You Can’t Grill Mac and Cheese, But You Can Smoke It

Chef Jimmy Kennedy has been smoking mac and cheese since he was a kid

May 23, 2023 7:14 am
Chef Jimmy Kennedy’s smoked mac and cheese.
Chef Jimmy Kennedy started working on his smoked mac and cheese recipe in childhood.

On a recent episode of MasterChef in the U.K., a contestant named Josh made a version of macaroni and cheese using evaporated milk and Kraft singles and served it to the judges alongside barbeque short ribs, jalapeno cornbread and pickled coleslaw. 

Unimpressed by the unusual choice of “milk” and the inexplicable decision to use plastic cheese instead of the real stuff, the judges sent Josh packing due to his unconventional take on one of the most beloved comfort foods — if they actually exist — in the world.

Chef Jimmy Kennedy also has a different version of mac and cheese, but his interpretation of one of Snoop Dogg’s favorite post-joint munchies is generally a hit with crowds when he serves it from one of Cabot Creamery’s traveling food trucks.

A former restaurateur who hails from  Mississippi but now lives in Vermont, Kennedy has been developing recipes, some of which have been featured on the Food Network, for over a decade. One of Kennedy’s recipes is for smoked macaroni and cheese, a dish he actually began experimenting with as a teen while living below the Mason-Dixon line.

“Growing up, putting things in the smoker was like putting things in the deep fryer. If it even slightly resembled food, it was fair game,” Kennedy tells InsideHook. “We did a lot of hunting and fishing so most of it was game like squirrel or rabbit. We did possum a few times too. It wasn’t that good. We did a lot of experimenting, so mac and cheese wasn’t that far of a reach for us.”

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Kennedy brought his experience smoking and air frying food as a teenager with him when he was forced into kitchen duty at his former Montpelier-area restaurant River Run when the chef didn’t show up to work on the now-closed eatery’s opening day. “We were busy and I just had to get back there and start cooking. It never stopped from there. Although I’d been cooking forever, this was a whole different ballgame,” he says. “I learned how to really cook in the kitchen there. It was a learning experience for a lot of folks, including me.”

One of the things Kennedy learned to do was delegate responsibility, which he did by assigning smoking duties to one of his prep cooks. “I showed him what to do and he just ended up smoking absolutely everything. It could have been eggs, pancakes, French toast, fried chicken…anything. He even said he was going to start smoking water. I don’t think he did, but since I’d had mac and cheese in the smoker before as a kid, we did that a few times. It turned out to be a great thing at the restaurant.”

And when Kennedy left the restaurant business behind and developed a relationship with Cabot, the recipe for smoked macaroni and cheese came with him. “Some things you want to give a good heavy smoke to, but I’m not a big fan of not over-smoking things. You put a light smoke on Cabot cheese and penne pasta and it makes something that’s really, really good even better,” Kennedy says. “There’s something about the creaminess of the cheddar that absorbs the smoke. It doesn’t look a whole lot different, but you do get that light smoky flavor throughout the mac and cheese. It’s not intense, it’s just really, really tasty and doesn’t take very much to do. There was some trial and error, but the recipe was good right off the bat.”

See for yourself.

Jimmy Kennedy’s Smoked Mac and Cheese

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hr 5 mins

Servings: About 20

  • Penne pasta, 2 lbs.
  • Milk, 1/2 gallon
  • Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar. 8 cups
  • Cabot salted butter, 2 sticks
  • All-purpose flour, 1 cups
  • Dried thyme, 1/2 tbsp. or to taste
  • Dried basil, 1/2 tbsp. or to taste
  • Fresh ground black pepper, 1/2 tbsp. or to taste
    1. Start the fire for the smoker and bring heat to between 275 to 325 degrees.  Maintain this heat throughout the cooking process. When the heat is where you want it and you have a consistent smoke, prepare the noodles and cheese sauce.

    2. Cook noodles until al dente, drain, place in a large bowl and set aside. 

    3. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pot or saucepan over medium heat and stir in the flour, a little at a time, with a whisk until it is well blended. Continue stirring letting it cook for a minute or two.

    4. Slowly add the milk and keep whisking for another couple of minutes. Add the cheese and stir until it melts and is blended into the mixture. Adjust the heat to low.

    5. Add the herbs and cook while stirring for 3 or 4 minutes. When the sauce is done, add about half of it to the pasta and mix well. Add the other half or so of the cheese sauce and mix again.

    6. Place the pasta/cheese mixture in a roasting pan. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and place on the rack in the smoker.

    7. Check temperatures of smoker and pasta occasionally. When the edges of the pasta just start to bubble, slide the rack out and remove the foil. Leave pan uncovered and slide rack back into smoker.

    8. Continue to cook until pasta is hot and bubbly and just starts to brown. If necessary, turn heat up on smoker to finish.


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