A restaurant’s menu is a statement of principles, a manifesto of a chef’s worldview. It can be direct, it can be overwrought, and—in unfortunate situations—it can be explained (“Chef recommends that you order some small plates for the table”). Perhaps most distressing of all, however, is when it settles into a familiar holding pattern—a word cloud of recycled culinary ideas that persist out of habit, like an unwanted relative who keeps showing up on holidays. Chief among these default dishes is truffle mac and cheese.
Truffle mac is everywhere, from upscale restaurants trying to shed their pretensions, to casual restaurants trying to scale up. How did we arrive at this point? Why, in a more existential sense, does truffle mac and cheese even exist?
The dish is like a reference to a reference, akin to a musical based on a movie based on a book.
Truffles have been paired with pasta since at least two hundred years, when they were a favored addition by Italian farmers. But only rarely, and at significant expense, will you find the luxe fungi shaved over macaroni today. Now, the dish, in its most common form, doesn’t contain any truffles at all. Instead, its pungent flavor derives from that infamous synthetic villain, truffle oil, which contains aromatic molecules that simulate the taste of truffles at a fraction of the price of the real thing. The dish is like a reference to a reference, akin to a musical based on a movie based on a book. And while nobody admits to ownership, there are legions that profit from its popularity.
Besides the clear attraction of high-low cooking—haute dishes dressed down for a broader audience—it’s curious that something that is so nakedly artificial has gained such traction. Daniel Patterson, chef and owner of Coi in San Francisco, described the phenomenon in an article in the New York Times back in 2007: “Call it the LVMH-ization of cooking. Truffles have become a luxury brand, one that connotes a way of life as much as a style of cooking.” He continues: “Truffle oil has simultaneously democratized and cheapened the truffle experience, creating a knockoff that goes by the same name.” If truffles are akin to a designer’s couture collection, truffle oil is their licensed cologne destined for duty-free stores.
And truffles invoke aspiration, then macaroni, of course, represents the quintessential comfort food. Macaroni was a preferred dish of Thomas Jefferson, who was fascinated by the variations of pasta he encountered on his travels. According to Stephanie Stiavetti, author of Melt: The Art of Macaroni & Cheese, Jefferson “eventually began importing pasta, cheese, and his own extruders to Monticello, where he and his family served macaroni and cheese at state dinners.”
It’s certainly a long way from Jefferson to Graydon Carter, whose Waverly Inn served the luxurious dish for many years. In a 2008 Times piece, Waverly’s chef at the time, John DeLucie, described the thinking behind a $110 macaroni and cheese with white truffles shaved on top: “The people at a restaurant like the Waverly Inn get a lot of stimulation, so the food needs to have a straightforward delivery and be emotionally accessible.” DeLucie’s clearly a man who understands his clientele, so he brought the dish to the Upper East Side when he opened Crown.
But the Waverly’s true interpretation of the dish is the exception that proves the rule. Truffles aren’t anywhere near most pasta bearing the name “truffled mac.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that the dish would find its way onto the menus of steakhouses, which have long trafficked in faux-luxurious starters and side dishes. It’s a staple at Smith & Wollensky, which includes the recipe on its website under “A Smith & Wollensky Classic.” It calls for a cool four tablespoons of truffle oil.
Certain dishes, like tyrants in the kitchen, persist because we allow them to.
Seamus Mullen, chef of Tertulia and El Colmado, does not serve anything resembling the dish at his restaurants, but he knows what he thinks about it: “I don’t know where it comes from, but I suspect that in the pantheon of ‘high-brow, low-brow’ food, it’s something that resonates with a lot of people: Uber-elitism paired with the most homey of homey pedestrianism.” Perhaps no chef comes forward to claim ownership for the dish because it’s not a source of pride—it’s an embarrassment that reliably makes money, like a tacky reality show.
Clifford Wright, James Beard award-winning author of A Mediterranean Feast, thinks the answer to truffle mac’s ubiquity lies closer to home, “The use of truffle oil in mac and cheese I see as an exemplar par excellence of the American fetishization of food.” It tells us less about the chefs who serve it than those who order it. That is to say, menus reflect not just the visions of chefs, but the desires of diners. If democracies get the governments they deserve then the same could be said of diners—we have menus made in our own image. Certain dishes, like tyrants in the kitchen, persist because we allow them to.