‘Keep It Simple ... Keep It Good’: Judging Mac and Cheese for the Masses in Windsor

  • The five official macaroni and cheese judges compare tasting notes on one of the 17 entrants in the Vermont Mac and Cheese Challenge at Artisan's Park in Windsor, Vt., Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. The judges were, clockwise from left, Meredith Fitzgerald, of Haverhill, Mass., member of the American Cheese Society, Graham Kist, of Hartford, Conn., a food writer and barbecue judge, Ben Parker, of New York City, a sales rep with salami maker Charlito's Cocina, Mary Tuthill, of Waitsfield, Vt., head cheesemonger at Mad River Taste Place, and Faith Raymond of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Gene McCray, executive chef of Blood's Catering, reaches out to stir the crumbled topping warming on a burner while preparing macaroni and cheese at the Vermont Mac and Cheese Challenge at Artisan's Park in Windsor, Vt., Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. McCray prepared 40 gallons of cheese sauce to serve over 3,000 tasters for the contest, following his normal macaroni and cheese recipe with no alterations for the competition. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chrissy Tetreault, left, and Brandy Helm, right, of Cottage Hospital, garnsish their macaroni and cheese with a crumbled topping and fresh jalapeno pepper slices during the sixth Vermont Mac and Cheese Challenge at Artisan's Park in Windsor, Vt., Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. It was the first year the hospital participated in the contest. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, September 09, 2018

Windsor —It seemed like, every time Tony Rinella scooped a bit of his macaroni and cheese into a paper cup and handed it to the person at the front of the line, two more people joined the back of the line, which by 11:30 a.m. snaked all the way across the circus-sized tent and into the sunshine of Artisan’s Park beyond.

Like all of the chefs who’d signed up to compete in the 6th Annual Vermont Mac & Cheese Challenge, Rinella, 42, of the Public House at Quechee Gorge, had been told to make enough for 3,000 people.

“We’ve got about 500 pounds,” he said, pulling off his plastic gloves and straightening his black button-up shirt during a brief break. “We used about 75 pounds of cheese. About 140 pound of raw ditalini, which is about twice that in cooked pasta. And 30 pounds of lobster meat.”

In one sense, the challenge part of the Vermont Mac and Cheese Challenge — the actual competition among 17 participating chefs from throughout the Twin States — is a sideshow.

For most people, the whole point of the event was to spoon ungodly amounts of cheese and pasta into the mouths of thousands, all while raising money for a good cause (the Vermont Foodbank) and highlighting the brands of hosts and sponsors, including the Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co. and Castleton Crackers.

But to the chefs, who were putting the fruits of their labor before a panel of experts, and the general public, for evaluation and critique, the competition was real.

“I bet my job we would get first place,” Rinella said. “I said this is number one. This is going to be the winner. I bet my job on it. That’s what I said to my boss.”

Many executive chefs have a certain amount of swagger, and that was evident in Rinella, who has been serving $24 plates of lobster mac and cheese for years.

And Rinella came by his swagger honestly — the army-trained cook has been executive chef at Fire Stones in Quechee, Caffe Tosca in Massachusetts, and the Lyme Inn in Lyme.

“It takes more sauce than you think,” he said. “If you’re going to make macaroni and cheese, it should be 50 percent sauce, 50 percent macaroni.”

His recipe includes garlic, sherry, milk, butter, and cheddar.

“Sharp cheddar cheese is known as the best flavor, but it doesn’t have a lot of melting, creamy capability,” he said. “So I add cream cheese to make it more of a liquid cheese, and then we added fontina, which is almost a stinky cheese, to give it more of an aged cheese flavor.”

It might seem like a lot of thought to put into what is typically seen as a basic dish, but there were certain expectations among the patrons who had paid $20 for a ticket ($17 in advance). As they entered, each was given a list of vendors and a cheese-colored pen to record a vote for the coveted people’s choice award.

Emotions ran high. Occasionally, there were accusations of mac and cheese sacrilege.

“Mac and cheese should not be sweet. She’s wrong,” one woman said emphatically, while shuffling along the line. “Unless you’re like, a caramelized onion mac and cheese. That’s okay.”

Meanwhile, Heather Coupal, a 28-year-old kindergarten teacher from Schenectady, N.Y., studied notes she’d made of the food she’d tasted. When she’s teaching, the kids like to hear that her favorite food is mac and cheese. That sounds about right to them.

But they may not fully grasp just how into the food she is.

“She’s a mac and cheese fanatic,” said her husband, Jon Coupal, who is in the military and also 28 .

When she saw the event in her Facebook feed, she convinced her husband to come with her — a six-hour round trip, all in one day, to sample the region’s best offerings.

“The cheese flavor has to be there,” she said.

By 12:30, she’d made her way through about half the vendors, and while she liked Rinella’s Public House lobster mac, her early frontrunner was Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind, a Rutland-based smoked maple syrup seller that showed up with buckets of fried mac and cheese, topped with the taster’s choice of a hot sriracha or smoky maple barbecue.

Some of the longest lines were piling up at Marshfield-based Mo’s Backyard BBQ, which proved to be a juggernaut last year by taking first place in three of five categories — judge’s choice, kids choice and best vegetarian entry (Murdock’s at the Green, of Proctorsville, won the people’s choice that year).

Other Upper Valley chefs were also hard at work, trying to nab top honors.

Gene McCray, head chef at Blood’s Catering and Party Rentals, has the kind of personality-to-stature ratio that allows him to joke about his height (which is five feet, two inches).

