TAMPA — The date is set. The contestants are preparing. Soon, a winner will emerge.
More than 30 Tampa-area restaurants are likely to compete in Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s May 10 Mac & Cheese Throwdown, the mayor’s latest food-themed effort to bring people to downtown.
Twenty-seven restaurants have signed on as of today, with more expected to join the competition by the time it starts next month.
The contest planned for Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park will pit a mix of the city’s foodie hotspots against each other to create their versions of that coziest of comfort foods.
“We’re trying to make this very simple for a restaurant to be part of it,” said Shaun Drinkard, executive director of Friends of the Riverwalk.
Drinkard’s group, a nonprofit that supports the city’s growing riverfront trail, will be the beneficiary of the money raised by the throw-down.
Each $10 wristband will be worth five samples, Drinkard said.
Buckhorn’s event isn’t the first mac-and-cheese-themed competition for Tampa. The Seminole Heights neighborhood — home to Ella’s, one of the restaurants competing next month — held its own event in February.
Tiffany Ferrecchia, operations director for Tampa Bay Markets, said a mac-and-cheese cook-off seemed like a simple way to create a fun event. The contest raised more than $1,000 to benefit Metropolitan Ministries.
“Everybody has their own way of make it and it draws a crowd,” she said. “It’s a food that everybody like in some form or another.”
Tampa is the latest city to find inspiration in mac-and-cheese. Charleston, W.Va., held its own cook-off April 5 to benefit a local children’s charity. Chester County, Penn. -- owner of www.macncheese.com -- will hold its own festival in June in the Philadelphia suburbs.
Macaroni and cheese is stepping into the shoes of food contests that came before it, from the venerable Pillsbury Bake-off to any of latest edition of “Iron Chef” on Food Network.
“Food competitions have been with part of American culture for decades, if not centuries,” said Kat Kinsman, managing editor of “Eatocracy,” CNN’s food blog. “There really is no end in sight.”
In recent years, television has helped turn the genteel contests into much more aggressive competitions with names like “take down” and “throw down,” she said.
“They’re not just a spectator sport, either,” she said. “In many of them, observers actually get to eat, and even judge. Frankly, they’re a really fun time, and people bring their A-game, so you get some really great food.”
Fly Bar general manager Lenny Sain said his group will enter its signature mac-and-cheese, but with some tweaks.
“The chef is working on that,” he said. “I can’t reveal the details.”