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Casey Christie / The Californian

Mama's mac and cheese from J's Place is made with a lot of love, according to co-owner Tina Johnson.

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Photo by Trevor Shuster


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Casey Christie / The Californian

Murray Family Farms cook Leola Force holds a dish of macaroni and cheese hot from the over. The recipe came from owner Vickie Murray's aunt Lou Ella.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Buck Owens no-bean chili tops the macaroni and cheese that the Crystal Palace will serve at the Bakersfield Macaroni and Cheese Festival on April 12.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

The pork belly mac and cheese from Padre Hotel's executive chef Andrew Paparella certainly did not not come out of a blue box!

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Courtesy of Alejandro Ocampo

Camino Real's mac and cheese flauta will be served with your choice of fresh tomatillo or habanero salsas at the Macaroni and Cheese Festival on April 12.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

The macaroni and cheese at Golden Corral goes so fast on the buffet line it's basically made to order. The chain brings its popular dish to the Bakersfield Macaroni and Cheese Festival on April 12.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Jalapenos add a kick to Famous Dave's macaroni and cheese. The chain is one of 17 participants in the first-ever Bakersfield Macaroni and Cheese Festival.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Smoke-house maple macaroni and cheese from Catering Affairs enhances its dish with maple bacon and smoked Gouda.

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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

Torres Catering has a winner on its hands with a chili verde-topped mac and cheese, according to owner Yvonne Torres.

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Felix Adamo/ The Californian

Cafe Med will serve an oven-baked mac and cheese with roasted vegetables and chicken at the Bakersfield Macaroni and Cheese Festival on April 12.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

KC Steakhouse may stand out from the pack with its lobster macaroni and cheese at the Bakersfield Macaroni and Cheese Festival.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

With its deep-fried macaroni and cheese bites, Rocket Shop Cafe is only one of two participants at the Bakersfield Macaroni and Cheese Festival that will serve easily portable dishes.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Pepper Jack mac and cheese from Steak and Grape. The restaurant is taking no chances at the Bakersfield Macaroni and Cheese Festival by featuring two mac and cheese recipes: chicken mac, a longtime menu favorite; and the relatively new pepper Jack version.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Mac and cheese for dessert? Keith Barnes of the Garden Spot has found his niche by using mac and cheese in his strawberry-topped cheesecake, which he will serve at the Bakersfield Macaroni and Cheese Festival on April 12.

For most of us, somewhere in our childhood memories there is at least one bowl of macaroni and cheese. Whether it came from a blue box or started with a scratch-made roux and a blend of cheeses, it was carb heaven. The organizers of the first-ever Bakersfield Macaroni and Cheese Festival are hoping to tap into those good feelings to draw folks to their event at Cal State Bakersfield amphitheater on Saturday.

"It's a trip down memory lane," said Jessica Beattie, director of corporate events and marketing director of American General Media Inc., which is putting on the event.

Beattie hit upon the idea for the festival three years ago while brainstorming a way to get the media company into producing unique events.

From the first event in Paso Robles, the cheese has now spread to a total of five cities: Bakersfield; Santa Barbara; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Durango, Colo.

Beattie said if all goes well, the company aims for 12 to 15 festivals by next year. Although the promotional materials offer a list of what to expect, Beattie said guests need to experience it for themselves.

"It's a luxury food and wine fest. Somebody has to come to experience it. It's so hard to explain."

A portion of the proceeds from the festival and the Golden West Casino gaming will benefit Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.

With less than a week before the big event, we offer a salivating look at what's coming from the 17 local M&C (macaroni and cheese) participants. From pasta to prep time, we dug deep so you'll know Jack -- and Gouda and cheddar -- before hitting the festival.

Brimstone at the Padre

Pork belly mac and cheese: Ditalini pasta, Parmesan Reggiano, Wisconsin sharp white cheddar, aged Gouda, cream, butter, pork belly, a mix of wild mushrooms

As chef at the downtown landmark for little more than six months, Andrew Paparella said he's bringing to the festival the mac and cheese already on the restaurant's menu when he was hired -- though he is tinkering around in the kitchen with his own M&C creation (stay tuned on new menu items in an upcoming edition of Eye Street).

