Mac2: Return of the Cheese is a food fundraiser in support of 4th Street Arts Annual Art and Music Festival in Downtown Jersey City. The fundraiser is also an opportunity for the culinary inclined to compete against your fellow restaurants or residents for the title of “Best Mac & Cheese in Chilltown.” I recently caught up with Marc Caterina, Sophie Penkrat, and Anne McTernan, of 4th Street Arts, to discuss the comfort food smackdown. The event will be on Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. at 190 Christopher Columbus Drive. There is a $5 entrance fee.
Q: Who are you, and what is your role in 4th Street Art and Music Festival? For those who are not familiar with Fourth Street, what is it, and why is it the most exciting event in the city?
A: Marc Caterina, I am the Director of 4th Street Arts. Sophie Penkrat, I am the 4th Street Arts Publicist and Artist/Vendor Coordinator via Not Yo’ Mama Affairs, and I am Anne McTernan, the Fundraising Coordinator & Street Design Team.
The 4th Street Art & Music Festival is an annual event that takes place in tandem with the ProArts Artists’ Studio Tour. For the seventh year in a row, the Festival will feature live bands, live art installations and demos, art for sale and more. What really makes the 4th Street Art and Music Festival so great is that it brings JC residents together with several aspects of the town’s vast creative community in one place. Together, we collaborate on and celebrate the art, the music, the food, the interaction, the imagination, and the all the awesome folks who live here. Not to mention that the beer is cheap! There really is something for every one of all ages too.
Q: What is Mac2: Return of the Cheese, and why should everyone in Jersey City and beyond-even those people from Brooklyn and Queens-come support this event?
A: Last September, Marc, Sophie and Anne decided to put on a last push fundraiser to collect funds for the Festival by throwing the Mac & Cheese Bake-Off. We hosted the event at Gallery 58 on Coles Street with roughly ten contestants (restaurants and individuals). People came out in droves – and HUNGRY! We thought it was a fluke and didn’t plan to host a second event, but due to numerous e-mails, phone calls and smoke signals, we ended up throwing a Chili Cook-Off last spring (with HUNDREDS of attendees). So, now we are hosting our third food-based fundraising event! Who knew everyone here loves a good culinary competition?
So, let’s face it, cheese is delicious, and for just 5 bucks folks can come on out for a great community event. Nowhere else will you get restaurants and individuals from all over the city cooking their most innovative versions of cheesy goodness. At the event, you can expect to sample at least 15 different versions of America’s fave comfort food while getting down to tunes by local DJs. Plus, Sam Adams will be featuring their beer lovers’ choice event where tasters will be able to vote on their favorite brewski-one of which will be the Sam Adams official fall brew.
Attendees can gather around at the family style table to discuss their favorite M&C’s of the day and vote for the People’s Choice in both the individual and restaurant categories. Plus, a panel of three judges will taste and judge “Top Chef” style. They often bring up the final contestants to defend their dishes – making for quite a nail biting apex to the whole event. All winners get a custom illustrated plaque drawn by a local artist. We use a different artist each time, this year’s contributor being Matt Caputo. In addition, we award a variety of other prizes donated by local retailers and publications. Lastly, we select very special Golden Spoon winners, but we don’t want to give those categories away just yet. There are three, and they are open to everyone slingin’ the cheese!
Q: Please discuss some of the logistics, planning, and coordination needed to pull off the fundraiser?
A: This will be our third “cook-off” style event, so the recipe is pretty well seasoned (no pun intended). All we have to do is send out a call for competitors and folks eat up the opportunity to get on board to show off their skills. This year, we are lucky to have Del Forno Realty donate a raw space at 190 Christopher Columbus Drive for the venue. This leaves a nice blank palette for us to set up the contestants and tasters in perfect flow to keep folks moving, tasting, and grooving all at once.
On the day of the event, you don’t even realize the engineering we have put in behind the scenes because it all seems like a fun, effortless foody party. The three of us have worked really well together in the past, and now we have a fourth member who just joined our food fundraising team, Jenn Shetsen.
We’ve been lucky, in that it’s been pretty seamless. We sorta form like Voltron. Basically, we break down the responsibilities so that a few of us look for contestants, others for sponsors, and the other folks nail down the pre- and day-of logistics. Thank stars for e-mail though – we must have four or five conversations in a day sometimes!
Q: This is a lot of work. Do you get paid for your time, energy, and expertise? And if you do not get paid, why do it?
A: No, none of us are paid, and trust us, it’s not always a walk in the park. I guess the reason we do it is because we have a great community in Jersey City and we love to see it thrive. Arts offer a great way for folks to come together, share their talents and enjoy the amazing things people can create and do – often in their own spare time. 4th Street does well because there are so many people in this town who have different resources and talents that can be tapped into. Everyone ends up shining like a superstar at our events because people try hard to make each affair memorable and the very best that it can be.
