Aspen Mac and Cheese Festival returns for fifth year |

Aspen Mac and Cheese Festival returns for fifth year

Rick Carroll
The Aspen Times
The lines were steady for three hours on Saturday at the Fourth annual Aspen Mac & Cheese Fest.
Michael McLaughlin/The Aspen Times |

If you go ...

What: Aspen Mac & Cheese Festival

When: 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Restaurant Row, located on East Hopkins Avenue between Monarch and Mill

Cost: Free

Don’t put the macaroni in front of the cheese.

So says Laura Werlin, who insists the name of this immensely popular comfort food should be changed.

“To my way of thinking, it should be cheese and mac, not mac and cheese,” Werlin said, noting the cheese flavor should trump all else in the dish.

Werlin knows cheese. The James Beard Award-winning writer has penned six books on the dairy product, including her most recent offering, “Mac & Cheese, Please!”

She’ll also be one of the judges at Saturday’s fifth annual Aspen Mac & Cheese Festival on the 300 block of East Hopkins Avenue. Chefs from 10 local restaurants will participate. Five categories for the top mac-and-cheese dishes will be up for grabs: the People’s Choice, Judges’ Choice, Chefs’ Choice (chefs cannot select their own entrees), Kids’ Choice and Best Theme.

Werlin’s advice to chefs: Keep the recipes simple. She said she learned that while researching mac and cheese for her latest book.

“In the course of developing recipes, I got pretty good at what makes good mac and cheese,” said Werlin, who lives in San Francisco and makes Aspen a part-time home. She also has participated in Aspen Food & Wine seminars on pairing wine with cheese.

“It wasn’t enough to have macaroni and a cream sauce and some cheese and some other ingredients,” she said. “What was the most important was the flavor of the cheese that came through. You can add any number of ingredients, but the cheese has to stand alone.”

Keith Bulicz is the event organizer along with Susan Arnella, both of whom are with the Aspen Parks and Recreation Department. He expects the festival to feed the mouths of some 5,000 people who will be coming and going over the course of three hours.

He encouraged people to bring their own spoons or even forks — both are suitable for feasting on mac and cheese — because supplies will be limited. He also urged people to take public transportation; downtown parking will be limited with both the Saturday market and the festival, and attendees might enjoy an adult beverage or three with their dishes. If they do, they’ll need to imbibe at restaurants on Hopkins Avenue, as the city has an open-container law.

As the event continues to grow, Bulicz said he and Arnella have made tweaks over the years. Next year, they plan to charge admission to the festival, with some of the proceeds going to the participating restaurants, which currently pay out of pocket for a role in the festival.

“It’s a free event, always has been, but I intend to shift gears next year and probably charge for people to come in,” Bulicz said. “It costs a lot of money to people, and the restaurants have got to pay the people who go out and work at it.”

One chef, Will Nolan of Eight K at the Viceroy in Snowmass Village, said he’s ready for the competition.

“We’ve got to make something flavorful that makes people come back,” he said. “Don’t go too crazy.”

That strategy falls in line with Werlin’s theory.

“What ends up happening is if you have all of these flavors competing, you lose sight of the comfort aspect to mac and cheese,” she said.

Nolan said he expects to make about 100 pounds of mac and cheese.

“I just hope a lot of people bring their forks and have a good time,” he said. “It’s such a good time, and it’s cool for the community. You get to talk a little smack, but it’s good, friendly competition.”