“These two Italian guys hired me, and they were the same height I was,” he said. “There we would be, two Italians and an Irishman, all arguing about food and shouting at each other.”

McCray was serving cups of a plain mac and cheese topped with a buttery mix of crackers and bread crumbs. He was able to take a break to talk, because his booth was one of the only ones without a long line. He explained that was because, as a catering business, he and his staff were used to getting food into the hands of large numbers of people, fast.

“I can do a party of 500 people, plated in 25 minutes,” he said.

McCray, now 48, has chipped his way up the food chain.

At 16, he started as a dishwasher at Millbury Inn, and he’s followed a circuitous path that took him to work as a sous chef in Nantucket, a stint at culinary school, an internship at the Hanover Inn, a baker in a gas station-slash-pizzeria-slash-deli in Jeffersonville, and two years serving mass amounts of food to a workforce of about 6,000 people at IBM.

It was that last post that taught him how to marry quality and quantity, he said.

McCray had high hopes for the competition, which he’d entered for three years running

The first year, they didn’t win anything, so they made some adjustments.

“We figured out what we needed to do,” he said. “We figured out people don’t like a lot of weird things in their mac and cheese. Keep it simple, and keep it good.”

Last year, a variation of his grandmother’s recipe had netted Blood’s Catering second place in the judges’ choice.

This year, he’d done most of the cooking on Friday, using a big tilt skillet that can take 40 gallons of sauce at a whack and carrying it to the site in 18 2-inch-deep hotel pans.

“I don’t mess around. I use roux,” he said, referencing a high-fat thickening agent that can be composed of flour mixed with bacon fat or vegetable oil. “I’m a purist when it comes to mac and cheese. I’m not using cornstarch or gum guar or any other strange element, even though it probably would be healthier.”

But McCray was intentionally vague about the particulars of his recipe, protecting as if it was an off-the-beaten path fishing hole.

“We add another couple of cheeses to it, but I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “And we add a couple of other spices to it. And a few other seasonings.”

While the competition had attracted many seasoned challengers, at least one chef was there for the first time — Angela Boutin, 41, of Cottage Hospital in Woodsville.

Boutin has been an innovator, learning from a variety of sources and experimenting in her own home.

“I started cooking for my family when I was nine years old,” she said. “At 16, I started working at all kinds of different restaurants.”

She hadn’t even heard of the challenge until a couple of months ago.

“When my boss saw there was a mac and cheese contest, she said, ‘You are going!’ ” Boutin remembered. “I’ve never done anything like this.”

Boutin had confidence in a recipe of her own devising — about a year ago, she’d decided to upgrade the hospital’s existing spicy mac and cheese offering, and earned rave reviews.

Pickled jalapenos make up most of the flavor, she said, while fresh jalapenos “give it a pop when you bite into it.”

Beneath a buttery cracker topping, there’s also plenty of cheese and flavors in the sauce — “a little bit of parmesan, a little bit of American cheese, some cheddar cheese, some pepper jack, cayenne and garlic,” she said.

Of the three chefs — Rinella, McCray, and Boutin — one would win the coveted first place in the people’s choice category, while the other two would go home empty-handed.

Kelly Palmer, a Thetford resident who works at Dartmouth College, was meeting friends at Artisan Park, where she’d attended a barbecue challenge not too long ago.

Shortly before the winners were announced, after sampling all 17 varieties of mac and cheese, she had a clear favorite — McCray’s secret catering recipe.

“It’s creamy,” she said, “and the flavor of the cheese was great.”

Boutin’s spicy creation had been doomed from the start, she said.

“I’ve just never been a fan of jalapenos,” said Palmer.

But it remained to be seen whether Palmer’s palate was representative of the masses. To her, the food was more of an excuse to come to a place that she enjoys. She gestured to the offerings — a petting zoo, tractor rides, an area where kids can play badminton or wrestle with enormous chess pieces, and the Harpoon Brewery.

“They do a great job at getting people out,” she said.

In addition to pleasing mac and cheese eaters ranging from the casual to the enthusiastic, the chefs were also competing for the hearts of a panel of judges, who made their way through the crowds bearing scorecards, clipboards, and wearing hats designed to look like large chunks of cheddar.

Graham Kist, 30, a food writer who runs “Nosh Another Day” from his home in Hartford Conn., and Mary Tuthill, 36, a certified cheese professional from the American Cheese Society, said there are a lot of pitfalls that mac and cheese makers have to avoid.

“We’ve seen good and bad,” said Kist. “Saw some really unique takes on mac and cheese. And some that were, the sauce broke, or they didn’t get the cheese flavor in there.”

Tuthill explained that broken sauce happens when dairy separates.

“It gets almost mealy in texture. You can see that broken — we used to call it baby vomit,” she said.

They wouldn’t give away any hints of who had impressed them.

“The basic takeaway is that the amount of work that these people put into it is amazing,” she said. “Everybody put their hearts into it. And to feed this many people, forget about it.”

At the end of the day, Kent Underwood, president and chief operating worker (COW) of Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company, released the results, and on a day when 17 chefs had put heart and soul into comfort food, there were bound to be broken hearts.

McCray’s Blood’s Catering won first place in the people’s choice. He also won best vegetarian dish, and the kids choice competition.

The people’s choice category was swept by Upper Valley eateries — second place went to Singleton’s Quechee Market, and third to Lui Lui’s, of Lebanon.

The other two categories — judges choice and best gluten-free option — were won by Omni Mount Washington Resort.