There was no question that Binghamton and mac and cheese brie-long together last Thursday, at one of the town’s biggest food festivals of the year.
Returning for their eighth year, Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra’s biggest fundraiser was sold out on the ground floor of the Holiday Inn in Downtown Binghamton. After returning to a full in-person experience last year, the Mac & Cheese Fest has not let up in its output, with 21 participating restaurants showcasing their most creative and tasty dishes.
Like usual, restaurants set up tables all over the room with small cups of mac and cheese that patrons could take to eat — or grab seconds if they wanted. Tables with chips and water dispensers were periodically refilled. The event also featured raffle baskets, with prizes that included free tickets to a Binghamton Philharmonic show and a cannabis gift from Just Breathe.
As the festival progressed and macaroni dishes were consumed, patrons could scan a QR code to pick their choices for three of the five awards of the show. The three awards people could vote for were Most Classic Mac, which went to Park Diner and Restaurant, Most Original Mac and Best of the Fest, which were both awarded to Kampai Japanese Steakhouse.
Park Diner and Restaurant’s mac and cheese was creamy in texture, with a burnt top that gave it a homey and comforting feeling. Kampai Japanese Steakhouse’s sweet and spicy chicken teriyaki mac and cheese was an extremely original sensation to the taste buds — especially with its addition of pickled ginger and scallions. Their experimental approach brought a refreshing fusion of flavors deserving of its two awards.
There was even more praise given out at the festival, however, with awards for New To the Fest and Judge’s Choice — both voted on by the judging panel. One judge at the event was Brenden Capria, president of the Binghamton Cheese Club and a senior majoring in computer science. According to Capria, members of Cheese Club have always come to help volunteer for the event, but this is the second year in a row that the president of the club has been asked to be a celebrity judge.
Capria felt the turnout was fantastic, with the a positive overall vibe.
“I think the biggest thing is not only is our student-run organization able to stay in the on-campus community and promote cheese,” Capria said. “But we’re also bringing it off campus and supporting the cheese-loving community. That’s what we’re all about”
Capria and his fellow judges selected The Fat Cowboys Fireside BBQ as the New to the Fest winner — an award that acknowledges the most impressive restaurant to have been at the festival within the past two years. Having won Best of the Fest the previous year as well, the restaurant did not disappoint with its brisket-topped crackeroni. Using a farfalle pasta covered in a salivating, rich sauce accompanied by brisket and topped with a white cheddar Cheez-It, the sheer variety gave the dish a unique and unpredictable tasting experience.
The biggest award of the night, Judge’s Choice, went to Big Zues Barbecue, which offered a six-cheese macaroni and brisket — with a bacon ranch sauce mixed in as well. The bacon ranch was the essential ingredient that boosted the dish’s flavor without overpowering all of the other ingredients.
Another stand-out dish was McCoy’s Chophouse’s lobster mac and cheese, which included fresh Maine lobster, cajun seasoned cavatappi pasta, multiple different kinds of cheese such as smoked gruyere and gouda, and a variety of cheddar cheeses topped with a parmesan Ritz cracker. The creator of this satisfying and luscious dish was Joshua Crane, 32, an executive chef at McCoy’s Chophouse. Crane said he couldn’t pick just one cheese, so he went with 11 of his favorites.
Crane’s main motivation for being at the festival wasn’t for any awards, surprisingly, but to spend time with family.
“For the first time in my life I got to bring my kids to the competition, and they were dishing out their plates like they were cooks themselves,” Crane said. “I already feel like a winner. I don’t care if I win or not.”
People don’t only come to the festival for cheesy offerings — they also come to see the mayor of macaroni, Chelsea Cheddar. This is the third year that Erika Dentinger, the director of operations at the Binghamton Philharmonic Orchestra, is playing the character. Cheddar walks around, talks to patrons and makes important announcements — including the award winners.
Dentinger was pleased with how Mac & Cheese Fest turned out this year.
“I think it’s been a hoot and a half,” Dentinger said. “It’s been a great time. We got a lot of restaurants here, and a lot of happy people — formally hungry people — so pretty solid.”
Another year of Mac & Cheese Fest has passed, reminding people that if they’re feeling bleu, a warm bowl of cheese-filled goodness is always the best remedy.