Food & Drink

The Poole’s Diner Mac and Cheese Recipe

Chef Ashley Christensen shares the recipe for the most requested dish at Poole’s Downtown Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina

“Macaroni au gratin is, of course, a fancy name for mac and cheese. In this case though, it really is so much more than your run-of-the-mill mac. This dish is one of our most beloved offerings, and this year we are on track to sell nearly fifteen thousand orders. Yes, our macaroni au gratin has some serious fans. It is unequivocally our most ordered dish.

Coincidentally, it was one of the first dishes I imagined for the menu at Poole’s. I knew it had to be there and that we could make it great within the constructs of the Poole’s menu ethic: simple classics, pulled apart and reimagined and put back together thoughtfully.

Mac and cheese is, for many, one of those dishes that you just can’t resist ordering, regardless of what kind of restaurant you’re sitting in. Much like a pile of crispy pommes frites, when a macaroni au gratin is walked through the dining room at Poole’s, heads turn, and the phrase “I’ll take one of those” echoes through the joint.

The Poole’s macaroni au gratin is made to order and is composed of cream (reduced), macaroni elbows (slightly al dente), three cheeses (Jarlsberg, grana padano, and sharp white Vermont cheddar), and sea salt. The most important ingredient, though, is a pile of tasting spoons. The cook working the mac station spends all night perfecting the texture and seasoning each order before mounding the same three cheeses on top and moving it to the broiler to be brûléed to a caramel­ized crisp of bubbling, cheesy perfection (or as close to perfection as we can get).

I can’t think of a better representation of my cooking goals than this mac; I hope that, in the attention paid to every detail in such an unassuming dish, the mac communicates that we care about the person who ordered it and about how our food made them feel.

The macaroni au gratin is also a bit of a barometer for the growth of our little diner. In the early months, Sunny Gerhart, my first sous chef at Poole’s, and I would arrive at the restaurant shortly after daybreak, though it seemed we’d just left a few hours before (because we had). We’d hop on the day’s tasks, one of which was always grating the cheeses for the macaroni au gratin. At the time, we grated every bit of the cheese on a household box grater. As Poole’s found its stride, we hired more cooks, and yes, we finally bought a food processor with a cheese grating attachment. These days, it would be hard to imagine grating the amount of cheese that’s required to keep the mac gooey and irresistible (more than ten thousand pounds of cheese per year), but it warms my heart to remember that the box grating task used to get me out of bed before the sun came up.

As I hand off the recipe to our most popular dish at Poole’s Diner, I’m not worried about sabotaging our business. Though I’m sure you can justify rolling this recipe out on a holiday or special occasion, I’m well aware of all of the guilt associated with cooking anything at home with this many calories in it. That kind of guilt is what restaurants are for…so come on in, you can blame us.”— Chef Ashley Christensen


    • Kosher salt

    • 6 ounces dry elbow macaroni (about 1 1/4 cups)

    • 1 teaspoon neutral vegetable oil

    • 2 ounces grana padano, shredded

    • 2 ounces Jarlsberg, shredded

    • 6 ounces white cheddar, shredded

    • 2 cups heavy cream

    • Sea salt


  1. In a medium saucepan, bring 2 quarts water and 1 ½ tablespoons kosher salt to a boil. Add the macaroni and return to a boil; once boiling, cook until barely al dente (about 5 minutes), then drain the pasta well. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and mix in the oil to keep the noodles from sticking. Let cool completely. You should have about 3 cups.

  2. Set a rack in the oven about 4 inches from the broiler and preheat the broiler. Combine the grana padano, Jarlsberg, and white cheddar in a large bowl; reserve 60 percent of the cheese for the top.

  3. In a large deep saucepan, bring the cream and 1 teaspoon sea salt to a boil. Let simmer for about 2 minutes. The cream will foam up and then subside into a simmer. Add the noodles and cook, stirring occasionally, about 90 seconds. The cream will start to thicken just slightly and coat the noodles. Start adding 40 percent of the cheese in small handfuls, stir­ring and waiting for each addition to melt and incorporate into the sauce before adding more. Transfer the contents of the pan to a 2 ½-quart skillet or baking dish, mound the reserved cheese over the top, and place the dish on a baking sheet to catch any drips. Place the baking sheet under the broiler for 3 to 5 minutes, rotating throughout, until the cheese melts and caramelizes into a golden-brown crust.

  4. Watch it carefully, as every broiler is different. Remove the gratin from the oven and let it rest 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

Reprinted with permission from Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner by Ashley Christensen, copyright © 2016. Photography by Johnny Autry. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.