Doing things differently…with mac and cheese

The late comedian George Carlin once had a skit that pushed the envelope of

Zingerman's Mac and Cheese (Photo courtesy of Food Network)

what the Federal Communications Commission would allow. Its title was “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”

Equally, there are seven other words no one ever wants to hear. Singularly, they are harmless; strung into a sentence, they form a toxic cliché.

“But we’ve always done it that way.”

Any transformational change requires the banishment of that threadbare excuse for inactivity. Any change requires consideration of doing things differently.

Which brings me to macaroni and cheese. For many people, “mac and cheese” generally comes one of two ways:

  • Out of a box with an accompanying bag of orange powder and pasta that looks like the plastic wrap striped from electrical wiring, or
  • “Just like grandma used to make”…baked, possibly dried out and with burned pasta on the edge. I’ve had some that had a cake-like appearance (“Hey, cut me off another slice of mac and cheese, would ya’?”)

Has anyone thought of making mac and cheese differently?

Probably not because we’ve always done it the way we always do it.

Last night, I made mac and cheese for the first time. I generally do a fair amount of cooking (my wife says it’s pretty good…no food poisoning issues yet), but I had never made it from scratch before. The inspiration was a different way of making it.

My wife and I watched Alton Brown’s America’s Best: Top 10 Comfort Foods on Food Network the other night. Along with biscuits, mashed potatoes, french fries, fried chicken, grilled cheese, pizza, burrito, spaghetti and chicken soup, the show included mac and cheese. The best one comes from Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich.

What made Zingerman’s Macaroni and Cheese special was the way chef Alex

Chef Alex Young (Photo courtesy of Zingerman's)

Young prepared it. He didn’t want to serve a traditional baked mac and cheese that dried out during the day. He wanted ever customer to enjoy a freshly made serving. His version involved placing béchamel sauce, macaroni and cheddar cheese in a very hot cast iron skillet containing olive oil. The hot skillet caused the cheese to caramelize, and the sauce and cheese to cook throughout the pasta.

In case you are thinking Chef Young is as goofy as the Muppet Swedish Chef, chew on this…last year was his fourth consecutive nomination as a James Beard Award finalist. According to the James Beard Foundation Awards website, the awards “are the highest honors for food and beverage professionals working in America.” Hmm, guess Chef Young knows what he’s doing.

And yes, the mac and cheese was awesome. Best I ever had.

What have you done differently lately and did it succeed?


Taking risks and achieving your goal

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

It’s probably a safe bet that successful people will credit their success to the risks they took in their careers. Now, some may have taken unconventional approaches with their risk taking by skirting laws, ethics and mores. Other folks may have played it safe with a conventional approach that never raised undo attention.

These are two very divergent approaches, but there’s some commonality in the risks successful people took. They took calculated risks:
• They looked at where they are
• They looked at their goal, and
• Determined what they needed to do to achieve success.

This became apparent while recently watching television. I generally do not like to watch “reality” television. The reality of my life is enough for me. Recently, however, “Chopped All-Stars” on the Food Network grabbed my attention. The premise of the show was to pit celebrity and up-and-coming chefs against each other. Each round featured making an appetizer, main course and dessert from a wildly divergent list of mandatory ingredients selected for each course (one dessert challenge required using garbanzo beans!) The losing chef from each round was out. The “Chopped All-Star” earned $50,000 for the charity of the all-star’s choosing.

One chef, Nate Appleman, was interesting to watch because he found success in the risks he took in his cooking. He took unconventional

"Chopped All-Star" Nate Appleman (photo courtesy of Food Network)

approaches to his cooking and use of ingredients. Instead of playing it safe, Nate set his creativity free and pushed culinary boundaries. His risk taking, however, was never so much that he couldn’t recover. There were times the judges questioned a particular taste of Nate’s dish, but they always seem to praise his courage to try something new.

A couple of the chefs equally wanted to win for their particular charities but took unconventional approaches. One chef took an unconventional — and illegal — risk by bringing in cocoa. Contestants could not bring in outside ingredients. They could only use the mandatory ingredients or whatever the pantry held. The judges discovered the chocolate taste. They chopped him.

Another chef played it safe. A dessert challenge included granola bars as a mandatory ingredient. She put jazzed-up peanut butter on the bars. The judges loved the dessert. It seemed certain she was going to win that round and go on to the all-star competition. Surprisingly, she lost. The judges faulted her for taking the safe route. It was good, they said, but she didn’t show the creativity they expected from a chef of her caliber. Her failure was accepting the granola bar as it was. She didn’t try to make it her own. The judges chopped her.

Nate also stayed focused on why he was in the competition. It wasn’t for his ego but for something bigger. He competed for his son who suffers from Kawasaki disease. This rare disease causes inflammation of children’s blood vessels. Nate wanted to win the $50,000 to help fund research.

Ultimately, Nate’s calculated risks bore fruit with his victory. Nate knew where he was (“Chopped” competitor) and where he wanted to be (“Chopped All-Star” champion). He examined what he had to work with (mandatory ingredients and pantry), and took calculated, and ethical and legal risks (his creative cooking style) to achieve his goal ($50,000 for the Kawasaki Foundation). Nate fulfilled his dream, which embodies Goethe’s quote.

What about you? What goal do you have and are you taking the calculated ethical risks to achieve it?