On November 17, 2013, ten Phoenix chefs came together to deliver their individual visions of a great mac & cheese. These offerings were shared with a sold out crowd that had already quickly purchased double the available tickets tendered for last years throw down. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that it’s in it’s third year as the only annual Mac & Cheese Throwdown held in the U.S. according to co-promoters Susie Timm of Girl Meets Fork and Kirti Dwivedi of Diya Marketing. The popularity of this years event was perhaps best highlighted by the pregnant woman pacing out in front of this years venue claiming that her unborn child “needed” a ticket. If you are looking for a new entrepreneurial outlet, this event could easily support a scalper!
The pregnant woman wasn’t alone. Imagine a love of mac & cheese so strong that you were moved to create an apparel accessory to commemorate your role as a judge in the 2013 Mac & Cheese Throwdown. Yes, I LOVE mac & cheese but not enough to create AND don an elbow macaroni themed Bohemian head band… not my style. That’s close to a mac & cheese fetish in my book.
But I really shouldn’t have been surprised. It turns out that Mrs. Ashley Oakes-Scott had not only designed, but came styling said head band in honor of her role as one of three judges who carried the weighty role of determining who’s mac & cheese reigned supreme. Mrs. Oakes-Scott also holds a second Twitter handle – @morechzplz and a Tumbler blog space by the same moniker. Clearly she loves mac & cheese just a little bit more than the rest of us.
Pictured at right: The now nearly famous ‘Golden Macaroni’ headband! (imagine gold spray paint & glue gun in hand)
Who knows, maybe she has a future ridding this city of mediocre mac & cheese by working nights in Howard Seftel-like anonymity as her alter ego / super hero, The Golden Macaroni?!? Mrs. Joanie Simon of Restaurant Live AZ fame and yours truly rounded out the illustrious, though not quite equally mac & cheese vocal, panel of judges – and this years judging was no easy task!
Mind you, I have my own favorite mac & cheese recipe posted on our YouTube channel. Five Cheese Mac & Cheese w/ Crab & Green Chile (Black Truffle Salt as the roux base and finished w/ bacon crumbles is nothing to sneeze at and this years entries were just as solid! One or more of them might cause me to rethink my favorite mac & cheese recipe!
For the judges, the entries are presented in no particular order, with a number handwritten on the plate for later correlation by those tabulating the judges scores. A brief run down of the entries can be found on Mrs. Oakes-Scott’s blog and the winners were posted on Mrs. Simon’s blog. I’m here to explain WHY the winners were selected and what you should expect if you are ever called on to judge a mac & cheese throw down!
As judges we were asked to evaluate each entry on the following criteria: Taste, Cheesiness, Consistency and Creativity. Each of these aspects is also typically interdependent as well. For example, the more creative a dish is, the more taste will be a factor. Is it well balanced? Does the description match the flavor profile? Is one flavor particularly prominent over the others? Cheesiness is an aspect that can’t be over-rated – it is, after all, a mac & cheese throw down. Not all cheeses when melted or used to create the cheese sauce or roux will produce the same consistency. Some will be smooth, others stringy and sadly some will even turn out grainy. Then there’s the pasta itself. Fresh or dried will make a difference. When the cheese sauce is added, how long the two are cooked together, how much of the starch from the pasta is shared with the cheese sauce, even the method of warming or cooking will affect texture or consistency of the pasta and the overall dish.
And you thought it was as easy as showing up, stuffing 10 different mac & cheese servings in your mouth and simply picking one the winner… well nothing could be further from the truth. You get approximately 30 minutes to sample, make your notes, resample, confer with your fellow judges and then submit your individual scores. That time literally flies by and you are left with your notes, a clear favorite or three and an opportunity to find out who made which one before the winners are announced.
