When we set out to find a few restaurants making a fancy macaroni dish, we knew that the trend had already exploded — with chefs from Seattle to New York and beyond calling truffled macaroni and cheese, three-cheese macaroni and even lobster or chicken mac ‘n cheese the new normal.
Todd English’s Plaza Food Hall in Manhattan recently added a mac ‘n cheese – albeit with chef Michael Suppa’s pulled pork, caramelized onions and aged cheddar twist — to its menu; Le Cirque Executive Chef Craig Hopson offers canapé, bite-size mac ‘n cheese croquettes for private parties and on his winter menu; and there’s even an annual ‘mac ‘n cheese March madness’ event at Jersey City’s Liberty House and Warren, NJ’s Stone House restaurants.
Of course, you can still get your standard mac ‘n cheese fare at the neighborhood or roadside diner – this is America, after all – but the more adventurous palate now has a voice in the comfort food dialog. For macaroni and cheese is not only the choice of budget-conscious moms and practical chefs, but also a cinematic vampire and a Kardashian.
Chef Tiffany Layco at the Alexis Hotel’s Library Bistro/Bookstore Bar in Seattle has been upgrading the standard dish since she started work there three years ago.
She now uses three types of cheese – fontina, parmesan and white cheddar — with herbed bread crumbs, while also allowing the diner to choose a bacon or crab plus-one.
Raised in Oahu, Layco likes to introduce flavors from her childhood. Sometimes she’ll pass a veggie or meat market and think, ‘I should bring some of that to the menu at the Library.’
However, a less elaborate mac ‘n cheese has been a standard at the Library Bistro for quite some time. With the new twist, which Layco added when she came on board three and a half years ago, this staple has become even more popular, especially at the bar. It’s offered throughout the day as well as on the Happy Hour menu.
“At the Library we’re centered around comfort food, things people are familiar with. What I have done is take our traditional [macaroni] and just added some ingredients to it to add variety,” says Layco.
“You can take a basic mac and cheese and make it more interesting – [such as by adding] Dungeness crab, [or for example] we’ve added pork belly to our mac and cheese. We’ve also changed it up a bit where it’s not just white sauce. It can be made with creamy red Spanish sauce, for example. I have added chorizo, which is a dry-aged sausage, and served this Spanish style.”
The other mac ‘n cheese in Layco’s kitchen is made with roasted chicken along with rosemary, parsley, thyme and sage.
“Those earthy elements add a nice touch to a creamy sauce – whether it’s a white cheese or tomato-based sauce with cheese,” she explains.
The Ubiquitous Truffle
Of the dozen or so chefs tapped for this story, about half boasted a truffled macaroni and cheese in their arsenal.
Chef Quanta Robinson, executive chef of Black’s Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda, Maryland, says people are looking at truffles or truffled oil in a different light: “Our industry is realizing truffles are not so ‘high end’ or unattainable.”
Robinson says the customers love the truffled side. “I’m actually a little bit worried because we are going to be switching to a more traditional style mac and cheese soon, but only time will tell.”
Robinson said later this month they’ll transition to a “Smoked Gouda Bechamel Mac and Cheese,” which will be prepared in a similar fashion to the truffled version, and topped with breadcrumbs. “But the crocks that we serve them in will be baked in the oven to give it a more typical yellow, bubbly, crunchy-on-top appearance.”
She says that the stalwarts will still want their truffled mac ‘n cheese, though. “There’s no doubt in my mind that for the first month at least, we’ll still be getting requests for it.”
Mina Group Corporate Chef David Varley is also a fan of the truffle, and says they no longer use truffled oil in their macaroni because it’s impossible to find the purity of a true truffle in oil.
This is one of Michael Mina’s classic dishes, Varley says. At Mina’s they fry the chicken, then it’s seared with onion rings; the poultry and onion sauce is then added to the macaroni and cheese.
“A whole fried chicken with macaroni and cheese was the first idea – not an entrée, per se,” says Varley. “Then we’d finish with black truffles,” he says. “That’s what we serve a lot of at our steak houses.”
Again, truffle oil is going the way of the VHS tape at Mina’s. “We use lots of fresh truffles and truffle butter, but not a lot of oil,” says Varley.
OK, we get it – fresh good, oil bad. But what are the other twists on truffles?
At Noodles & Company in Boulder, Colorado, Chef Tessa Stamper recently tried a limited time offer that featured three types of upscale macaroni and cheese dishes. Of the three, a truffled mac was the fanciest – and the most popular.
Stamper said the “amazing popularity” of her truffled mac ‘n cheese in suburban Colorado was an interesting surprise. She said when tossing around concepts for possible mac ‘n cheese twists, they always wanted to keep Noodles’ guests in mind.
“There’s a strong vegetarian population here, so the inspiration was ‘what kind of vegetarian option can we give that is really satisfying and feels like a full meal?’ I wanted to include some flavors that were more earthy…ours is a combination of portobellos, truffles and cheese,” Stamper says.
At the other end of the spectrum, including geographically, East Hampton, New York’s upscale Georgica Restaurant and Lounge has enjoyed the popularity of its fancy macaroni since opening two years ago.
One of their two head chefs, Seth Levine, says that Georgica’s White Truffle Lobster Mac and Cheese has attracted a bevy of star appetites.
“Our mac and cheese — although it’s considered a side — is by far the most ordered dish on our menu. It’s been written about in [many articles and] columns, and ordered by celebrity guests such as Molly Simms, Jon Bon Jovi, The Kardashians, David Blaine and Shannen Doherty.”
Even Robert Pattinson, who was in the area to film “Water for Elephants” sunk his fangs into some yummy mac ‘n cheese.
It Comes Down to Comfort
Why embrace mac and cheese, though? With so many other options on the menu and the ubiquity of the almighty burger, this trend could be something of a puzzle – except it makes perfect sense.
At a time when Americans seem to be at cross purposes – slimming down and following the lead of say, Michelle Obama’s Get Moving mantra – could fattening mac ‘n cheese be counter-intuitive?
Levine says “When creating a rich mac and cheese dish the last thing on our minds is the health conscious; we have plenty of healthy options on our menu.”
And Layco, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, says there’s been a movement toward familiar foods, comfort foods.
“Mac and cheese is definitely one of them. It’s also economical – you can change it up. You can do almost anything with pasta. You can make mac and cheese simple and humble or you can add those ingredients [that give it extra pizzazz],” Layco says.
And what’s more, the rise and popularity of The Food Network and cooking shows such as the “Rachael Ray Show” have made even the most modest home cook’s cuisine seem more haute.
That said, what makes an ordinary working stiff devour a plate of cheesy noodles is probably different from what draws the Hamptons clientele.
“In my opinion the Hamptons has its own economy,” says Levine. Although everyone has felt the economy change in the past few years, by pairing mac and cheese — a common comfort food — with high end products such as white truffle and lobster, you get the best of both worlds.”