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NACE Golden Noodle Crowns Mac 'n' Cheese Champs

Last night, the Houston chapter of the National Association for Catering and Events held its third annual NACE Golden Noodle Competition, which crowns the "Big Cheese" of hotels or catering companies.

The new conference center at the Houston Food Bank was packed with chefs and diners as 15 groups competed for the title of champion in four categories: traditional, creative, dessert and novice. The entire space smelled amazing, and guests ambled about eyeing every mac 'n' cheese stand before choosing carefully which ones to sample. There was no limit on how many you could try, but there was, we all found out, a limit to how much your stomach could handle.

By the end of the evening, the event devolved into a full-blown dance party with chefs and guests breaking it down in front of the table of judges. That's one way to burn off those cheesy calories.

Click to the next page for photos of the event and to find out who won.

Guest judges were brought in from the community to crown a winner in each of the four categories. Lending their tastebuds were Marcy de Luna from CultureMap, chef David Cordúa from Cordúa Restaurants, Jay Francis, a food blogger, and chef Barbara McKnight from Culinaire Catering.

The 3-ounce samples were served on small paper plates, and attention was paid to details such as garnishes and sauces on every sample. Some offerings were clearly better than others (any time someone puts pork in macaroni and cheese, I'm in), but each of the items was something that could easily be on the menu of the competing catering companies.

Compleat Cuisine Catering's team won best traditional macaroni and cheese for their "Five Star Mac & Cheese" featuring five different kinds of fromage. It was simple and creamy and delicious.

Marriott Houston North was the clear winner in the creative category for a dish they called the "Legume Slaughterhouse." The pasta shells were covered in a rich cheese sauce accented by green-pea purée and hearty hunks of thick bacon. The whole thing was topped with microgreens and a chicharrón.

Behind the Bash won best dessert for their "Cappuccino S'Mores Mac with Mascarpone," which was both gooey and crunchy, thanks to graham cracker crumbs. They also won best booth design for the second year in a row. In addition to what you see here, their booth included a makeshift campsite complete with tent, folding chairs and (candlelit) log fire.

Haak Winery from Santa Fe, Texas, won the people's choice award for what they called "One Haak of a Mac & Cheese." It featured tortilla-flavored noodles, pesto chicken, creamy chipotle sauce and queso fresco for a south-of-the-border twist on traditional macaroni and cheese.

The University of Houston Hilton Student team took home the prize in the novice category (they were the only novice team who entered), and their "Drunken Swine" mac was not too shabby for folks who aren't professional cooks.

This was the first year that Golden Noodle featured a pasta art contest in addition to the cooking contest. Misty Daisy Schneider, director of catering at Trevisio, won for her dress called "Bow Tie Affair." She wore it around all night and was even able to dance in it without any pieces falling off. She said it took three weeks to make, so I sincerely hope she gets to wear it out again sometime. Perhaps to dinner at an Italian restaurant?

At the third annual Golden Noodle, organizers were already discussing future competitions, which they hope will continue to get bigger and better. May I offer a suggestion? The free-flowing beer and wine were great, but what the mac and cheese bonanza really needed was water. Everywhere. Lots of water. Them's some salty noodles!

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Kaitlin Steinberg