Remember, there are no rules here. Each participating chef crafts (not to be confused with that heinous Kraft) a mac & cheese of their choice. The final product can be as simple as a side that could be served at your next backyard barbecue or complex enough to be served as a completely composed dish that delivers what is arguably the world’s greatest comfort food in fine fare form. We overheard some attendees suggesting that specific entries should not have been allowed because they weren’t even close to a traditional mac & cheese. We as judges completely disagree with that notion and in this modern day world of deconstructed dishes suggest that some of the best mac & cheese dishes this year delivered a new take on your favorite comfort food that would definitely push you out of your comfort zone and take your taste buds to new heights in the pursuit of mac & cheese goodness.
Here’s what I personally enjoyed from this years top three plus the People’s Choice – presented from the bottom up!
Third Place: EVO – Chef Jeff Caswell
Ingredients: trumpet pasta, prosciutto, scallions, parmesan and mozzarella.
This stand-up entry (pictured at left) was the hands down winner if Cheesiness were the primary consideration. Beautifully creamy, stringy and gooey all found in one mac & cheese with the subtle influence of prosciutto and scallions. If there was a quintessential mac & cheese, this has to be “it” for me. This would make the best side dish anywhere, unless of course you were consider frying up blocks of it in a cast iron skillet with a bit of butter! Remember, there’s always a way to make great mac and cheese even better, and no one offered a fried mac & cheese entry… just sayin’.
Second Place: Renegade MOD – Chef Michael O’Dowd
Ingredients: lap cheong, foie gras, edamame, dried cranberries, elbow macaroni, gruyere, plum sauce, ginger and wonton skin.
This clearly non-conformist entry (pictured at left) raised the ire of more than one mac & cheese traditionalist, but for me was all that you could ask for in the style of a deconstructed mac & cheese. Imagine the rangoon style fried wonton crisp as the bread crumbles your grandmother was so fond of. The lap cheong and foie gras make the best bacon substitute ever, and the edamame and dried cranberries provided a balance to the flavor profile your palate didn’t even know it was craving. When all of that came together with appropriately drizzled measures of the accompanying cheese and ginger plum sauces. That instruction was the cause of choruses of “drizzle it, just a little bit” sung in the style of one hit wonder 2 IN A ROOM’s – “Wiggle it, just a little bit”, and the rest was, as they say – history.
And the winner is…….
Grand Prize: Cafe Zu Zu at Hotel Valley Ho – Chef Richard Garcia
Ingredients: green chile, smoked corn, oven-dried tomato, double-cream gouda, shepherds hope cheese, cheddar cracker crumbs and fresh squeezed lime.
If the lime wedge on top and the instruction (yes, another mac & cheese entry with instructions) to squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top wasn’t enough to suggest that this was a different sort of mac & cheese (pictured below), the first bite of green chile and smoked corn definitely took you all the way there. Beautifully creamy – the shepherd’s hope helped keep the gouda happy here. But more impressive still was the realization that the squeeze of lime and citric acid didn’t cause the cheese sauce to curdle funny. What’s more, it really did provide just the right brightness and balance to an already stellar medley of flavors. A well deserved Grand Prize entry that delivered on taste, texture and cheesiness!
People’s Choice: District Kitchen – Chef John Marchetti
Ingredients: mole short ribs, pasta, cheese sauce and micro cilantro
If nothing else, these guys (and gal) put on a great show – they also brought “more cowbell” to a mac & cheese throw down – literally. Every time one of the “people” voted for District Kitchen, they rang a cowbell. But they brought more than just a great show. They brought their ‘A’ game and John Q. Public gave them a HUGE ‘high five’. Perhaps one of the most well composed offerings of the evening, the standard fare mac & cheese topped with mole braised short rib and crowned with micro-cilantro from their own rooftop herb garden re-framed the idea that mac & cheese and micro greens don’t go together.
In the end, this was what the resulting aftermath looked like (yes, also pictured below). And, when all was said and done we left quite full, certain that we couldn’t possible eat another bite of macaroni and cheese no matter how unique the offering. The next morning, however, was a different story. Oh, what I would have given for another bite of some of those mac & cheeses!!