Every time of year can be macaroni and cheese season for those who try hard enough, but there may be no more appropriate time for the creamy, gooey, and unpretentiously decadent combination than when temperatures start to drop in Chicago and visions of Thanksgiving dinner begin to dance in one’s head.
In a happy turn of events, those factors have lined up with the timely debut of Top This Mac & Cheese, a playful new delivery-only restaurant from Virtue chef and owner Erick Williams and chef de cuisine Damarr Brown. The pair announced a delivery-only launch in late October on Instagram, unveiling eight macaroni and cheese selections with playful toppings ranging from seasoned breadcrumbs to shrimp (fried, blackened, or Buffalo-style) to teriyaki pork belly to ham-and-peas — all served out of a ghost kitchen near Wintrust Arena. Sorry, North Siders: the delivery range radius is limited for this delivery-only restaurant.
Virtue has featured macaroni and cheese on its menu since debuting in 2019, and the dish has spurred a significant amount of commentary and feedback. “I think it’s an item that shows up in the homes of a lot of cultures so even if your mom didn’t make it as a kid, it is very easily translatable,” says Williams. He’s interested in the feelings evoked by comfort food, particularly a dish that is strongly associated with childhood — soft, gooey, and devoid of anything green.
“I think nostalgia is a really big thing for us,” he says. “It’s important to have food that people can make memories around. We all know that every memory is not made in a physical restaurant, many are made at home.”
At Top This, Williams and Brown are using a slightly different macaroni and cheese recipe than the one seen at Virtue due to the need for a sturdier version that will travel well within the range set out by Toast, the ordering platform. It also boasts a more dramatic “pull factor” — Williams’ term for the long and tantalizing strings of melted cheese that cling to diners’ forks as they lift a bite to their mouths.
The pair have thought deeply about complex cultural and culinary concepts that lie within the macaroni and cheese category, but they want to give patrons time to explore the menu and develop trust in Top This’s execution before veering into possibly divisive options. “Restaurants inform us what they want to be — if we’re listening,” says Williams. “We hope that based on our tests that people are really going to wrap their heads around it. Then we will create more based on the demand, not based on our own needs or personal wants. There will always be things that reflect what we really like but successful businesses are catering to their demographic.”
Top This isn’t Williams’ first foray into the world of virtual restaurants. Just over a year ago, he opened Mustard Seed Kitchen, a casual takeout-only spot in the former home of Italian stalwart Chef Luciano on the Near South Side. That’s where chef Javier Perez has honed an expertise in transport-friendly food, a skill set that Williams and Brown have tapped to make sure their macaroni and cheese arrives to diners as intended.
Despite the chaotic global milieu of 2022, it’s been a good year for both Williams and Brown. In June, Williams became the first Black chef to earn the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. In the meantime, Brown had an impressive run on Season 19 of Top Chef and snagged the coveted title of fan favorite. He’s also one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs.
Despite their notable profiles and the demand that can follow, the chefs aren’t sure how long Top This will stick around. “Give it a try fast because we don’t have that answer yet,” says Williams. “As of right now, it’s open for a limited time.”
Top This Mac & Cheese, delivery only with a limited delivery radius out of McCormick Place, open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m Monday through Saturday.