Q: In your opinion, what is contribution these food fundraisers bring to the city, community, and cultural landscape of the metropolitan area?
A: They are delicious and fun! These events are a great opportunity for restaurants to market themselves and for individual chefs to show off their aptitude. For all we know, there could be a hidden Bobby Flay in the group. The restaurants are also from all over the city, so it gives folks from one neighborhood the opportunity to try out the grub of a place on the other side of town. Culturally, these events offer folks who are adept in the culinary arts to shine. Visual art and music have a few outlets here – but nowhere really can folks with a knack for food share, beyond the occasional dinner party and whatnot.
Q: The people of Jersey City have flocked to your two previous food fundraisers. What sparked this love connection?
A: Food is universal and a $5 entry fee at the door is a pretty inexpensive Sunday lunch.
Q: Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. This is the second mac and cheese fundraiser. How will this one differ from the first, and what do you hope to accomplish? Have you set a fundraising goal?
A: There will be more contestants in a bigger space this time around. We also have the DJ team of DJ Mayor McCheese and DJ White Cheddar ready to spin records until your cheesy heads are content! Any funds raised for the festival will be considered a success, and if everyone has a good time, then we have met our goal and feel accomplished.
Q: Who are the contestants, and what was the criterion for inclusion in the competition?
A: We have a variety of restaurants and individuals participating, with no criteria for inclusion at all. If you think you can cook, bring it! Some of our current restaurants include Delenio, White Star, 9C, Made with Love, Lamp Post and LITM. Come on out to see who else is in.
Q: As of now, who are the favored competitors and who are the dark horses?
A: Too hard to say. We had sleeper cells in the previous competitions, so we can’t rule anyone out. People in this town know how to cook!
Q: Who are the judges, what criteria will they use to critique the mac and cheese?
A: Our judging panel includes Pete Genovese of The Star Ledger, Laryssa Wirstiuk of Jersey City Independent and NEW magazine, and Jersey City Ward E Councilman Steve Fulop. They will be judging in the following categories: Taste, Texture, Originality, and Overall Cheese Factor.
Q: In your opinion, what recipe-what cheese, what noodle-will separate the winner from the loser, and why?
A: Balance. The most delicious will probably win. Other than that, there’s no formula for victory. Last year’s winner of the Best Individual and Judges Category was an Indian spin on the old favorite, including spinach and curry powder. It’s anyone’s game.
Q: Everyone knows that mac and cheese is a potent natural aphrodisiac. What measures have you taken to moderate the crowds reactions?
A: It is? That’s weird.
Q: This question concerns the audience, the competitors, and the members of Fourth Street. How many toilets will be onsite? If I recall, the chili cook-off had one toilet, and that’s a gamble in my opinion.
A: There were two at Parlay for the Chili Cook-Off. Mac2: Return of the Cheese will have a single toilet. Pasta and cheese typically has the opposite effect on the digestive tract, so I think we’ll be fine.
Q: Let’s move on to our fair city. Fate brought me to Jersey City. What brought you?
A: Marc – My family is originally from Hoboken/Jersey City, and that, coupled with the convenience factor got me back to JC. I had friends that already lived here, and it was a lot more appealing than Hoboken or Brooklyn.
Sophie – A native New Yorker who grew up on the border of Jersey – the only thing that brought me to the other side was cheap gas and no retail tax. I then attended Rutgers as pretty much the only out-of-stater on campus. After six years in New Brunswick, the big city called – that being Jersey City. I moved here not knowing a soul or a neighborhood yet instantly fell in love and started to learn as many random facts about this town as possible. Whatya wanna know? Bam! I’m here just about 11 years, and no end in sight.
Anne – After finishing undergrad and working for a few years in South Jersey, I migrated back up north to pursue my masters at NJIT in Newark. Being that JC is in the heart of a golden metropolitan triangle, it was only logical for me to pick here to live. Little did I realize it was going to be such an awesome place to reside. It has all the familiarity of a small town with all the amenities of a big city – been here 5 years and I’m lovin’ it.
Q: Last question. What is your favorite restaurant? Who has the best jukebox, and where can you find a decent cup of coffee?
A: Being that you’re asking three of us – are you expecting a throw down? But seriously, we can’t play favorites when it comes to the restaurants and coffee shops in town – especially since a few of us work at local eateries and would like to be paid next week. We’ll just say we prefer the independently owned places over the chains. (Hands down! I haven’t eaten at a fast food restaurant in more than 10 years – true story! [Sophie here]). And jukebox? Come awn! You’re asking one the kings of vinyl (Cooter won’t admit this .¤.¤. so that’s why Anne and I are inserting this comment.)? So, best jukebox has to go to the DJ’s that play records. That’s not a jukebox at all, we know.
Original post may be found here.