Every once in a while I get the itch to do something different than what I’m already doing. Like, when I was an artist, I often had the urge to book rock shows, so I did that. Now that I’m a food writer, I like to do things like the Asheville Coffee Expo, The Food Fan Radio Show, and more recently, the Asheville Fried Chicken Challenge and the first ever Asheville Philly Fight! Stay tuned to this page, and my Facebook page to follow my latest side-projects, and keep up with who’s got the best what in Asheville and WNC!
2019 ASHEVILLE MAC ‘n’ CHEESE CHALLENGE
10 Competitors, 6 Judges (3 Kids, 3 Meemaws), and the Public
Y’know what’s hard? Figurin’ stuff out.
Lately, I’ve been trying my very best to figure out how to do a different fun little food competition every month, and raise a little bit of money for a non-profit while I’m at it. I want these competitions to be quick, easy, and low impact on everyone involved, and I definitely don’t want them to be a nightmare to produce! I’m getting there.
It all started last year with an on-line poll about fried-chicken, that morphed into a a series of “office-contests” in which the entries would be delivered to a judges’ panel in the offices of, first Dig Local Asheville, and then WPVM 103.7fm public radio. In 2018 I did an office contest for the Philly Fight, the Pimento Cheese Championship, the Holiday Cookie Crush, and the first-ever Asheville Mac ‘n’ Cheese Challenge!
This year, due to public demand, I’ve moved my competitions out of the offices and into the Asheville Masonic Temple, where I am attempting to include the public in the least complicated way possible. Working with Shay Brown Events, we produced the 2019 Asheville Pizza Fight in February, and then most recently, The 2019 Asheville Mac ‘n’ Cheese Challenge on March 20th. Keep an eye out for announcements re: The Do-nut Thro-down, Pie Fight, Ice Cream Battle, and more throughout the year, but for now, let’s go over the results of the 2019 Asheville Mac ‘n’ Cheese Challenge!
Cutting to the chase, congrats to our new Asheville Mac ‘n’ Cheese Champions, 67 Biltmore Downtown Eatery + Catering! You have earned the respect of the judges, the admiration of your fellow competitors, and street cred with the people, as well as (and this is a the best part) a SPIFFY GRAPHIC!!! (see below) This high-quality, full-color graphic is not only suitable for printing, but (get this) can also be FRAMED once printed! Holy fuck! Can anything in this world top the never-ending joy of graphics?!? Hell. No.
67 Biltmore won with the judges, who were three kids and three “meemaws” (which is Southern for grandmother). This was a totally different panel than last year, but just like in 2018, the judges this year seemed like traditionalists at first, and indeed some of the runners-up and other high scoring contenders did have very basic, very well made traditional versions of mac ‘n’ cheese, but also just like last year, the panel surprised themselves by collectively electing a “chili mac” as their number one pick. But of course, it’s not just just any chili mac…
Photo provided by 67 Biltmore Downtown Eatery + Catering
67 Biltmore’s Local Beef Chili Mac: Rotini pasta, Cheddar, Milk, Local Hickory Nut Gap Farm Beef, Butter, Flour, Herbs, Spices, and Irvegg’s Charred Chili Oil. To me, rotini is the PERFECT pasta for any sort of cheese sauce, as each tight twist of the spiral collects more and more of whatever gooey goodness they are surrounded by, as was the case here. The combination of flavors, textures, and — not for nothing — the beautiful sight of this mac ‘n’ cheese offering was over-the-top appealing to the eyes, as well as the palate. I was not a judge of course, but I ate the fuck out of a bunch of it, and it was fan-frickin’-tastic. I was personally impressed and it scored extremely high on my unofficial score-card. A worthy win for our new champs!
The judges were (pictured below L-R) Spencer & Elle, students; Joan Pruitt, actual WNC home-cookin’ mom, and recent meemaw; The legendary activist Chef Hanan Shabazz, currently cooking and consulting at Benne on Eagle; Sorin, also a student; and Belinda “Grammy” Raab, who is the founder and co-owner of Sunny Point Cafe!
Photo by Stephan Pruitt
As always, the judges did a blind taste test, ie: they didn’t know which contender’s entry was which, and this time, I didn’t even tell them the list of ingredients, or anything, I just showed it to them. They were troopers, and tucked into one sample after another after another. The judges table was like an hour-long conveyor belt of mac ‘n’ cheese. The 6 judges rated each entry on a 1 – 10 scale, making notes if they wished to. When it was all over, I added up their scores, and boom: The winners were announced on the spot! It was a very close race, and less than two points separated the top four contenders!
