Mac and Me
On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, I found myself in a long line of macaroni and cheese lovers that snaked around the outside of the Public Works building near Duboce and Mission. We were there to take on the challenge of sampling and judging 16 interpretations of the classic dish for the recent SF Food Wars, “Return of the Mac (Battle Royale w/Cheese).”
The brainchild of Jeannie Choe – a local designer, writer, events manager, and food lover – SF Food Wars started as her pet project in August 2009. She’d recently been laid off and was freelancing, and as this situation tends to inspire, she wanted to put her creative energy to good work. Hence, she cooked up SF Food Wars.
For the event itself, she wanted the competitors to be both home cooks and seasoned chefs who compete for the honor (and donated prizes!) that come with being named an SF Food Wars’ champion. The cost to attend the event is $14 a person and the proceeds benefit a variety of food-based charities around the Bay.
I talked to Jeannie on the phone before and after the event, and met her in the midst of the chaos of SF Food Wars; each time she was incredibly helpful and enthusiastic. Jeannie seems to be the sort of gal you’d want at your party – she’s hip and tattooed, with a generally positive disposition and an encyclopedic knowledge of food. She told me there’ve been 10 food wars thus far and, at this point, simply getting into this well-coveted event is one of the biggest challenges.
“It’s been successful,” she told me. “Tickets sell out within minutes.” Unfortunately, Jeannie ends up with 50–100 angry emails after tickets sell out, but she really can’t do much – it’s a small operation and dealing with room capacity is an issue.
So far, Jeannie has held SF Food Wars events at venues like Public Works that hold 200 people, though there are also events, like the ones at the Ferry Building, where there are 400 tickets. In each case, a big challenge for chefs is making enough food for everyone to have a taste.
Also, although there are many folks who would like to compete, not everyone makes the cut – each chef has to write up a description of their recipe and make a plea of sorts for their entry. Jeannie explained, “We’re looking for people who sound really enthusiastic.” And, so far, she thought sticking to this criteria has worked – in all the SF Food War competitions, there’s been only one no-show.
Of course, I felt very fortunate for my ticket and my chance to act as one of the 200 audience judges. As I entered the main room at Public Works, I was given the tools of judging the game: a paper plate, a fork, and a ballot with a pen. I saw the perimeter of the room lined with contenders – some in costume, some providing pickle palate cleansers, others offering up pure shtick, like a fake mustache, with a bite of their mac. Also, all teams had numbers so judges could keep track of them. The lines leading to the mac and cheese were arduous; I quickly realized I needed to figure out a way to tackle this cheesy mayhem.
Fortunately, I brought along a special weapon: my friend Cathy Sun who’s an industrial designer at frog design, the maker of the best Canneles de Bordeaux on the planet, and one of the most creative people I know. Cathy actually hosts her own scaled-down version of a competitive cooking event for friends – dinners in her living room with themes like “stuffed,” where folks pit turkducken recipes against each other. Cathy’s experience in competitive dining came in handy; she had the brilliant idea of writing down the number and name of the recipe on the rim of our paper plates. Science!
Aside from the audience’s votes, there was a panel of judges – including the cheese buyer from Rainbow Grocery and the winner of the National Grilled Cheese Invitational – who would also be choosing a winner. Yes, there would be two winners named for this shindig: a People’s Choice Winner and a Judges’ 1 st Choice Winner.
We lined up and methodically tried all the contestants’ offerings: There was a duck macaroni and cheese, a lobster version, a cheesy mac made with – ahem! – 11 different kinds of cheese, and a spicy macaroni and cheese. There was a recipe made in the shape of an ice cream cone that included a ball of deep fried mac and cheese, and some folks made a creamy “smoked” rendition served in a lattice cheese cup. It shouldn’t be a surprise that two-thirds of the recipes included pork, or that some mac and cheese recipes were spicier than others, some overcooked, and others sort of bland.
With the variety of recipes came a motley crew of mac and cheese cookers: There was a team of ladies in blond wigs and gingham dishing their version under the moniker, “The Dolly Parton’s,” and other teams with names like “Debbie Does Dinner,” “Edam and Weep,” “Foul Mouthed Ladies,” and my personal favorite, “Purveyors of Awesome.” But despite the gimmicks and wackola team names, it still came down to who had the tastiest macaroni and cheese.
After some deliberation, and an effort to avoid letting all the delicious bacon sway us – Come on! Bacon can make pretty much anything taste good – Cathy and I felt that two stood out from the rest: the Crusty Vermonter from ¢#€€$€ (because my mac is money) and SF Delicious Catering’s Smoked Up Mac.
Both recipes were closer to a traditional macaroni and cheese with the Crusty Vermonter including mainly cheddar cheese and some “spicy pork product” and the Smoked Up Mac having a hearty dose of Fontina and smoked Gouda. Ultimately, we thought SF Delicious’s recipe was the yummiest, so we gave its Smoked Up Mac our vote and slipped our ballot into the box.
When Jeannie began announcing the winners, we wondered how our votes stacked up against the judges’ choice (those who clearly know their cheese!). The Judge’s 1 st place winner was the Boffo Cart’s Vermont Cheese Forest, a version that included a lovely bit of maple glazed pork lardon. The People’s Choice Winner was none other than our favorite, Smoked Up Mac from SF Delicious Catering. Woot!
Prizes included donated items like knives, stockpots, and backpack cooler bags. Every winner seemed to get a hearty share of the spoils. One upset – the Crusty Vermonter by team ¢#€€$€ (because my mac is money) won the People’s Choice Honorable Mention. (See? We really do know our mac and cheese!) The Crusty Vermonter creator quickly announced that one of those 11 cheeses in his recipe was none other than, yep, Velveeta. When this unmentionable was mentioned, there was an audible gasp from the audience. The chef then giggled like a teenager, grabbed his loot, and quickly left the stage.
Check out www.sffoodwars.com for the recipes for all of the mac and cheese winners. Also, stand by for the upcoming pie war in late May/June – Jeannie typically posts an announcement a week before tickets go on sale, and sends out messages via Twitter and Facebook.
And, if you want to make the ultimate in macaroni and cheese, a few weeks after winning the People’s Choice Prize, Abby Ward and Mike Christie of SF Delicious Catering brought over all the fixings for their prize-winning Smoked Up Mac recipe and made a heaping batch for a lucky crew of friends. Watch the video here and make the recipe yourself.