Interview: Jesse Lee’s Mac & Cheese

The big No-Shenanigans Mac & Cheese-off 2011 brought some serious foodies to the Thunderdome. It’s ironic that the ultimate champion was also the new kid on the block.

Jesse Lee, Mac & CheeseJesse Lee is a long-time foodie who came to mac and cheese through his experiments with crab bisque. His cook-off entry was only the third attempt at this iconic dish. Yes, you can start hating him now.

After much pestering on my part, he finally threw up his hands and told me to back off. The secrets of his crab bisque mac and cheese were going to his grave. I promptly suggested I could send him there this week if he didn’t give me the info post haste. Unfortunately he’s not very intimidated by me, so we’ll have to settle for the things he was willing to talk about.
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Q. Desert Island Cheeses: What 3 cheeses would you be able to eat forever and ever?

A. Extra Sharp Cheddar, Munster and Jalapeno cream Havarti

Q. Top three places you eat in Gainesville?

A. The Top (no pun intended), Dragonfly, Satchel’s.

Q. Spend the day in the kitchen cooking with one person (anyone, living or dead), who would it be?

A. It would have to be Anthony Bourdain. When my father told me about his show, I started watching them almost nonstop whenever I had time. Food, culture, and travel are my trifecta. The show is a window into the soul of a people each episode, and Bourdain does a great job of adding the flair of his own personality to the experience. Laugh, drink, eat, live–simple messages that seem to be universal no matter where you go.

Q. Where did your love of food come from? When did you first realize food was more than just stuff to put in your face? I assume it wasn’t from your bromance with Tony Bourdain?

A. Mother and father most definitely. I was raised vegetarian so they had to work to make eating interesting and they did a great job. I would have to say I realized there was more to food when I was nine years old. It was also the first time I willfully ate meat. I was at a Ruby Tuesdays in the Dadeland mall and didn’t know what to order (back then vegetarian options weren’t common) and my friend ordered a foot long frankfurter. I looked at him and asked them if they were good and he laughed and said they were. So I looked questioningly at my father and asked if I could try one, which he allowed. Once it arrived I watched my friend to see how it should be eaten, he added ketchup so I did and then I bit into it. This was a completely new experience for me, and as the flavors flooded over me, I looked at my father with a scowl as if to say I’d been lied to and wonders had been hidden from me. This made me want to try everything else that might have been hidden from me. Today I still love vegan and vegetarian food, but I enjoy just about everything out there and still try new things when I can.

Q. Single favorite meal of your life–who, what, when, where, and why?

A. This is a very difficult question for me to answer. The experience of sharing meals with family, friends, travelers and strangers all over the world have special meaning and memories for me. Examples would be cooking dinner for 19 people at my friend’s wedding in Tahoe, a farewell dinner with friends in on the Greek island of Ios, sharing a meal with coworkers for the first time in Hyderabad, India, or the first time my immediate family all sat down together for Thanksgiving since I was a kid.

Q. If you could pick up and relocate anywhere in the world to learn to cook the local cuisine for 6 months, where would you go?

A. Asia. I love the food, the flavors, the spices–and wildly attractive presentations and color. They really get that food is an experience for all the senses.

Q. So enough foreplay. Let’s talk about your dish. What made this mac and cheese the winner?

A. I’m not going into detail as to what was in it specifically, but what won it in my mind is that I created an experience of eating bisque and mac & cheese at the same time, the intense creaminess, a strong bisque flavor with the accompanying detail of making the crust reminder the person eating it of the garlic toast traditionally served with bisque.

Q. What were some things you liked about other dishes at the mac & cheese cook off?

A. The other entries were great. Every time I tried something else, my eyes would light up when I got what they were attempting. One of my favorites was the Mac & Cheese that gave you the impression of eating a breaded buffalo hot wing. I ran over to the person just to tell them “I got it!“. Everybody did a great job though. I really enjoyed the whole day and mac & cheese was represented in so many forms from experimental to traditional.

Q. What is your food obsession of the day? What are you focusing on right now?

A. My friends would tell you Guava and I guess they would be correct, I’ve wanted to put it in everything lately. I really want to do a dessert Mac & Cheese next year just to see what’s possible. I’ve been looking into Asian cooking classes but there are none close by so I might have to go at it alone.

Q. Are you going to bring that same fighting spirit to the next No-Shenanigans Cook-off: Chili Death Match?

A. Haha, I imagine I will. I don’t have a recipe for chili yet so I’m going to have to think about what experience I want to create and then start experimenting with it.
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So there you have it. The Mac & Cheese Maverick is hungry for more. Was Jesse Lee’s win merely beginner’s luck, or does he have the passion for food that translates to long-time success? The Man and I get front row seats for his food journey since we know where he lives and frequently crash his house to bring him scotch. You, dear reader, will have to wait for the next No-Shenanigans Cook-off to experience the best of Jesse Lee.

[Girl21]

P.S. After further harassment, I got a little more about the Crab Bisque Mac & Cheese:
“The first secret to crab bisque mac & cheese is the blending of the bisque and the cheese to make the rue–the cheese must not interfere with the bisque flavor but only add the creaminess you would expect. The other secret is the layering of noodles, cheese, béchamel and breadcrumb strata, creating three distinct flavor and consistency layers all blending together to create the experience of eating bisque accompanied with garlic toast.”

FYI dear readers, there’s no copyright protection on a recipe, so have fun trying to steal this one!

And one more THANK YOU to Loosey’s for hosting the No-Shenanigans Cook-Offs! Follow us here or on Facebook to get updates on upcoming cook-offs and events.