"We're ready to serve a big load of people," Paparella said. "We'll bring it out there deconstructed and make in small batches on site. The more you make it and let it sit, the sauce breaks down and gets goopy."

Why the M&C renaissance: "Six, seven years ago it was a dish of the year, and all the chefs grabbed onto it. It's just nostalgia cuisine. You see the same thing in retail and fashion. Things that are classics are classic until they're overdone and then they fade out and then people bring it back and it brings back memories. The whole restaurant scene has gone casual Friday."

Buck Owens' Crystal Palace

Buck's chili mac and cheese: Elbow macaroni, smoked Gouda, roasted jalapenos or roasted green chiles (to be decided), possibly beer, Buck Owens' no-bean chili recipe, which includes tri-tip

Duane Miller has been at the Crystal Palace for just eight months, so he never got to meet the man who built the restaurant. Still, he thinks he has a little insight into the country music legend, at least food-wise: They're both from Texas, where chili is the state dish.

"It feels like a real Texas chili -- hearty and meaty. People love it," Miller said.

So it was a no-brainer to combine two of America's favorite comfort foods for the M&C festival. The challenge? Do you mix the mac and chili together, or serve the chili on top, or what?

"I put it on top. It looks better. When I mixed it in, it looked like an upscale Hamburger Helper, and that's not the route I'm going."

When contacted Wednesday, Miller still was finetuning the recipe: jalapenos or another roasted chili? Beer or no beer? Whatever he decides, he won't give short-shrift to what he said is the most important part of the dish:

"It's definitely the sauce and the roux. I start with a roux and melt down the cheese inside the sauce after I put heavy cream and milk in it as well."

Cafe Med

Roasted vegetable and chicken macaroni and cheese: Orecchiette (shell or ear pasta), blue cheese, cheddar, Parmesan crust, roasted zucchini, bell peppers, onions and chicken breast

Though he's a chef at one of the best restaurants in town, you can't accuse Epi Hernandez of taking all the credit for what he brings to the table:

"The secret to a great mac and cheese is I don't think there's any secret -- just the ingredients you put in and the passion in what you put in whatever you cook. Mac and cheese is a simple recipe, but if you use the right ingredients, it becomes a great dish."

Though Hernandez's version for the festival is not currently on the menu, he said if you swing by the restaurant or the neighboring Gourmet Shoppe and place an order, staffers should be able to hook you up.

Best M&C ever:

" I would say the one I'm going to make."

Camino Real

Mac and cheese flauta: Shell pasta, cheddar, Monterey and pepper Jack cheeses wrapped in a flour tortilla and fried, served with tomatillo or habanero salsa. (A gluten-free version of the dish without a tortilla also will be available.)

For Alejandro Ocampo of Camino Real, the pasta could be made of "cardboard," but there's one part of the comfort food equation you can't shortchange:

"One hundred percent it has to do with the cheese. You can't use cheap cheeses. You have to get it right. Anybody can boil some mac; that's the easy part."

Ocampo thinks he has a winner on his hands, both for the creativity and portability of his product.

"The presentation is beautiful and it's unique; almost looks like an egg roll. You've got to keep it kind of traditional but with the flour tortilla, it's a different way to have mac and cheese. They don't need a fork -- it's a mini flauta and it has mac and cheese inside."

Best M&C ever: "Right out of the box. Just reminds me of my mom, when she used to make it for all six of us. When I go to the store, I pick up the box and just shake it."

Catering Affairs

Smoke-house maple mac and cheese: Small to midsize macaroni, smoked Gouda, maple bacon

Emily Willis, event coordinator at Catering Affairs, can't be accused of heading to the festival unprepared. When interviewed last week, she and her team -- including chef Jerry Garcia -- were playing around with several versions of the American staple.

