, ‘Can we find 100? I don’t know.’ Once they started coming in, it was just incredible. The variety … vegetarian, vegan, poultry, beef. All the different kinds of flavors, chili verde, homestyle chili, Texas chili.”

Baumgartner’s foray into chili proficiency began innocently enough. About five years after the hit sitcom finished its nine-season run, he decided to make a pot of chili. He posted it on social media and fans of “The Office” responded enthusiastically.

That whetted his appetite for the stuff, and he began doing what many home cooks do: tweaking, adding a bit of this, dropping in some of that, and adjusting cooking times until he got to the thick, meaty, bean-filled chili he calls his own.

In the process of developing his own recipe, writing the cookbook and judging chili cook-offs around the country, Baumgartner learned a lot not just about how to make chili but also of its lore and appeal.

Here are a few of his tips:

That trick with the onions? If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll know that one of the first questions he had to answer was whether he discovered if it is true that “the trick is to undercook the onions.”

“The onion bit is true,” he said.

“We’re not looking for caramelization. I caramelize onions for a lot of different things, but not chili. It really changes the flavor. I’m attempting to get the onions translucent and then start adding stuff.”

Layer your flavors. He recommends that when cooking a hearty chili like his, the vegetables get a light saute (getting those onions translucent), then the meat goes in with the tomato paste and cooks until the meat is brown and the paste darkens. The diced tomatoes and sauce go in for a long simmer, with occasional stirring, until about 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve. That’s when the beans get added.

The result: A rich, meaty sauce with intact, whole beans.

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Lean into convenience. Unlike Kevin, who roasts his own ancho chiles for his fictional family’s generations-old recipe, Baumgartner uses ancho chile powder. He isn’t up the night before dicing fresh tomatoes, like Kevin, either. He uses canned diced ones, as well as canned sauce and paste. And, for a flavor boost, he adds two cans of beans in a mild chili sauce.

Enjoy the journey. His chili takes him about an hour to make. Other recipes in the cookbook that he has tested take as long as four hours.

“I like preparing dishes that take a long time. I find it therapeutic in a way. I’ve been likening it to golf, which I do a lot of. It’s kind of the only time that my mind goes away and I just focus on one single thing for an extended period of time. Everything else kind of goes away.”

(Baumgartner may not be looking for a one-and-done chili, but if you are, check out this Chili Pasta Casserole from the cookbook, which can be made ahead and requires just 20 minutes of hands-on time.)

Never stop tweaking. “I love the exploring of it,” Baumgartner said of developing a chili recipe. “If you take the golf analogy, there’s no such thing as a perfect round of golf. It truly doesn’t exist. I don’t think my recipe is done. I don’t think it is ever done. I will continue to change it and tweak.”

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Eat lots of chili. Baumgartner spent eight months trying and testing submitted and selected chili recipes. It is how he filled the pages of his book, but it also helped him improve his game dramatically.

“That’s what I liked about going to the world championship chili cook-off. They had all won a competition, and they explained what they do,” he said. “I picked up lots of tips along the way.”

He encourages others to do the same and to share their results. He describes the chili world as having a “culture of sharing” and the chili competitors as “his people.”

“Why do you want it to be good? You want it to be good because you want people to like it, to enjoy it, to get together and eat it,” he said. “Chili, I view as very communal. It’s about friends and family.”

“I don’t know exactly, but I know that time and time and time again, I am told that ‘The Office’ brings people comfort.” (Video: Washington Post Live)

Last weekend, Baumgartner wrapped up the main leg of his book-signing tour at the 55th annual World Championship Chili Cook-off in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Now, it is back to his “Off the Beat” podcast in which he talks to people about moments in their lives that helped make them what they are today.

It’s something he understands well. He, at first, sought to distance himself from Kevin Malone, not wanting to be typecast, but once the show began to stream on Netflix, it developed a cultlike following, especially during the pandemic. (It is now available on NBC’s Peacock streaming service, and you’ll find Kevin Malone’s chili recipe embedded in the service’s user agreement.)

‘The Office’ was always popular. But Netflix made it a phenomenon.

“When they started releasing the streaming numbers with ‘The Office’ on Netflix and, by any metric you could reasonably calculate, more people were watching ‘The Office’ than any show on television. It turned that spotlight back onto us individually.

“I realized a palpable change once again, walking through an airport, sitting in a restaurant. The show was bigger than when it was NBC’s No. 1 show. It became: ‘You can’t just ignore this. It’s not going away.’”

And he realized he really didn’t want to. In 2021, he wrote the best-selling “Welcome to Dunder Mifflin: The Ultimate Oral History of The Office.”

“I really enjoy this,” he said of fans’ enthusiasm for “The Office” and his chili. “It means a lot to me.”

The Office Chili

Baumgartner 's topping suggestions are: shredded cheese, sour cream, pickled jalapeños, avocado mash and crumbled tortilla chips. We liked it with chopped red onion, too.

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days or freeze in an airtight container for up to 3 months.

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Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil, canola or other neutral oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces), chopped
  • 1 large green bell pepper (7 ounces), seeded and chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 pounds lean ground turkey or ground beef (90 percent lean or higher)
  • One (6-ounce) can no-salt-added tomato paste
  • One (24-ounce) can no-salt-added diced tomatoes
  • One (16-ounce) can no-salt-added tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup water, plus more as needed (optional)
  • 4 teaspoons chili powder
  • 4 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons ancho chile powder
  • 2 teaspoons fine salt, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
  • One (16-ounce) can Bush’s Pinto Beans in Mild Chili Sauce, undrained
  • One (16-ounce) can Bush’s Kidney Beans in Mild Chili Sauce, undrained
  • Shredded cheddar cheese, avocado chunks, chopped red onion and/or pickled jalapeños and sour cream, for serving (optional)

Step 1

In a large pot over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onions, green bell pepper and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onions are just translucent, about 3 minutes.

Step 2

Add the meat and cook, stirring and breaking up any clumps, until still slightly pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until the meat is cooked through and the paste darkens a bit, about 5 minutes.


Step 3

Stir in the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, water, if using, chili powder, oregano, ancho chile powder, salt, sugar and black pepper until well combined, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the beans, cover and simmer for another 20 minutes, or until heated through and at the desired consistency. Taste and add more salt and pepper, as needed. Also, you can add more water, 1/4 cup at a time, if you think the chili is too thick.


Step 4

Spoon into bowls and sprinkle with your choices of cheddar cheese, avocado, chopped red onion, pickled jalapeños and/or sour cream and serve.


Nutrition Information

Per serving (1 1/3 cups) based on 10

Calories: 331; Total Fat: 10 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 67 mg; Sodium: 699 mg; Carbohydrates: 37 g; Dietary Fiber: 8 g; Sugar: 13 g; Protein: 25 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.


Adapted from “Seriously Good Chili Cookbook” by Brian Baumgartner (Fox Chapel Publishing, 2022).

Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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