ABOUT THE DISH
• What: Baked Mac-n-Cheese.
• Includes: 5- to 6-ounce portion of noodles in a three-cheese sauce topped with a baked two-cheese crust.
• Price: $3, if purchased as a side with an entree; $6 for an entrée portion.
ABOUT THE RESTAURANT
• Name: Fork & Pie Bar.
• Where: 811 Market St.
• Website: www.forkandpiebar.com.
• Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-late Saturday; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday.
• Price range: Entrees $9-$13.50, desserts $6-$8.
• Phone: 485-3257.
Shortly after Fork & Pie Bar opened on Market Street in June, chef Brandi Siler was asked to craft a side dish that would appeal to children but could sit comfortably alongside the restaurant's savory pie offerings.
Facing the request from owner Michael Robinson, Siler immediately thought of mac and cheese, a dish that had occupied a place in her heart and on the table at her family gatherings since she was a child.
"It reminded me of my family, getting together and having dinner," the 25-year-old said. "[As chef] you get tired of eating the same food, but it is something I don't get tired of."
The trick, she said, was making a childhood favorite appeal to adults with more sophisticated palates and her upscale take on the Southern staple is so dense it practically generates a gravitational field. She achieved this by mixing in different cheeses to create a creamy, multi-layered sauce that is immediately familiar but decidedly more complex than the boxed variety.
Siler, who also is general manager of the restaurant, begins by mixing a tablespoon of garlic, a cup of onions and a teaspoon each of salt and pepper with butter in a pan over high heat. After the mix has cooked down, she deglazes with 1/3 cup of white cooking wine.
The dish achieves new dimension and density with the addition of a cup each of heavy cream, cream cheese, Swiss cheese and cheddar cheese. When these melt, Siler reduces the heat on the sauce.
Each batch is added to five to six quarts of cavatappi noodles, enough for 15 to 20 servings. On average, she said, Fork & Pie goes through two or three batches a day, with an appeal that straddles age groups, just as intended.
"People love it. Mac and cheese is the side item that all kids love, but we even have adults who come in and get it as their entree pie. It's close to home."
The noodles and cheese sauce are pre-proportioned, but when an order comes in, each serving gets an extra coating of shredded mozzarella and cheddar cheese before taking a trip through a toaster. By the time it hits the plate -- as an entree or a side dish -- the five- to six-ounce serving has a brown crust over a dense, creamy interior.
The toasting process can have its downsides, though. When she tried the mac and cheese during a previous visit to Fork & Pie, Monica Stevens, 25, said the trip through the oven left her order drier than she prefers, although she still enjoyed it.
"When I'm at home, I make it out of a box," she said, laughing. "The sauce was really thick. Because it was baked, it wasn't runny at all. It was good."
Siler said mac and cheese combines two of her favorite things in life -- noodles and cheese -- and takes her back to when she started cooking at age 3 at her grandmother's home in Highland Park.
She began by helping with the biscuits but eventually was assisting her with every meal, as well as helping her parents cook. By age 15, she was helping create menus for evening meals at the Residence Inn on Chestnut Street.
However, it was love of cooking that almost kept Siler from attending culinary school.
"I was so afraid that, if I did it, I wouldn't enjoy cooking anymore," she said. "I didn't want to not love it because it's too important to me."
A year of sitting in crowded classrooms pursuing a business degree taught her otherwise and, when a coworker at J. Alexander's restaurant told her about the culinary program at Johnson & Ward University in Charlotte, N.C., she swapped notebooks for knives.
She emerged from the program, and a later internship at the Walden Club, with a better understanding and respect for the culinary process and the importance of appealing to every sense.
"People eat with their eyes first, so it needs to look great before they eat it," she said. "You have to care about food before it leaves the kitchen."
Siler said she is naturally experimental, and the flexibility of the menu at Fork & Pie has been liberating. Being able to create entirely new dishes or to take a familiar staple such as mac and cheese and tweak it is a chef's dream, she said.
"If I can be a part of ... giving them the opportunity to try something new, that's it," she said. "It's about 'What can I make next? What new thing can I make when I go to work today?'"
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.