TAMPA — Jonathan Rae’s grin was a sly one. Almost as if he got away with something.
Standing beneath an old, towering oak in front of Hillsborough High School, Rae’s wife and friends passed around and marveled at the first place trophy, a metal replica of a plate of macaroni and cheese, complete with a fork. It was his prize for winning the first Mac & Cheese Cook Off during the Seminole Heights Market on Sunday.
Rae’s mac and cheese concoction was infused with smoked Gruyère cheese and chorizo.
“They were looking for unusual and exotic ingredients, so we wanted something that was going to have a distinctive flavor,” said Rae, who came up with the recipe with his wife Jennifer.
Rae won first place in the ‘home cooks’ category, while Ella’s Folk Art Café won first among the two restaurants participating.
Maura Mederoz-Larson was second in the home cook category and Domani Bistro and Lounge was second in the restaurant category.
Here’s the kicker, Rae’s not big on the stuff.
“I’ve never made mac and cheese in my life until last week,” he said, followed by a hearty laugh. “This is our fourth test batch.”
The competition was a fundraiser for Metropolitan Ministries. Tiffany Ferrecchia, co-owner and operations director of the market, said they wanted to raise about $1,000 for the organization and they exceeded that amount.
“That’s the goal,” Ferrecchia said, “to work with a charity, to support a local charity, and to bring more awareness and positivity to the market.”
Trey Carwell, who went to the event with friends Chris and Kim Barr, sampled about eight of the 12 varieties. Rae’s was his favorite.
The trio has actually had a “Mac Off” in the past. Carwell likely was picking up pointers since he lost that first friendly competition.
“It didn’t turn out so well, for me,” he said. “I didn’t deliver the goods. I’m much better eating it.”
They also enjoyed Mederoz-Larson’s creation.
“The No. 2 had a little bit of chipotle in there,” Chris Barrs said. “It wasn’t overwhelming, it was in the background and kind of came through in the end. That was a nice touch.”
Despite finishing second in the main competition, Mederoz-Larson took pride in winning the ‘Kids Choice’ division.
“The kids choose me,” she said, leaning forward and placing her hand over her chest. “Do you know how hard that is to have a kid like something? I’m happy.”
Johannah Gebur and Tiffany Nieto were among the dozens who sat on a short ledge along the front of the high school, digging into the samples of macaroni.
Neither expected the major divergence — including ingredients like lobster, prosciutto, artichoke hearts, even chicken in buffalo sauce — from the norm.
“It was delicious,” Gerbur said. “It wasn’t normal mac and cheese and I was expecting normal mac and cheese, but it was very, very good.”
Added Nieto: “It wasn’t your typical mac and cheese, which is great because then you get to try something completely different.”