John DeLucie grew up eating the same mac 'n' cheese as the rest of us — you know, the stuff in the iconic "blue box," as he puts it. "My mom would go get 10 blue boxes and that would be the sort of emergency meal when all else fails," the Long Island native recalls, over a steamy skillet of creamy-coated cavatappi noodles at his Greenwich Village restaurant, The Lion, one recent evening. "And, my mom was a great cook! I mean, we ate a lot of great old world traditional family recipes. But, it was the '70s, and mac 'n' cheese was everywhere."
When he became a chef, DeLucie did his part to elevate the childhood classic, unleashing one of the most hugely hyped — and hugely priced — takes on the American pantry staple in modern times.
It all began with a visit from a truffle dealer back in 2006. At the time, DeLucie was partnering with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter to reopen the historic Waverly Inn in Greenwich Village. The concept was pretty simple. "We had the menu from, I think it was the '70s, and we basically just reinterpreted it," he says.
Cheesy macaroni was never part of the original plan, DeLucie says. Then, a supplier stopped by with a cache of white truffles from Alba, among the most coveted of Italian tubers. "And I thought, 'Wow, it would be cool to do truffles,'" he recalls.
But, DeLucie didn't want to serve the things in the standard highfalutin' fashion. Neighboring Da Silvano, for instance, served slivers of the highly sought-after fungus atop fussy-sounding pasta with butter and parmesan and charged more than $100 for the privilege, he notes. DeLucie decided to do something similar, but a little more downmarket — at least in terms of the language. "I just wanted to have this really great product on a really tasty comfortable thing," he says. "And what's more tasty and comfortable than mac 'n' cheese?"
DeLucie's "blue box-inspired" dish — which combined cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses, as well as a dose of truffle oil in addition to freshly shaved truffles on top — became quite the sensation.
"I don't know if that combination of high and low had ever been done," DeLucie says. "I mean, I'm sure it had been done before. But it never had the same legs, or the press that it got."
Part of that, of course, had to do with the setting. With Vanity Fair's Carter serving as the celebrity face of the place, the Waverly attracted a bevy of famous people and power brokers. For a while, anyway, it was the toughest reservation in town.
Another factor was the cost. Though the Waverly's initial menu failed to include prices, a published receipt from the restaurant in 2006 indicated that DeLucie's truffled macaroni would set you back a whopping $55.
Looking back now, that hefty pricetag seems especially obscene. But, at the time, the booming U.S. economy appeared unstoppable. And, that sort of conspicuous consumption was just part of the New York lifestyle for many affluent Manhattanites, particularly the type who jockeyed for a spot inside such an exclusive clubhouse like the Waverly back then. "The whole point is the comedy of getting — and being seen getting — something so absurdly costly," as then-New York Times critic Frank Bruni wrote of DeLucie's funky macaroni in a fairly positive one-star review in 2007.
The joke actually turned out to be even funnier than the initial reports suggested. In a 2009 interview, DeLucie clarified that the oft-quoted $55 figure was really just the base price. Depending on the ever-fluctuating price of truffles, the cost could go as high as $95 or more.
Whatever the price, DeLucie served up a whole lot of the stuff during his time at the Waverly Inn. "We sold so much $100 pasta, it's ridiculous," he says.
Ask him about it today, and DeLucie struggles to pinpoint exactly why the dish became so popular. "I don't know if that combination of high and low had ever been done," he says. "I mean, I'm sure it had been done before. But it never had the same legs, or the press that it got."
Semantics, though, may have had as much to do with it as anything, as DeLucie once remarked to Black Book: "At the time we started it, most restaurants that were doing truffles were charging considerably more than us, but they were calling their dish 'Pasta con Tartufi Bianco.' We called ours 'mac and cheese with white truffles,' and the press went berserk."
DeLucie would go on to share the recipe with numerous media outlets while promoting his 2009 book, The Hunger: A Memoir Of An Accidental Chef. (Watch a video of the chef preparing his "ultimate mac and cheese" on The Early Show below.)
A whole lot has changed in the years since DeLucie's ultra-pricey macaroni was the dish on everyone's lips, metaphorically speaking anyway. The economy, of course, is a big one. Comfort food is huge in post-recession New York, and gussied-up versions of mac 'n' cheese are everywhere. But, few operators would dare to charge such an absurd cost for the stuff. Not even the guy who made charging an absurd cost so fashionable in the first place: John Delucie, who has since cut ties with the Waverly Inn and runs his own restaurants now.
At DeLucie's restaurant The Lion, meanwhile, there's a version that's even more accessible: same blend of cheddar and Monterey Jack as the Waverly Inn original and a similar drizzle of truffle oil, too. But, no real truffles. And, no accompanying sticker shock, either. This one is offered as a side dish, and priced accordingly: presently just $10.
"It's just something that we're always going to love," DeLucie says. "Even my Chinese girlfriend loves mac 'n' cheese. It's just one of those things."
But, as for the super-luxe version that made him famous, well, those heady days are long gone. "It was a moment in time," DeLucie says. "For 15 minutes, it was really popular. It got a lot of attention, but it didn't have a whole lot of legs."