Master mac and cheese with recipes from Oprah's private chef

Todd A. Price
Nashville Tennessean
In his new cookbook, chef Kenny Gilbert takes Southern staples on a trip around the world.

These days, chef Kenny Gilbert goes for fancy mac and cheese. He might add Gruyere or even Pont-l'Évêque cheese from France. In his new cookbook, "Southern Cooking, Global Flavors," he takes mac and cheese on a trip around the world, adding pancetta and taleggio cheese for an Italian take or charred corn and jalapeño for a version that embraces Mexican flavors. But Gilbert, who cooks for Oprah Winfrey and competed on Bravo's "Top Chef," first had mac and cheese from the familiar blue box. He was 6 years old.

Even as a precocious cook, Gilbert was creative with his mac and cheese. His dad liked spice, so pepper jack often went in Gilbert's version. His mother liked to buy different cheeses from the deli, like colby or smoked Gouda, and Gilbert would add those into his mac and cheese.

"There are no rules," Gilbert said.

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Gilbert grew up in Ohio, but his mother is from Florida. Southern flavors shaped his palate. His parents also liked to travel, and he discovered other cuisines at an early age. Those two sides come together in "Southern Cooking, Global Flavors," where Gilbert takes classic Southern dishes, like meatloaf, collard greens or mashed potatoes and recreates them with spices and ingredients from China, Italy, Mexico and Korea.

Today Gilbert runs Silkie's restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. He runs the company Chef Kenny's Spice Blends. And when Oprah's regular personal chef is out or she needs help with a big event, Gilbert is on call with the famous talk show host.

Why we love mac and cheese

Gilbert believes that for most of us, our love for mac and cheese goes back to when we were babies. So often, the first solid food that children eat are noodles in cheese.

In Gilbert's family, like many Black families, mac and cheese was a staple of family gatherings. His mother's recipe was closer to macaroni pie and included bell peppers, celery and onions.

"Souther Cooking, Global Flavors" by Kenny Gilbert and Nan Kavanaugh

In "Southern Cooking, Global Flavors," Gilbert pairs mac and cheese with chicken. The lean meat works well with the rich side dish.

His creative combos include a mole sauced chicken with charred corn and jalapeño mac and cheese, Korean bulgogi-style grilled chicken with asparagus-spinach mac and cheese and even port-glazed chicken with Saint André-white truffle mac and cheese.

"I like things that are very, very flavorful, but where it's not overpowering," he said.

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Gilbert may recommend chicken with mac and cheese, but ask him for other options and his mind started working. What about a grilled steak paired with blue cheese, roasted-garlic and caramelized-onion mac and cheese. Or a braised lamb shank could be served with mac and cheese made with feta and lots of freshly ground black pepper.

Mac and cheese, Gilbert proves, is ready to take its place at any meal.

Lemon and Rosemary Roasted Chicken Breasts with Taleggio-Pancetta Mac & Cheese

Italian food is always a favorite — for American kids and adults alike. This dish is like fettuccine Alfredo, but with more flavor from the taleggio and using rigatoni. Pasta is inexpensive and filling, and while we all probably have macaroni or shells or spaghetti in a box at home, this dish, like others in this chapter, is an opportunity to try new pasta shapes. Swap out your macaroni for orecchiette the next time you cook mac and cheese for a gathering, and it will impress.



  • 1 cup fresh lemon juice (about 6 lemons)
  • 1⁄2 cup mild olive oil
  • 1⁄4 cup honey
  • 4 to 6 sprigs rosemary, leaves only, chopped (1⁄2 cup) 
  • 12 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper 
  • 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts 


For the Taleggio-Pancetta Cheese Sauce 

  • 3 cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup white wine, preferably pinot grigio or chardonnay
  • 1⁄2 medium yellow or white onion, cut into small dice (1⁄2 cup)
  • 1⁄2 cup small-diced fennel
  • 10 cloves garlic 
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 pound taleggio cheese, coarsely diced (2 cups)
  • 1 cup mascarpone cheese
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon xanthan gum
  • 1 pound pancetta or smoked bacon, finely chopped

