Not so fast, offseason. The Aspen Mac & Cheese Fest returns Saturday.
It’s an event that has grown far beyond the initial expectations of organizer Keith Bulicz, the city parks and recreation supervisor who started the event in 2011. He originally pictured a few hundred locals stopping by East Hopkins Avenue’s restaurant row for a few bites of the free macaroni-and-cheese concoctions served up by about a dozen local vendors.
Three years later, the event has turned into a bona fide staple of Aspen’s post-summer season, with thousands of locals and tourists packing the street and waiting in lines for 2-ounce servings from nearly 20 vendors. The event has gotten regional and national attention over the course of its short lifespan, and according to Bulicz, it has even spawned a few mac-and-cheese-focused festivals around the country.
Put more simply, the thing has really taken off.
“Chefs who have been involved with it, or different people who just come out, they ask me all summer long, ‘When’s the Mac & Cheese Fest again?’ It’s always the Saturday after Labor Day,” Bulicz said.
“We started this to give people something else to do and bring more people to town at the end of the summer. Most everybody loves mac and cheese to one degree or another. We have a lot of great restaurants here in Aspen, so you’re getting something that’s very high-quality, and I think that’s part of the success of it,” he said.
Seventeen vendors had signed on as of late last week, and three spots remained open. The vendors, typically local eateries, provide their own labor as well as their own spin on the popular dish.
A people’s choice competition is part of the fun — similar to the SoupSkol event in January — with the Monarch Street restaurant Rustique Bistro taking home the Golden Noodle trophy every time for its dish. Rustique’s concoction centers around roasted mushrooms, truffle oil, Gruyere cheese, cream and gemelli pasta. The mixture is melted down and then baked or broiled for three minutes until golden brown.
It was formerly prepared by Chef Tico Starr, who now works at Aspen Meadows. He will come up with a different style of macaroni-and-cheese for this weekend’s event.
There will be four competitions: the traditional people’s choice, kids’ choice, judges’ choice and best theme. The latter category relates to restaurants that take their involvement a step farther by having the servers dress up in costumes. Special awards will be handed out to each contest winner.
The stretch of East Hopkins Avenue between South Monarch and South Mill streets will be closed to traffic. A local DJ will be spinning from the upstairs porch of Jimmy’s restaurant. Visitors and valley residents should take note that Saturday is a free-parking day in Aspen.
Bulicz has ordered between 50,000 and 75,000 serving cups. He suggests that people bring their own spoons, but sporks will also be provided.
The Aspen Mac & Cheese Fest is not a revenue-generating event. There’s no cover charge, the food is always free, and restaurants spend their own money feeding the crowds and paying their servers. Most restaurants participate because it’s a way to lure diners into their establishments once the event is over or on some other day.
“Generally, the vendors are excited to do it,” Bulicz said. “We’ve had one or two say they aren’t going to participate this year, but nearly everybody from last year is back.”
While the inaugural event drew some 2,500 people, Bulicz estimated that between 4,500 and 5,000 attended in 2012 and 2013.
“We expect a lot of people will come out this year,” Bulicz said. “It’s one of the last things to do before the offseason really sets in.”
Sponsors helping to defray various costs this year include the city of Aspen, AWB Bank, Related Colorado and High Mountain Taxi. The festival runs from 2 to 5 p.m. For more information, email Bulicz at email@example.com or call 970-948-2192.