On Monday night, one dish was on everyone's mind—and in everyone's belly.
Macaroni and cheese.
And of the 10 participating restaurants, all of which created their own versions of traditional macaroni and cheese, blueplate, of Mullica Hill, took first place. Collingswood's placed second.
Nearly 700 people packed into the Scottish Rite Auditorium for the 4-hour event, which ran from 5 to 9 p.m. and featured celebrity judge Aaron McCargo, of daytime television's The Chew, on ABC.
And the 2012 Mac-Off, in its third year, marked the first time the event was held at the Scottish Rite—to accommodate large crowds—and its first year hosting a celebrity guest.
"This event is a natural for The Food Bank of South Jersey (FBSJ)," said , director of Philanthropy for FBSJ, the organization hosting Monday's Mac-Off. "It teams local chefs, who are preparing America's favorite dish, made from scratch, with lots of different ingredients, in a way that makes nutritional sense for families."
But the Mac-Off's mission is rooted in more than simply a delicious dish.
"When you think that, in South Jersey, we have 170,000 people that are not sure where their next meal is coming from—57,000 of them are children, and about 12,000 are seniors—(it's a comfort to know) that the Mac-Off is one of our fundraisers that'll keep a constant flow of food in our warehouse," said Mac-Off Judge and FBSJ CEO Val Traore.
Admission generated from Monday's event will go directly to FBSJ efforts to prevent hunger.
Along with judges Traore and McCargo, FBSJ Board President Bob Brown helped choose the night's winning dishes.
Judges were given samples of each restaurant's version of macaroni and cheese, without knowing who prepared the sample.
had various winners in various categories. This year, only a first and second place were chosen. And the decision, according to Monday's celebrity chef, wasn't easy.
"Our second place runner-up, , made a macaroni and cheese dish that had flavor, originality," said McCargo, of The Pop Shop's creation, a cheesesteak mac-and-cheese with a soft pretzel crostini. "It's a mac-and-cheese dish that needs to be put on the map."
Of the win, The Pop Shop owner Connie Correia-Fisher said, "I'm excited. We thought it was a good idea (to go with a cheesesteak mac-and-cheese), and I'm glad the judges loved it, too. We're really glad that a restaurant from Collingswood placed in the top two."
But blueplate Chef and Owner James Malaby's dish hit the spot with judges, especially McCargo.
"The grand prize winner was not easy to pick. But (what made blueplate's stand out) was the meat, the cheese," said McCargo, saluting Chef Malaby. "There was flavor, texture, love. You hit the mark, brother."
Malaby said he took a different approach this year than he did in last year's Mac-Off.
"The win is just great," said Malaby. "Last year, we won Most Original. And this year, we really tried something simple instead. Something that was familiar, but also different."