The front-runner was the sweet-meets-savory smoked Gouda/maple bacon concoction.

"Since we decided to do this, we've had four or five different kinds. When you find a recipe on Pinterest or anywhere, it's very different to use for catering. We have to take into consideration how things hold over time. A restaurant makes (a dish) and sends it out.

"I think it might give us an edge over the restaurants. We're used to serving large numbers of people over a long period of time. I'm very competitive."

This M&C is a winner ...

"because we've had so much team effort put into it. The Macaroni and Cheese Festival is a little bit of extra fun for us and our stuff, so everyone has really gotten into it."

Famous Dave's

Dave's cheesy mac and cheese: Elbow macaroni, cheddar, Parmesan, mozzarella, jalapenos

Cheesy, gooey creaminess is great and all, but sometimes it needs a little heat to keep things interesting -- and we don't mean stove heat. That's where Famous Dave's mac and cheese comes in: Jalapenos provide just the counterpoint the rich dish needs, said Juan Icaza, kitchen manager of the local Famous Dave's, on Rosedale Highway.

"With the jalapeno and parsley and the mix of stuff, it really gives it a kick. It's not typical."

Icaza is looking forward to getting his own kicks at the festival, which affords the chef a rare opportunity to talk to the folks eating his food.

"I'm excited to go. It gets me out of my kitchen. I'm stuck in the kitchen all the time."

The best noodle is ... "I'm conflicted about that. Some like smaller noodles, but I'm more into the medium size. It allows the noodle to get the proper tenderness and creaminess through it. The smaller gets harder quicker."

Garden Spot

Macaroni and cheese cheesecake: Elbow macaroni, prepared in a secret way to give it a more gelled, dessert feeling, cream cheese, traditional graham cracker crust and strawberry topping

Keith Barnes of the Garden Spot might have the lock on creativity: He's serving what appears to be the only sweet version of this traditionally savory comfort food.

"It's off the wall. We were just messing around when we made it. ... It's mostly like a traditional cheesecake. It's silly, but it turned out pretty good."

When inspiration struck, Barnes said it took about 30 minutes, from "hare-brained scheme" to the plate.

"I did this as a joke. A few people tried it reluctantly then went, 'Oh, that's good!'"

Another advantage: Barnes doesn't have to figure out how to keep his dish warm -- and the cool dessert will offer a refreshing respite on a spring day.

M&C musts: "It should be elbow pasta. It's a reminder of the mac and cheese you have when you're a kid, and a blend of cheeses, like cheddar and smoked Gouda."

Golden Corral

Golden Corral mac and cheese: Elbow macaroni, a variety of secret cheeses, proprietary special seasonings

Even with dozens of items available on the buffet line, the mac and cheese at Golden Corral never sits around for long.

"Oh, my gosh -- we go through so much," said district manager Carolyn Karwick. "We are mostly making it to order. That's how fast it goes."

Karwick was not at liberty to be too specific about the ingredients in the dish, served daily at the chain's 529 restaurants. She just knows it's good.

"It's rich and creamy and has that home-style feel. It's the most flavorful mac and cheese I've ever had. If I ate it every day, I would weigh 200 pounds."


hy the M&C renaissance? "A lot has to do with Food Network and a lot of restaurants going back to the fundamentals of what makes people happy and that farm-to-table comfort level that's really created the excitement for things like milk and cookies and peanut butter and jelly. It's amazing to me that a lot of these items that seem so retro are popular again, mac and cheese being one of them."

Hot & Smokin' BBQ

Hot & Smokin' BBQ mac and cheese:

Elbow macaroni, seven types of cheese (including pepper Jack, cream cheese and ricotta) and two barbecued meats

If the early bird gets the worm, then Trevor Shuster is certainly aiming for victory at the festival. Although the event doesn't start until 2 p.m., the catering business owner plans to bring his barbecue outfit in at 6 a.m. That will give him time to prepare everything for his dish on site.