Congrats to our 2nd place winners Sand Hill Kitchen, for their “Sophie’s Fave Mac and Cheese,” which had cavatappi (or corkscrew pasta, which is similar to rotini, and also excellent for cheese sauces!), along with sharp Cheddar, white Cheddar, parm, butter, flour, milk, chicken stock, cream, bread crumbs, more butter, bacon, and “secret stuff.” Chef Jamie Wade at Sand Hill has won or placed in several competitions since opening her doors not long ago. She’s one of the rising stars of the Asheville food scene in my opinion!
3rd place was a tie-score between Doc Brown’s BBQ and Early Girl Eatery! The Doctor prescribed a tray of classic “Macaroni Pie,” made with with elbows, sharp Cheddar, and a creamy roux, all presented in the form of a “golden brick of love.” For real! That’s what Doc Brown called it, and the judges seemed to agree that his mac ‘n’ cheese is indeed a golden brick of love. The good folks at Early Girl wowed ’em with their “Pimento Mac & Cheese,” also with elbow mac, and a house-made pimento cheese, which is in turn made with Yellow Branch Farmstead 1 year aged Cheddar, and parmesan, along with heavy cream, pimentos, and spices. It was truly delicious, and as I said, there was a VERY slim margin between the four winners in the top three spots.
The people will have their say!
For the second year in a row, the People’s Choice went to Foggy Mountain Brewpub for their very basic, but oh-so-excellent, and quite aptly named, “Mac ‘n’ Cheese.” Elbow mac appears for a third time in the winners’ circle here, while the cheeses in the 4-cheese blend remain a secret, as do most of the other ingredients, save butter & garlic, which were listed on the form that I asked each competitor to fill out. When pressed to elaborate, the chef would not tell! Ha ha! Well played, and another well deserved win for Foggy!
ALL of the competitors submitted fantastic mac and cheese creations and most of the entries were in contention for the top three spots, with only a point or even a half a point making the difference. I personally chowed-the-fuck-down on all of them, and was in heaven.
THERE WAS SO MUCH GOOD MAC N CHEESE, YO!!!
The contenders for this year were hand-picked be me, and were comprised of those mac makers who I personally feel are among the very best in the city at creating delicious comfort food in general, and this dish in particular. I think they were a GREAT group of contenders!
Thanks immensely to The Lobster Trap, HomeGrown, OysterHouse Brewing Company, Mojo Kitchen & Lounge, and especially Chef Matt Grush, who stepped in at the very last minute to fill a spot vacated by an injured contender, and showed up ready to rock. I also want to specifically mention that OysterHouse Brewing Company’s “Seafood Overstuffed Mac-n-Cheese” tasted SO GOOD, and it had a fucking deep-fried soft shell crab on top! Gah! So amazing! I gotta get into this restaurant more often.
Photo by Joel Silver
For those members of the public who also did the blind taste test, then voted by paper ballot, the randomly numbered contenders are listed below, and in the photo above, the first entry (Sand Hill Kitchen) is in front of the “#1” written on the paper plate. Going clockwise, next to Sand Hill is Lobster Trap, then Early Girl, then the winner, 67 Biltmore etc.
- Sand Hill Kitchen
- The Lobster Trap
- Early Girl Eatery
- 67 Biltmore Downtown eatery + Catering
- Doc Brown’s BBQ
- Oysterhouse Brewing Company
- Foggy Mountain Brewpub
- Mojo Kitchen & Lounge
- Chef Matt Grush
Thanks for voting and donating to the cause! We raised a bunch of money for the The Asheville Masonic Temple‘s theater restoration and preservation project, and we sent some high quality mac ‘n’ cheese to a homeless shelter through Food Connection after it was all over.
Thanks to Firewalker Hot Sauce for bringing the heat! Thanks to Takeout Central, for helping get the entrees to the Temple! Thanks to Dig Local Asheville, for taking pics and bringing support, and thanks to WPVM 103.7 Community radio featuring the arts & culture of Asheville for their support as well!
And of course… a HUGE thanks to my partner in these afternoon food competition/fundraisers, Shay Brown Events! Without Shay, I wouldn’t be able to open these competitions up to the public, or raise money for a worthy cause! Shay gets shit done. I’ll tell you what.
As I said, it’s been a challenge to figure out just how to keep these competitions fun, relaxed, stress-free, and low impact on the producers, participants, and support team, while also including the public, and making it meaningful to the competitors. Atsalotta figurin’! I’m getting closer and closer to nailing it, especially with help from Shay and others, so please stick with me, and get ready for the Do-nut Thro-down and Bake Sale coming on Wednesday April 24th starting at 1:30pm!
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Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.