The sixth annual Vermont Mac and Cheese Challenge, hosted by Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co. and Castleton Crackers, is set to take place on Sunday, Sept. 9 at the Artisans Park in Windsor with at least 15 competitors — and possibly more — vying for this year’s top honors.
The list of competitors is not yet final and a few others may be joining, Vermont Farmstead Cheese Company Sales Manager Angie Underwood said in an email on Friday. Underwood said organizers are expecting another big turnout this year.
“Ticket sales are already exceeding the sales from last year at this time,” she said.
Mac-and-cheese lovers descend on Windsor’s Artisans Park in the thousands each September for this annual favorite. Admission — at $17 in advance or $20 at the door — gives each visitor a portal into unlimited macaroni and cheese samples, served in generous bite-sized portions in small cups, in delicious combinations that may include meats, vegetables, spices, smoky flavors, multiple cheeses, toppings, and more.
Visitors can sample mac-and-cheese dishes created by top chefs and restaurants from the region, and can cast their votes for the People’s Choice Award given each year through a ballot vote. All proceeds from this event go to benefit the Vermont Food Bank.
The VT Mac and Cheese Challenge is a bustling place, with visitors lining up at the multiple tables to grab a sample, or milling around outdoors to listen to the band, visit neighboring Harpoon, or relax on the grass or at a picnic table. The chefs and their teams are often cooking up new batches right on site around the perimeters of the large tents, stirring in fresh ingredients and cheeses over steaming hot tables and dishing up enough to serve the thousands of visitors that wind their way through.
Visitors looking to go into the annual tasting event are encouraged to get their tickets early. Two years ago, the 2016 Mac and Cheese Challenge drew about 3,000 visitors, which organizers called a record at the time.
Some guidelines apply for those looking to take part in the annual competition. The chefs are required to use one of Vermont Farmstead’s wide variety of cheeses in their recipe, but other than that they just need to be New England chefs, Underwood said. The event generally has some vegetarian and gluten free options available, and chefs are encouraged to include these options, but it depends on each chef’s preference that year as to which recipe they will enter into the competition.
In the past, Vermont Farmstead has had up to five restaurants, out of 16 to 20, offer vegetarian or gluten free options. “Most of the chefs are aware of the requests for gluten free / veggie, but they are all allowed to showcase the recipe of their choice,” Underwood said.
This year, some new vendors and some new sponsors coming to join the event, she said. As of Sunday, Aug. 26, the event is sponsored by Townline Equipment, JK Adams, SunCommon, Harpoon Brewery, King Arthur Flour, Twin State Derby, Billings Farm and Museum, and Simon Pearce.
The list of competitors for 2018, as of Sunday, included the following: Blood’s Catering & Party Rentals, Cottage Cafe, Essex Resort and Spa, Morse Block Deli, Mo’s Backyard BBQ, last year’s People’s Choice First Place winner Murdocks on the Green, Norwich Inn, Omni Mount Washington Resort’, Peak Lodge at Killington, Preston’s at Killington Resort, Public House, Salt Hill Pub: Hanover, Taco Truck All-Stars , the University of Vermont Medical Center, and Woodridge Rehabilitation and Nursing, Central Vermont Medical Center.
The entire event is a family-friendly venue with plenty for children to do. However, since it can be difficult to navigate strollers inside the busy tents, parents are encouraged to carry infants in carriers, or have one adult outside with a stroller while the other adult pops in to grab samples. Everyone is welcome to enjoy the mac-and-cheese samples outside the tents, in several designated areas.
The VT Mac and Cheese Challenge will include activities for all ages, including live music performances, a calf petting zoo nearby in the Artisan’s Park, tractors on display, and multiple local vendors offering goodies such as ice cream, milk and cookies, a cash bar with Harpoon draft beer, and more. Nearby businesses are also open to visit.
Upon entry, visitors will be given a ballot with a list of competitors, and can drop the ballots into a box to vote on their favorites.
Last year’s winners in the 5th annual VT Mac and Cheese Challenge included the following: For People’s Choice, First Place - Murdock’s on the Green; Second Place - The Common Man, Claremont; and Third Place - Vermont Maple Sriracha. For Judges’ Choice / Best of Show, last year’s winners were: First Place - Mo’s Backyard BBQ, LLC; Second Place - Blood’s Catering; and Third Place - Morse Block Deli. Winners in the Kids’ Choice category last year were Kedron Valley Inn and Mo’s Backyard BBQ.
The award for Best Gluten Free went to Woodridge Nursing and Rehabilitation. The award for Best Vegetarian went to Mo’s Backyard BBQ, LLC.
The VT Mac and Cheese Challenge will take place rain or shine, and will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. this year, with gates opening at 10:30 a.m. and the Mac & Cheese Tent opening at 11 a.m. Tickets and more information, such as the no-pets policy and advice on strollers for this event, are available online
. Anyone planning to attend can email Vermont Farmstead Cheese Co. closer to the event, and organizers can let people know the number of offerings that will fit their dietary needs. Space is limited since tickets are capped at 3,000. Visitors are encouraged to arrive early. Tickets are on sale online until 5 pm. Sept. 8, and then will only be available at the door, for $20, if they are not sold out.
-- TORY DENIS