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Mac and Cheese festival rings in its 2nd year

As if eating copious amounts of mac and cheese isn’t a dream come true in itself, this Friday the 2017 Columbus Mac and Cheese Festival gives people the opportunity to pig out and support cancer research.

A year after the inaugural event, the festival will return this Friday at 4 p.m. in the Easton Town Square.

A product of the Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital’s young professional group NextGen, which works to empower, educate and engage young professionals in the fight against adolescent and young adult cancers.

“I came across the idea about five years ago in Aspen, Colorado,” said Josh Barkan, NextGen’s chair who headed the original event. “I love mac and cheese [so] I came back to Columbus and told everyone that would listen to me about it and that we had to do something similar for the James.”

Loaded Ohio Mac & Cheese with house-smoked bacon, ohio cheddar, pickled jalapeño, garlic-cheddar crumbs, graze glaze, local herbs. Credit: Courtesy Stevi Cornell

Barkan’s idea was met with an overwhelming amount of support from NextGen, the James and the greater Columbus area.

“Fortunately when we rolled out the idea last year, the entire central Ohio community bought in,” Barkan said. “We had close to 60,000 people on our Facebook event and sold out [of tickets] with over 2,000 attendees, all while walking away with $65,000.”

The festival worked so well in its inaugural year that most things will remain the same — while adding more mac and cheese.

“We had 18 restaurants participate last year and increased that to 20 this year,” said Jamie Hudoba, assistant director of volunteer services at the James.

This year’s vendors include places like Sweet Carrot, World of Beer, Brio Tuscan Grille and McCormick & Schmick’s, as well as other nontraditional restaurants.

“We’ll also have restaurants like the American Girl Doll Bistro and L Brands’ kitchen,” Hudoba said. “So it’s cool because it’s stuff you don’t normally get access to.”

And while the restaurants are required to serve mac and cheese, they have as much creative liberty with their dishes as they want.

“A lot of [vendors] put a fun take on it,” Hudoba said. “We had one that put brisket on top, one that added shrimp and even a few that named their mac and cheese.”

In addition to adding more restaurants, NextGen is also encouraging vendors to bring more cheesy goodness because once you buy a ticket, there’s no limit on how much you’re allowed to eat.

“Last year we provided two-ounce serving cups to vendors and a lot ran out early — some even within the first hour,” Hudoba said. “Some groups [of patrons] even went to every single booth — that’s 36-ounces of mac and cheese!”

For those looking for anything besides mac and cheese, you won’t find it at the festival.

“We aren’t selling vegan or gluten-free or other food options,” Hudoba said. “(It’s) just mac and cheese.”

Another thing you won’t find at the festival is cancer-related information. While the James will have a tent at the festival and Be The Match, a national bone marrow donation registry, will be on site, Hudoba said the focus of the night is on the food.

“We wanted to make it like you’re aware that you’re there to support cancer, but we don’t want it to be sad,” Hudoba said. “Even if it’s the main reason for being there, we don’t want to push it in your face.”

And for Barkan, raising money for treating cancer in young adults in an uplifting environment was his goal from the start.

“Really the whole idea for me was to come up with a fun way to engage people,” Barkan said. “Cancer affects everyone and people should know that they can make a [difference] in people’s lives by giving as little as $20.”

Tickets can still be purchased online at the James’ website. Food and water are included with the purchase of a ticket.

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