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The 'Office' chili scene is funny — it's also 'tremendously sad,' says Brian Baumgartner

Baumgartner, the author of a new chili cookbook, is hopeful that Kevin was able to redeem himself after his famous chili spill.

When Brian Baumgartner filmed the “Kevin’s famous chili” scene on “The Office” over a decade ago, he hadn’t expected it to become the pop culture phenomenon that it still is today.

“I think at the moment that it was happening — I don’t think, I know — I was totally unaware that I would be talking about chili now,” he told TODAY over Zoom.

The scene was only 35 seconds long but it is easily one of the most well-known intros to an episode in the series’ history. It begins with Baumgartner as the innocent, boyish accountant Kevin Malone, proudly carrying a big pot of chili into Dunder Mifflin. Even if you’re only casually familiar with “The Office,” you know what happens next: Kevin spills the chili onto the floor and frantically attempts to place it back into the pot while slipping on the carpet.

After “The Office” wrapped up its nine-season run on NBC in 2013, Baumgartner said, he “consciously did some distancing and thought, OK, now it’s on to other things and let’s do other things.” However, his mindset changed as the comedy continued to gain fans in subsequent years thanks to reruns and streaming.

“It was like, well, you’re not escaping this, we might as well embrace it,” he said.

That includes chili. He has developed a serious passion for chili, so much so that on Sept. 13 he released “Seriously Good Chili Cookbook: 177 of the Best Recipes in the World.” It contains recipes from chefs, cook-off champions and other chili connoisseurs, including Baumgartner himself. It also includes the recipe for “Kevin’s famous chili,” if you’re feeling confident in your pot-carrying skills.

Brian Baumgartner chili book cover
The cookbook includes recipes, fun facts about chili and a foreword from Baumgartner's "Office" co-star Oscar Nuñez.Fox Chapel Publishing

Though Baumgartner does a lot of cooking at home, he’d never made chili before filming the chili scene for “The Office” in 2009 during its fifth season. At some point, after the scene caught on with fans on the internet, he decided to give it a try.

“(I) found a recipe and made it and … I thought, well, I’ll just take a picture of this, this is kind of funny that I’m making chili, and people just went bonkers. I mean, they just went crazy, me just posting a picture of myself making chili. And I thought that was fun,” he recalled.  

His own recipe in his cookbook is constantly evolving as he explores new ideas and techniques.

“I view it like I view my golf game, which is it can never be perfect. So you just keep trying to refine and make it better every time you try it,” he explained.

Baumgartner’s performance was perfect when he filmed the “Office” chili scene. Needless to say, there are only so many times you can ask an actor to wade in a mess of his own chili. Though the show had multiple outfits available for him in the event it shot multiple takes, he was told there were only three pieces of carpet that could be used for filming. He nailed the scene in one take, to his relief.

He remembered watching it back immediately afterward, “thinking, ‘Please let us, please let us have it, please let us have it,’ as chili is literally dripping off of my coat and my hand. And the wardrobe dressers are, like, pulling my jacket off of me. And them deciding that, yes, we got it, and being very happy about that.”

The spilled chili did leave its mark on him for a little while. After finishing work on the scene, he met with co-stars Oscar Nuñez and Angela Kinsey — who played Kevin’s fellow accountants on the show — for dinner at a nice restaurant. In his cookbook, he describes that night as a “disaster”; he smelled of chili and his hands were stained a reddish-brown color.

“Sitting down in the restaurant and still smelling like chili and not being able to — I couldn’t escape it even hours afterward,” he told TODAY.

He didn’t sense right away that the scene would become such a memorable one. It was only after it inspired memes and GIFs, and it started coming up during conversations with fans in public, that he realized its impact. He shared one particular encounter that took place when he was on a work trip, eating dinner alone at a hotel bar.

“The bartender took the food away, and then someone else came up and put some food down in front of me. And just like anyone else would, I looked up at him and I said, ‘Oh, no, I, I just ate.’ And I wasn’t even really paying attention. And he leans down on the bar, and as I’ve said, truly like a 1950s movie or something, he’s like (Baumgartner speaking in a suave voice), ‘This is from the lady at the end of the bar.’ And I look over and then look down and see that instead of a drink, it was a bowl of chili. And I thought, pretty clever. Pretty clever.” (He didn’t eat the chili, but he did take a picture with the woman.)

In recent years the chili scene has been referenced in sometimes-unexpected places, from a Bush’s Beans ad starring Baumgartner to a “Kevin’s famous chili” recipe in Peacock’s user agreement to Aaron Rodgers, amid uncertainty surrounding his future as quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, arriving to training camp in 2021 wearing a Kevin-chili T-shirt.

“It was like, well, you’re not escaping this, we might as well embrace it.”

Brian baumgartner on the popularity of "the office"

Baumgartner, who is friends with Rodgers, recalled exchanging texts with him that morning after traveling cross-country the night before to visit his parents’ house.

“Then I put my phone down and went off with my family and we were hanging out and suddenly I hear from the other room my phone start going crazy,” he continued. “Just ba-bing, ba-bing, ba-bing! I’m like, what is going on, what has happened? And I go back in and of course it was, I think it was (ESPN NFL reporter) Adam Schefter who had tweeted out the first picture of him wearing the shirt. And so I just texted (Rodgers) and was like, ‘Why didn’t you just say something to me? I mean, we were literally on the phone. Why didn’t you say, like, “I have you on right now” or something?’”

The scene has resonated with fans in large part because of the physical comedy that was involved. But for some, it was a heartbreaking moment for Kevin, a lost opportunity to share what he describes as the “thing I do best” with his co-workers.

Baumgartner agrees that it was “tremendously sad” for Kevin.

“The show to me is about ordinary people and celebrating ordinary people who do ordinary things who have small victories. I truly believe that’s what the show is about. And I think that that Kevin is not this year able to celebrate that small victory, I think, is heartbreaking. I think it’s very sad. And my hope is that the cameras didn’t arrive quite as early the next year, but the next year he brought it in and everybody enjoyed it.”

That last line encapsulates why Baumgartner in real life has become so involved in the chili scene — he enjoys the “communal aspect” of it.

“Nobody makes a pot of chili for themselves, right? It’s all about sharing with family, with friends, in the fall for a football game or a sporting event,” he added.

In addition to the release of his cookbook, Baumgartner will serve as a judge at the International Chili Society’s World Championship Chili Cook-off in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, scheduled to take place Sept. 23-25.