Local restaurants go to town on the comfort food dish as part of the Downtown MACdown
CANANDAIGUA — The old Keep It Simple, Stupid philosophy works like a charm, especially when it comes to macaroni and cheese.
And so KISS was the way to go, although good ingredients help, according to Duane “Gilligan” Dickinson, chef at the Green Front, which last weekend took home first-place honors in the Canandaigua Fire and Ice Festival’s “Downtown MACdown.”
In fact, if he has any secret ingredient it may come in the local cheese, produced by East Hill Creamery and aged in a hillside cave, Dickinson said. The crumbled bacon that tops his mac and cheese is a nice addition.
“I just assemble the ingredients,” Dickinson said. “If you start with good, quality ingredients, there’s not much you can do wrong.”
In all, 11 local restaurants competed in the macaroni-and-cheese competition, which had a bit of good-natured smack talk among the eateries’ chefs and a lot of creative thinking.
And for many, the event and the extent to which the area’s finest chefs went to in competing for the top prize may have provided some new ideas on the old comfort food favorite for those at home.
Some were downright impressive to look at, such as Casa de Pasta’s entry, which won the award for Best Presentation. Many came up with recipes that are perfectly representative of the traditional comfort food favorite, while some of the other dishes reflect the eateries where they were made.
Take the Gateway Grille, which entered a bacon, egg and macaroni and cheese dish, which owner Jon Welch said was a conscious effort to serve a dish that is reflective of the diner.
“Since we’re a breakfast-lunch diner, we made it more of a brunch macaroni and cheese,” Welch said.
Rio Tomatlan used the same strategy to great effect — the popular eatery won the People’s Choice award for a macaroni and cheese dish with Mexican flair.
Think chorizo sausage, smoked gouda and smoked cheddar cheeses, queso chihuahua, which is a cheese with a distinct flavor, and top it with queso cotija — a Mexican cheese similar to Parmesan, but saltier and with a crunch, said Chef Andrew Turk.
Add in some smoked jalapenos, not enough for tasters to call in a five-alarm fire but just enough to give it a bit of heat.
“We had a blast using all the house-made ingredients,” Turk said.
Speaking of Parmesan, Il Posto Head Chef Daniel Yacashin’s macaroni-and-cheese dish had a bit of an Italian twist, with parmesan, pepperino and cheddar, with crispy prosciutto and broccoli rabe pesto leaves to finish it.
That, and pasta orecchiette — orecchiette meaning ear in Italian.
“It’s fun and round,” Yacashin said. “We had fun playing around.”
This is how Nolan’s on Canandaigua Lake has fun with macaroni and cheese — a touch of bacon jam and pretzels each for extra crunch, with gouda, cheddar and gruyere for cheese, said Kristen Harter, who is the event coordinator for the restaurant.
“It’s fun, it’s different,” Harter said, and award-winning: Nolan’s took home the award for Most Unique Flavor.
Fun was the operative word for many of the competitors, including Nick Fabbia, of Nick’s Chophouse. Last year, Nick’s took home a trophy in the event’s chili competition.
An event like this gives chefs the opportunity to stretch out and try something different.
“It’s fun to experiment and try,” Fabbia said. “This was an opportunity to go bold and give it a shot and see what you can do. We’re having a blast.”
How could you not, with this twist on the usual comfort food dish. He used his sister Andrea’s recipe, which calls for four cheeses — Swiss, Parmesan, cheddar and mozzarella — and paprika, nutmeg, country mild and sage sausages, honey, and spicy brown mustard, with a cornbread butter topping.
“It’s pretty darn good,” Fabbia said.
Over at Catch 407, seafood dishes are king, with some land features as well, Chef Anthony Peters said.
“Which direction do you go?” Peters said, after the restaurant was asked to participate.
His answer? Try a one-of-a-kind Cajun andouille shrimp and crawfish macaroni and cheese, which resulted in a second-place finish.
“A little off the cuff,” Peters said, “and off menu.”
That little something different is what Simply Crepes Chef Maddie Alward was looking for by adding jalapeno peppers and a cornbread and bacon crumble to give her dish crunch.
“I’ve done regular mac and cheese,” Alward said. “I wanted it to be something nobody else would have.”
For many of the chefs, making macaroni and cheese isn’t a come down at all from, say artichoke French.
“Not when we make it this good,” said Il Posto Line Chef Dawson Hurlbutt.
In fact, many would consider it a step up from the old boxed mainstay, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese – especially when you can help someone out by using local products for ingredients.
“For me, it’s just supporting local and supporting your small businessman,” Dickinson said. “We try to help each other. People are trying to make a living doing these things. If we all support each other, we support our economy and keep everybody going.
“To me, that means the most.”
In case you missed it
Here are the winners of the Canandaigua Fire and Ice Winter Festival's 2019 Downtown MACdown, as announced last week:
Top Macaroni and Cheese
First Place – Green Front
Second Place – Catch 407
People’s Choice — Rio Tomatlán
Most Unique Flavor – Nolan’s
Best presentation – Casa De Pasta
Flavors, Mac's Philly Steaks, Simply Crepes, Gateway Grille, Il Posto and Nick's Chophouse also participated.
First Place — Peacemaker
People’s Choice – Climbing Bines
Most Unique Flavor - Peacemaker
Best Presentation – Peacemaker
People’s Choice – Vineyard Homes
Comfort food competition
Ontario County amateur cooks will compete in the second annual Comfort Food Cook-off on Saturday, March 2, to raise funds to support homeless children and their families.
The event, from 3 to 5 p.m., will be held in three locations: Mount Olive Church in Geneva, St. John’s Episcopal Church in Canandaigua, and Clifton Springs United Methodist Church in Clifton Springs.
A $10 donation will provide 10 tickets for voting for favorite dish(es). Winners at each location will receive a “basket of spring” containing a variety of culinary items.
The event is sponsored by Family Promise of Ontario County, a faith-based network helping families in Ontario County become sustainably independent.