"I came up with it about five years ago. Just started doing it almost like a campfire mac and cheese."

Shuster will cook the pasta over gas burners, mix in the cheeses and meats he barbecued and finish it off by smoking it over an almondwood fire. He believes that combo makes it a winner.

"I think it's better than anybody's mac and cheese. It's got barbecue smoke in it."

The secret to a great mac and cheese: "Tender love and care. You can tell when it's not homemade. My granddaughter (used to the kind from a box) gets so mad. She says, 'It doesn't look right, Papa. It's still good but it doesn't look right.'"

J's Place

Mama's mac and cheese: Elbow pasta, cheddar and some family secrets make up this Southern-style dish

Tina Johnson describes the mac and cheese served at the soul food restaurant she and her husband, Dirk, own as her baby -- but this kid's got a secret.

"My husband and his mom, they still won't share their recipes with those in the kitchen. The workers do the prep but they have to have their hand in it."

Yet Mama -- that's Dirk's mom, Vicki Hill, who created the recipe -- wouldn't have it any other way.

"She was the one gifted with the recipes," Johnson said. "It was entrusted to her from her mama."

The secret to great mac and cheese: " Love. A lot of L-O-V-E. We are big about our cooks bringing the peace and joy. If you cook with a funk, the customers will taste it, so you need to bring your love."

KC Steakhouse

Lobster mac and cheese: Cavatappi (corkscrew) noodles, smoked Gouda, panko bread crumbs and large pieces of lobster

Considering the high-end comfort dish -- created by Forest O'Sullivan -- was added to the menu just in the last couple of months, the timing couldn't be better to introduce the F Street restaurant's "adult mac and cheese" to a wider audience, said KC Steakhouse marketing manager Cassie Bittle.

"We'll have our chef there to help us (if anything goes wrong)," Bittle said. "If it gets too watery or cold, our knight in shining armor will be there."

M&C musts: "Good, creamy cheese that sticks to the noodles. It needs crust. It adds a crunchy texture and more character. A smoked cheese, with nice, rich flavor."

M&C misses: "Blue cheese. Or processed cheese. It's really important to have real, true cheese."

Murray Family Farms

Baked mac and cheese: Elbow macaroni, cheddar, half and half and egg (so it puffs when you bake it)

Crust may be a divisive factor for some chefs, but it's also a little bit subjective, according to Vickie Murray of Murray Family Farms. The baked mac and cheese, developed from her aunt Lou Ella's recipe she grew up eating in Detroit, has no crust but there is a definite crunch factor.

"I like to bite into that stretch of cheese that is crunchy on top."

She says that baking the dish sets this Midwestern version apart:

"We had considered making it on top of the stove, but it doesn't taste as good. I think you have to use real half and half and cheddar cheese. And baking it, it just sets up beautifully; that egg makes it puffy."

M&C musts:

"Elbow macaroni. It's got to be the old-fashioned kind. There's nothing more disappointing than when I order mac and cheese and it comes as fettuccine noodles."

M&C miss:

"I would never use a low-fat cheese."

Que Pasa

Nacho mac and cheese: Macaroni (variety not yet decided), nacho cheese, chips and typical nacho toppings like jalapenos, olives and possibly meat

Mac and cheese ranks at the top of the list for American comfort food, but when prepared by a Mexican restaurant, diners are looking for a little south-of-the-border comfort as well. So Que Pasa chef Ricardo Garcia split the difference by incorporating nachos, said Oscar Prado, spokesman for the restaurant.

"We thought about doing a macaroni and cheese quesadilla or a macaroni and cheese chile relleno," Prado said. "We went with nachos because you can scoop it up with chips and start eating it (easily)."

Best M&C ever:

"My mom's mac and cheese. It's homemade, familiar and always tastes the same."

