New York is awash with festivals showcasing its top professional chefs but this weekend, a competition in Gowanus celebrated the city’s best home cooks. The Third Annual Mac and Cheeze Takedown (we covered their cookie takedown a few months ago) at the Bell House featured 30 participants — from stay-at-home moms to publishers and oceanographers — who battled to prove they had the best twist on the American classic. They dished out figs, black beans, truffle oil and dozens of cheeses in a bid to impress 250 attendees voting for their favorite.
To organizer Matt Timms, the more inventive the recipe, the better. Timms, an actor who started the Takedowns in his Brooklyn living room 12 years ago as a way for his friends to share their recipes, said he wanted to showcase the originality and passion shared by home cooks. “This is their chance to show they can really cook and I love it when I see them come up with something weird,” he said. “Once I tasted a blue cheese and bacon cookie. Of course, every now and then there’s something I wish I hadn’t eaten.”
But this time around nothing unsettled his stomach. There was a “Mac-sagna,” “Homage to Fromage,” “Porkaroni and Cheese” and (my favorite) “My Big Fat Greek Mac and Cheese,” with perfectly cooked penne with salty feta, tangy sun-dried tomatoes and juicy black olives.
But a white miso mac and cheese with smoked chicken, pancetta, roasted Japanese chilis and Monterey Jack Alfredo sauce topped with toasted nori was by far the most inventive. “I wanted to make a hybrid,” its chef, Patricia Clark, said. “I’ve been thinking about this for weeks.” Clark, who runs a catering business, said the contest gave her freedom she did not get working with clients in her day job. “I love the Takedown because it’s a chance to play around,” she said. “Matt [Timms] is such a quirky character, and that makes you quirky, too.”
The event is so inclusive that participants merely ask if they can enter. Caterer Willy Steigman, whose roasted poblano mac and cheese took the People’s Choice Award at Sunday’s event, said it didn’t mean the quality of the food was poor; far from it, in fact. “Most people enter thinking they have something that can win,” she said. “People are proud of what they are doing.”
Among them were carpenter Shawn McCarthy and oceanographer Gillian Stewart, whose Jersey pork roll and sharp cheddar mac and cheese was a family recipe. “I grew up making it this way,” McCarthy said, indicating the chopped tomatoes drizzled across the top. “It makes it more colorful and sweeter.”
Lines snaked around the hall as visitors stacked up paper plates with tiny plastic cups of each flavor. I went back for seconds of my favorite. Others went back for thirds or fourths. “I need to lie down,” one satisfied guest was overheard saying as the event came to a close. “Can I just lie down here?”
Want to participate in the next Takedown? Flex your homecooking muscle at the Ice Cream Takedown this July.