Thomas Horner, Executive Chef, JW Marriott Desert Springs

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAMQAAAAJDhhYjdlMWY5LWM5YWEtNDMzMy1hYzExLTA3YjM1ZjI5OGViNwThe JW Marriott in Desert Springs is one of the jewels of the Marriott empire in the US, an 833-room, full resort property with 11 restaurants on-site. We spoke with Executive Chef Thomas Horner about one of his signature catering options, a customizable Mac & Cheese bar featuring Barilla pastas.

Tell us about this Mac n’ Cheese bar concept.

Basically it’s a build-your-own mac and cheese station where guests pick up a bowl of pasta and add their toppings from a variety of choices. We can vary the toppings seasonally, and take it anywhere from straight-up comfort food to over-the-top luxury. It works brilliantly for large parties, since it’s so easy to execute, the food cost is excellent, and it combines the comfort food appeal of mac and cheese with more sophistication and customization for the guest.

I know you do something unusual for the pasta base, tell us about it.

Instead of elbows or another tube shape, we use orzo or fideo that we cook risotto-style in 20-30lb batches with stock, then finish it with a bit of cream and any number of cheeses, from brie to blue, even a whiskey cheddar. Because of the technique, the starches from the pasta help make it creamy and help it hold up, which is crucial. You don’t have to use as much cheese, and you still get that rich texture. Especially for catering and banquets, Barilla’s ability to hold texture and quality is crucial; you have to think about how a dish will taste after it’s been held for a while.

What are some of the toppings on the bar?

The possibilities for proteins and veggies are endless, which is what makes it so fun. Rendered bacon, sautéed mushrooms, wilted spinach, pulled pork, rock shrimp, pickled ramps, brisket, lobster…anything you can think of, whatever’s in season, then a combination with the right cheese that will make it work.

What’s one of your favorite combinations?

 We did whiskey cheddar with brisket that was pretty amazing, it’s right up there for sure.