Note: Makes 8 cups

For the Rosemary Breadcrumbs 

  • 2 cups coarsely cubed ciabatta bread
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 2 or 3 sprigs rosemary, leaves only, chopped (1⁄4 cup)
  • 1⁄2 cup rendered pancetta fat, reserved from the Taleggio-Pancetta Cheese Sauce, warmed
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the Gratin

  • Kosher salt
  • 1 pound rigatoni pasta
  • 4 cups Taleggio-Pancetta Cheese Sauce (see above)
  • 4 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded (1 cup)
  • 3.5 ounces Asiago cheese, shredded (1 cup)
  • 4 ounces provolone cheese, shredded (1 cup)


  • Olive oil
  • 3 lemons, halved
  • Fresh rosemary leaves


Make the Lemon Rosemary Chicken

Put the lemon juice, olive oil, honey, rosemary, garlic, salt, and crushed red pepper in a blender and blend until smooth. Transfer 1.5 cups of this marinade to a large bowl. Put the chicken in the bowl with the marinade and toss to thoroughly coat. Marinate, covered in the refrigerator, for a minimum of 2 hours and up to 12 hours. Transfer the remaining marinade to an airtight container and refrigerate. 

Preheat the oven to 350°F and line a sheet pan with foil. Transfer the chicken from the marinade to the prepared sheet pan. Discard the marinade. Roast the chicken on the middle rack for 30 minutes, or until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of a breast reaches 145°F. Baste the chicken with the reserved marinade and the pan drippings. Roast the chicken for another 10 to 12 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 165°F. Remove the chicken from the oven and cover with foil to keep warm.

Make the Taleggio Pancetta Cheese Sauce

Combine the half-and-half, wine, onion, fennel, garlic, and salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables have softened. Put the Taleggio, mascarpone, and xanthan gum in another medium saucepan. Pour the half-and-half mixture over the cheese blend and allow it to melt naturally for 3 to 5 minutes.

Over low heat, puree the cheese mixture with a handheld stick blender until smooth. Cook the pancetta in a skillet over medium heat until crispy and the fat has rendered. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the crispy pancetta to the cheese sauce and fold it in. Reserve the rendered pancetta fat (you should have about 1⁄2 cup).

Make the Rosemary Bread Crumbs

Preheat the oven to 350°F and line a sheet pan with foil. In a medium bowl, toss together the ciabatta, garlic, rosemary, reserved rendered pancetta fat, salt, and pepper, then spread the bread cubes on the prepared sheet pan. Bake for 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so. Cool, then place the toasted bread cubes in a food processor and pulse to a breadcrumb consistency. Set aside until ready to use.

Make the Gratin

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook for 8 to 11 minutes, until just under al dente, stirring occasionally. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot along with the rewarmed cheese sauce. Cook on low to medium heat, stirring until the pasta and sauce are well mixed. Transfer the cheesy pasta to a large casserole. Preheat the broiler. Toss together the mozzarella, Asiago, and provolone in a medium bowl. Sprinkle the cheese blend over the pasta. Place the casserole under the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown.

Make the Garnish

Heat a medium cast-iron skillet or sauté pan on medium-high. Coat the pan lightly with olive oil. When the oil is hot, set the lemon halves in the skillet, cut side down. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until caramelized. Set aside until ready to plate.

The Build

Place a large scoop of mac & cheese in the center of a dinner plate. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the mac & cheese. Put a piece of chicken on one side of the mac & cheese and place a charred lemon half next to the chicken. Garnish with fresh rosemary leaves. Plate the remaining servings.

From "Southern Cooking, Global Flavors" (Rizzoli) by Kenny Gilbert with Nan Kavanaugh.

Todd A. Price writes about food and culture in the South. He can be reached at taprice@gannett.com.