Rocket Shop Cafe

Deep-fried mac and cheese bites: Packaged mac and cheese, spice blend used on the restaurant's chicken-fried steak

It's hard to argue with Michael Harmon, general manager at Rocket Shop Cafe, when he explains his thought process leading up to the festival:

"What if I took macaroni and cheese and deep-fried it somehow?"

With the help of kitchen manager Francisco Huertero, that's precisely what he did, creating a pop-in-your-mouth-and-keep-a-truckin' tidbit that is sure to draw a crowd, even if the mac-and-cheese part of the dish is prepackaged, and not homemade.

"It's just Kraft mac and cheese, already made, in a frozen pouch. You warm it up and squeeze it out of the pouch and serve it. As far as letting people know what we do -- I don't know -- but that's the truth."

Besides, the secret is in the frying, Harmon said.

"It's just like chicken-fried steak but instead of steak, it's mac and cheese."

This M&C is a winner because ...

"I think the fact that it's fried and bite-size, not messy, and you don't have to scoop it into something. Everybody loves fried food. It's real basic, real neutral. Not too spicy. Not really salty, not over-the-top cheesy either. It's what you grew up with, just deep-fried."

Steak and Grape

Chicken and mac and cheese, and pepper Jack mac and cheese: Penne pasta, Monterey Jack cheese, a garlic-Parmesan crust, five different peppers and two different onions

Steak and Grape is taking no chances: The restaurant will feature two mac and cheese recipes at Saturday's festival; there's the chicken mac, a longtime menu favorite, and the relatively new pepper Jack version.

"I had a block of Monterey Jack cheese left over from a catering event," said John Pilling, the dish's creator.

"I came up with the idea, chopped up a few different peppers and onions, and made it happen. I just came up with it on a whim, and now it's on our daily menu."

It's no exaggeration to say the restaurant is big on mac and cheese -- the menu offers a third M&C dish, featuring lobster -- which has made Pilling something of an expert on pasta.

"Anything with a hole for filling cheese inside. The more cheese it can hold, the better. That's why I like penne."

Why the M&C renaissance:

"Because it's comfort food. Maybe as the economy goes down, comfort food is easy and cheap to cook."

Torres Catering

Chile verde-topped mac and cheese : Organic ziti, mozzarella, feta and fresh-made chile verde

If they were giving an award for fusion mac and cheese, surely Robert and Yvonne Torres would win it. They've got ziti pasta (Italy), chile verde (Mexico) and feta cheese (Greece).

"That feta cheese is really, really good," said Yvonne Torres. "It gives it a nice spark. It's got a bold flavor in combination with the mozzarella because the chile verde is already spicy.

"Fusing together a traditional Mexican dish with what people already like -- you already like mac and cheese. When you fuse it together, you just make it great."

Best M&C ever:

"At Paula Deen's restaurant (The Lady and Sons) in Savannah, Ga., a couple of years ago. It was so creamy. It was so cheesy. It was so good."

I'd never use ... "We love the goat cheese but I'm not sure if that's the right flavor."

Bakersfield College Culinary Arts Program

Four cheese mac and cheese: Elbow macaroni, sharp cheddar, white cheddar, pepper Jack and Asiago cheeses, topped with a buttery bread-crumb crust

If the festival were a baseball game, BC's Culinary Arts Program would be the relief pitcher. To ensure everyone will be able to sample the promised two pounds of macaroni, chef Pat Coyle and his team will bring the Renegade Room dish to shore up the supply of the other participants, although he and his students will not be in contention for people's choice award. Coyle will serve a simpler mac and cheese, though he conceded chefs love to experiment with the dish.

"For crust, I've seen crushed-up gingersnaps. Every chef will be a little different. ... The chefs take that comfort food and want to do different things with it. I've seen them add lobster to it, ham, even hot dogs to it."

M&C misses: "I wouldn't use a blue cheese or a Roquefort, but some folks do. I don't like blue cheese. I grew up in Pennsylvania with the snow. American cheese was a staple in my house."

— Written by Californian lifestyles staff Jennifer Self, Stefani Dias and Kelly Ardis