The Key to Making the Best Chili, According to The Office's Brian Baumgartner
While some people nursed sourdough starters during the pandemic, I nursed an obsession with The Office. I rewatched the series multiple times (including the superfan episodes) and listened to podcasts based on the show, like Office Ladies with Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey, and The Office Deep Dive from Brian Baumgartner.
One of my favorite scenes from the show is all about food. In the cold open of "Casual Friday" (episode 26 of season 5), Baumgartner's character Kevin walks through the parking lot of the Scranton Business Park carrying a huge pot of chili. He carefully brings the pot upstairs to Dunder Mifflin, sliding it along the railing, only to drop it in the middle of the office. Kevin scrambles to clean it up, grabbing papers and folders to scoop it off the carpet. The scene ends with him slipping in the chili. It's heartbreaking and hilarious. Who can't relate to it in some way? That relatability is what's so great about The Office.
So when I heard Baumgartner was coming out with his Seriously Good Chili Cookbook, I knew I had to talk to him. (If you are a chili fan, you need to pick up a copy—there are 177 recipes in the book, including Jalapeño Popper Chicken Chili, BBQ Pulled Pork Chili and more.) And I did! After I fangirled for a moment (thank you for indulging me, Brian!), we got down to business and talked about that iconic scene, his favorite moments on The Office and what the legacy of the show means to him.
EatingWell: In the introduction of Seriously Good Chili Cookbook, you admit you had never made chili before that episode—is that true?
Brian Baumgartner: I do like to cook, and I grill a lot, but I really hadn't made chili. But one day after the episode aired, I had some friends coming over to watch a football game so I decided to make some. I posted a picture on Instagram and people just went nuts.
EatingWell: That was a long time ago—it seems like you have really gone all-in on chili. Is there anything in particular about chili that spoke to you?
Baumgartner: I love that it's a communal thing. Nobody makes a pot of chili for themselves, it's something that you usually make for an event, for friends or family. When I went to my first World Championship Chili Cook-Off and saw how passionate people were and also, like, weirdly not competitive about it, I thought it was really cool. Everybody was just talking to each other about what they do and how they do it, what kind of chili they like and how they make it.
EatingWell: What is a memorable bowl of chili that you've eaten?
Baumgartner: At the World Championship last year, I had a bowl of white chicken chili that I couldn't stop talking about. I think why it stands out is it's something that I had never made or had before. When I looked at it, I was like, oh, that's not chili. But I just loved it. When I started assembling recipes for the book, I asked the International Chili Society to track it down. [It's the Smoked White Chicken Chili by Chuck Edwards on page 86.]
Related: Healthy Chili Recipes
EatingWell: I noticed there's ancho chili powder in your chili recipe, is that a nod to Kevin's recipe?
Baumgartner: People have pointed that out before but, no, I just think it gives a really good flavor. I would say the nod [to Kevin's recipe] is definitely not to overcook the onions. I mean I certainly caramelize onions for certain things. But for chili, you should just cook them until they're translucent.
EatingWell: So you love football. If you're having people over to watch a game, what are you serving?
Baumgartner: Well, I mean, chili is a really good option. I'm not really a theme guy but if there's a gathering to watch a Packers game, brats will probably be on the grill. If it's a team from the South, I'll probably make some barbecue.
EatingWell: What was your favorite episode of The Office to film?
Baumgartner: I liked the episodes where there was rehearsal required. The chili scene is an example of that, for sure. And the opening of "Stress Relief," which is the fake fire drill that aired before the Super Bowl. It was very intricate, with a lot going on, with cameras swinging around showing different things And there was an opener we called "Lip Dub," which was us lip-syncing to a song and had to be done in one take. So again that had cameras moving from the elevator all the way through the office and back again and around. So having to rehearse all of that to get the timing of that right. The conference room scenes were torture though. People don't realize it was so small. I mean so small, and there would be 15 to 20 people shoved into a room plus two cameras and a sound guy. Those scenes would go on for an entire day, like 12 to 14 hours.
EatingWell: There's a scene in one episode where Michael forces Kevin to eat broccoli. He didn't seem to enjoy it. How do you feel about broccoli?
Baumgartner: I actually love broccoli. I am a fan! I am a fan of broccoli. In fact, I would say that at home that I probably eat it on average twice a week. Just steamed broccoli with a little butter or olive oil and a little garlic powder. That's a go-to for sure.
Related: Healthy Broccoli Side Dish Recipes
EatingWell: What does the legacy of the show and its continued popularity mean to you?
Baumgartner: Wow. Well, I can't think of another show that has done what The Office has done, in terms of becoming so much more wildly popular after it was done. We were a big show on NBC at the time, but we weren't like Friends or Seinfeld. Now it's the most watched show on television. But I think the thing that I'm most proud of is the comfort that it clearly gives to people when they're having a difficult time. I'm tremendously proud of that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.