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Ways To Elevate Comfort Food Favorite Mac & Cheese

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, this has been a tough week after a tough year, but now with Thanksgiving a little over two weeks away, maybe we can start thinking about making and eating all the food that makes us happy, like mac and cheese. Which is why we were shocked - shocked, I tell you - to learn that not everybody is a fan, like chef Erick Williams.

He is the owner and executive chef of Virtue, a restaurant and bar in Chicago, who nevertheless has a new recipe that we read about in Epicurious. And he's going to tell us more about it, as well as his heretical views on the most delicious dish ever invented.

Chef Erick Williams, thank you so much for joining us. As you can tell, I'm completely objective about this.

ERICK WILLIAMS: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

MARTIN: So why are you not a fan of mac and cheese? What is not to love?

WILLIAMS: (Sighing) So, you know, I'll tell you what's not to love for me personally. I have never loved the idea that mac and cheese feels like another casserole that's fatty, rich, but minus texture. And so it just feels like I'm eating a lot of the same.

MARTIN: Yeah, I see what you're saying. Like, well, for example, like you told Epicurious, you were saying, look, you know what? It's too - it's - in a lot of homes, the noodles are cooked until they're soft - not al dente, but soft. Then you mix all the hot ingredients into the mac. Then you layer it in the pan, and you add more cheese. Then you bake it again to brown the cheese. So that's a lot of cooking the pasta for me.

So I guess I should mention here that you have a deep background in French and Italian cuisine. So that was just, like, too much messing with the pasta for you, I guess.

WILLIAMS: It totally is. And it's a relatively simple dish. You know, like there are a couple techniques in making mac and cheese. And when you cook food that is simple, it's easy to screw it up.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: And it's crazy because there's nothing to mask it. Like, there's - you've got to have good cheese. The pasta needs to be right. And a lot of people will settle for decent mac and cheese because it's really rich, right? And again, it meets a space of nostalgia for them. But as a chef, you know, my expectation just tends to be a little bit higher.

MARTIN: I understand that you initially weren't going to put mac and cheese on the menu. And I think your chef de cuisine said, you're crazy.

WILLIAMS: You're absolutely right.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was a good debate, let me just tell you.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: However, he won. And not only did he win - he won at a level that forced me to have to make some mac and cheese.

MARTIN: So, drum roll, what's the secret to elevating this mac and cheese to the point where it meets your standards?

WILLIAMS: Not overcooking the pasta and not overcooking the cheese. Cheddar cheese gets grainy if you cook it too much. And if you cook the pasta too much, it really becomes like a casserole dish full of mush...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: ...And cheese. For me, that just - that's not the way that I feel welcomed when I sit at someone's table.

MARTIN: (Laughter) I take it you're not a fan of, like, the crunchy crust on top situation. And I know that's going to ruffle some feathers, so what's up with that?

WILLIAMS: I don't understand why people do bread crumbs on their mac and cheese. They can feel free to put bread crumbs on their mac and cheese all they want. I just won't be participating in that part.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: Like, I'm a lover of crunch. However, in real time, if you're at a Black folks event - let me just say it right - and there's mac and cheese, there's probably a green vegetable that has been stewed...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: ...Somewhere near that mac and cheese, which could be collard greens, mustard greens, spinach, green beans. And what goes with that is cornbread. So I just don't have the need.

MARTIN: Well, OK - point taken. Yes, sir. All right. Before we let you go, how are you faring through all this? As we know - I mean, as we've reported, as I think most people know, restaurants have just been devastated through these last couple of months with these shutdowns and people not being able to gather indoors. Like, how are you doing?

WILLIAMS: So it's a very difficult time in our country. It's a very difficult time in our business community, especially small businesses. And so at the end of the day, I'm not trying to get too ahead of my skis. We're looking at the things that are great about each day, and we're trying our best to focus on those things.

And one of the great things about today is it's sunny in Chicago. It's warm. It feels great. And I get to talk to you about macaroni and cheese and whether you love your version better than mine or love mine better than yours, right? We get to have discourse about something that's not political and that has nothing to do with the science of COVID.

MARTIN: That was Chef Erick Williams. He is the owner and executive chef at Virtue, the restaurant and bar in Chicago.

Chef Williams, thank you so much for talking to us. You can read his recipe for Mac and cheese, which he says is better than yours...

WILLIAMS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...On the Epicurious website. Chef Williams, thank you so much for joining us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAPPY ROOTS' "GOOD DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.