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Event Tue Feb 24 2009
On Thursday night, as many Chicagoans were nestled on their sofas in front of NBC's must-see TV, an adventurous group of chefs (professional and amateur) and an equally adventurous group of mac-n-cheese lovers gathered at Goose Island in Lakeview for a macaroni-n-cheese sMACkdown. The event was to culminate in not only the city's MACDaddy, the champion cheese and macaroni chef, but also with some cheddar (as in dollars) for the Organic School Project, an organization committed to bringing healthy food to Chicago public schools.
Among the chefs who had submitted dishes were Stephanie Izard, last year's Top Chef winner; Guiseppi Tentori, from Boka; Goose Island's chef, Andrew Hroza; and an eight-year-old boy who had prepared a dish topped with crushed potato chips. Awaiting these chefs were three pasta-embellished trophies, and for the MACDaddy, the glory of having his or her recipe added to the OSP food served at Alcott Elementary School.
Goose Island's back room was filled with long tables arranged in a square and topped with silver chafing dishes filled with macaroni and cheese. Behind the tables, cheerful volunteers spooned samples into Dixie cups. There was macaroni and cheese with apples; with oxtail; with mustard and pumpernickel; with truffle oil; and, most inventively, with peanut butter and jelly. And to wash it all down, mixoligist Adam Segar from Nacional 27 prepared a MACtini cocktail, made with CapRock organic vodka, lime juice, maple and garnished with a block of cheese.
As a parent of two children at Alcott, and as a longtime fan of macaroni and cheese, I went to the Smackdown to taste the competing dishes. The crowd was literally shoulder to shoulder all around the chafing dishes. Next to the peanut-butter-and-jelly infused mac-n-cheese I found my way to the serving dishes, so I started with that version. I didn't even eat both spoonfuls. It might have been clever to think of combining the two staples of childhood lunch, but perhaps not so clever to act on the thought. From there I made my way around the tables. I found after a few bites, that I had to keep one cup in my hand to pour leftover samples into, just as one would do at a wine tasting. I can't imagine the cheesy hangover I'd have had if I'd eaten all that was offered. And, yes, the MACtini came in very handy in clearing the palate between bites.
Early in the tastings my husband came over and said I should try the mac-n-cheese with oxtail. But because my son, who is the OSP's biggest fan at Alcott, doesn't eat meat, I figured I'd use my voting power (each guest had three tickets, and was told to put a ticket in the jar next to their three favorite dishes) for the vegetarian versions and the most kid-friendly versions. Oxtail didn't exactly sound like something kids would line up for in a cafeteria. I had the same thought about the mac-n-cheese with truffle oil, cayenne pepper and morel mushrooms: would a kid eat that? I tasted anyway, and I have to say that, yes, a kid would eat it. Each of the ingredients was used with such a light touch, the macaroni-and-cheese was savory and tasty, and a lot lighter than many of the other versions.
As I circled the dishes, I looked at the ingredient lists to see if anyone had used eggs.
My sister-in-law makes macaroni and cheese with eggs instead of with flour. It has a really nice, creamy texture (not eggy) without the pasty feel that the flour can give it. I only saw one dish that included egg, but it also included flour. And with all the flour and all the cheese on the table, I had to cease my tasting before hitting all the creations.
Once the votes from the tasters' tickets were tallied the three judges--caterer and OSP founder, Greg Christian; Alcott fifth-grade teacher Jenny Vincent; and NBC meteorologist Ginger Zee--tasted the five mac-n-cheese dishes that earned the most votes. They then chose the first place, second place and third place winners.
Chef James Gottwald from Rockit Bar & Grill, with his macaroni and cheese with oxtail, took home the MACDaddy trophy. Second place went to Amalia Obermeier-Smith from Kuma's Corner, and third place went to Ken Zuckerberg.
The next morning I told my kids that they were going to see the macaroni and cheese with oxtail on their school-lunch menu. My son immediately began speculating about the kinds of wind that might befall an ox's tail. The kids will have lunch trays filled with healthy, gourmet macaroni and cheese to eat as they discuss their favorite organic subject: flatulence.