Friday, February 20, 2009

sMACked Down

As a well-seasoned mac-n-cheese maker, I snapped at the opportunity to compete against several well-known Chicago chefs in a benefit cook-off for the Organic School Project. When I spotted this event listed on Gaper's Block Drive Thru a few weeks ago, I immediately shot off a quick email making a case for why I thought my mac and cheese recipe would be the winner.

The event was called sMACkdown, and I learned a few days later that I'd be competing for culinary bragging rights against chefs from Kuma's Corner, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, The Publican, and Boka, as well as 15 other regular cooks like myself.

But it wasn't those hacks that I was concerned with. Nope. The big game I was hunting was none other than the Top Chef herself, Stephanie Izard.

I watch very little television, but I'm a big fan of the Bravo reality show, and Stephanie was the winner of Season Four (Chicago). So not only did she win the title of Top Chef, beat a number of other very impressive chefs, and turn out some fairly innovative dishes (braised pistachios, anyone?), but she did it on her home turf and represented Chicago.

Well, last night she was going to be on *my* turf, and I was gunning for her. I had designs on writing a great blog entry about how I trounced the Top Chef. In fact, I've even been considering applying for season six of the show, and doing some trash-talking after my triumph was going to be a key feature of my audition tape.

Unfortunately, I lost. did Stephanie. So, technically, I tied the Top Chef. Ah hah! Not too shabby after all.

Attendees got three tickets each to vote for their favorite mac and cheese entries, and the top five vote-getters advanced to the judging round, which resulted in three trophy-winners. The win went to James Gottwald of Rockit Bar and Grill (clickers beware--very loud website), and second place went to Amalia Obermeier-Smith of Kuma's Corner. Third place--and the only non-pro chef to bring home a trophy--went to LTH'er KennyZ.
Stephanie (Top Chef) Izard was gracious despite suffering a humilating defeat.

All in all, a good time was had by all. Ubiquitous uber-mixologist Adam Seger was there mixing up some sort of godforsaken cheddar-cube garnished MAC-tini (I stuck with the Goose Island 312 Urban Wheat--the event was held at the local brewery's Wrigleyville outpost), and the room was literally jammed with charitable comfort food aficionados crowding three-deep around the ring of chafing dishes from whence came the goods.

I applied my signature method of moving through crowded venues (big guy, move with a sense of purpose, people tend to get outta my way) and sampled most of the competition. Some were very good, some were fairly bland, and some were just strange; peanut butter and jelly mac and cheese with a grape breadcrumb topping? Asian-flavored mac and cheese with edamame?

My entry was the exact same thing I make for my family here at home; the classic, straight up mac and cheese. (My mac and cheese recipe and technique will be detailed in a future post). No bacon, no truffle oil, no weird cheeses. I figured, why mess with a good thing?

Well....the winner featured braised oxtail. And both runners up featured truffle oil, one with morel mushrooms, the other, Gorgonzola. So much for that strategy. Strangely, though, the winning recipe is supposed to be going onto a school lunch program menu as a result of this event. Should be interesting to see how the kids take to oxtail.

It'll have to be locally-raised, organic, hormone-free oxtail, of course, because that's what this organization is all about--bringing these type of important food values to schoolkids. It's a really cool project which aims to re-vamp school lunch programs in a way that teaches kids valuable lessons about horticulture, nutrition, and cooking while also preparing made-from-scratch organic lunches on a daily basis. It's similar to the kind of thing that's been going on in France for years, and to what Alice Waters is doing in the Bay Area with her Edible Schoolyard Program.

At the end of the night, I may not have earned any bragging rights, but I met some pretty cool and interesting people, I watched a grown man proudly hoist a macaroni-festooned plastic trophy over his head, learned about a very cool organization trying to teach kids to reject the agro-pharma-industrial food establishment, and--bonus!-- I loaded a pretty good-sized to-go container full up with leftover mac and cheese to bring home.

Not a total loss, I guess. Ms. hot-shot Top Chef, however, fresh off her humiliating tie with yours truly, will be jetting off to the Bahamas for a Club Med food and wine festival. Grrrr. No wonder she was so gracious about losing.


Queen said...

Anyway to get your recipe and the ones that came in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd? I was at the event and thought yours was good and was a little surprised that it was so simple and to the point, but still tasty.

E L said...

I'll be posting my recipe and technique, complete with step-by-step pictures, on this blog at some point in the next couple weeks.

For the other recipes, you should be able to get them. Contact the organizers of the event. You should be able to find them by clicking the links I supplied in the piece.

Queen said...

Cool...looking forward to getting your recipe :-)

Anonymous said...

What number was your entry? It sounds like I would have enjoyed it since I prefer a more traditional mac and cheese. It's not that I didn't care for the winning entries, but I wonder how many people simply voted for them because they felt they were *supposed* to vote for them. The mac and cheeses with gimmick items like oxtail, truffles, pb&j seemed to certainly get the most buzz and discussion.

Quite honestly, I would have preferred boxed mac and cheese over most of what was provided at the event.

E L said...

my entry was #12.