A few hundred people attended the first Aspen Mac and Cheese Festival in 2011.
A year later, thousands attended the event, and a Yahoo video of it went viral, garnering more than 1 million views, the third-highest ever on the search engine.
This year, event organizer Keith Bulicz has fielded calls from people all over Colorado. One man traveling across the country said he’s rerouting his trip just so he can make it to Aspen for the macaroni and cheese.
“It’s amazing what it’s evolved into at this point,” said Bulicz, a supervisor for the Parks and Recreation Department, who came up with the idea as a joke while having lunch at work.
With similar events on his mind — Carbondale’s Music and Lobster Fest, Aspen’s Soupskol and Snowmass’ Chili Pepper & Brew Fest — Bulicz thought, “Why don’t we have a mac-and-cheese festival?”
Later, he would explain his idea — a little less jokingly this time — at a staff meeting. The director laughed at Bulicz and said, “Good luck with that.”
“So that motivated me even more,” Bulicz said.
Two weeks before the inaugural event, Bulicz received approval and funding from the city. With little time to act, he rounded up 14 restaurants.
This year, once again, 14 restaurants will participate. The event also will return to its original ballot-voting system. In 2012, there was some controversy because of a text-message-voting system that allowed people who weren’t at the event to cast votes. With Facebook and Twitter promotions, restaurants were exploiting that method.
Of this year’s 14 confirmed restaurants, there will be four newcomers: the Square Grouper, Ryno’s Pies & Pints, Aspen Over Easy and Eight K at Viceroy Snowmass.
Eight K chef Will Nolan, who is from New Orleans, will offer a Louisiana-style dish. He said he’s looking forward to his first festival.
“It seems like a cool, local event,” he said. “Everybody loves mac and cheese.”
The Square Grouper, which sits in the heart of Restaurant Row, also is preparing a Louisiana dish with barbecue shrimp. Chef Tom Slanga said it’s going to be nice having a kitchen so close to the action.
“We’ll have a little home-field advantage to bring our product right up to the tent,” Slanga said.
Next door, at Aspen Over Easy, Ves Tzolov has been working with a few ideas: a breakfast mac with hollandaise sauce, bacon and a blend of cheeses; a mountain-man mac with elk, bison, wild boar and venison meat; and a white-cheddar dish with lamb and Parmesan. Only one will make the competition.
Ryno’s will serve its shrimp chorizo mac and cheese — fondue over trottole pasta — an item available on the restaurant’s menu.
“We’re pretty excited to be a part of (the event),” Ryno’s chef Zander Tekus said. “I think it’s great for the city — getting behind stuff like this, opening stuff up for everybody to take a part in.”
Rustique Bistro is eyeing a three-peat, having won first prize in 2011 and 2012. Jimmy’s, which finished third in 2012, will tweak its classic Jimmy Mac this year. Bulicz said the Meatball Shack, which finished second in 2012, has something interesting in mind but wouldn’t disclose anything about it. He said he’s looking forward to seeing what people come up with. One dish that wowed him was last year’s mac-and-cheese lollipop.
The event takes place from 2 to 4:30 p.m. today along Restaurant Row on Hopkins Avenue.