Nothing can brighten up a gray and drizzly day like a dish of golden, bubbly macaroni and cheese.
And if that dish is from a recipe by former UK Wildcat star and NBA player Kenny “Sky” Walker, it’s a rare treat that could set your whole holiday table up right.
He uses Gruyere and Parrano for nutty flavors, muenster (“gives it that stringiness,”) sharp cheddar (“balances things out pretty good”) and Pecorino Romano (“saltiness and crunch.”)
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We asked Walker, who played for UK from 1982-86 and now co-hosts a radio show on 590 WVLK, if he would fix a signature dish for us and this is what he picked.
How did this 6-foot-8 basketball player, known for his soaring slam dunks, become such a big foodie? Maybe because in the course of his NBA career, he played in some of the foodiest places on earth, including New York, Washington, Barcelona, Rome and Japan.
He’s such a big fan that when the popular Bravo TV show “Top Chef” came to Kentucky, Walker was invited to the taping in Rupp Arena, had a courtside seat and even got to sample the same dishes that the chef contestants put before judges Padma Lakshmi, Tom Colicchio, Graham Elliot, UK basketball coach John Calipari, chef Ed Lee, and Hunter Lewis, editor of “Food & Wine.”
He learned to cook beside his mother, Ola Mae Walker, growing up in Roberta, Ga., as the youngest of four boys.
“She didn’t have a girl, so, me being the youngest I spent a lot of time in the kitchen just watching her cook,” he said. “Just like everybody else, I think my mom was the world’s greatest cook. I had good training.”
His favorites are comfort food, including fried chicken, “anything cooked on the grill,” and soup beans and cornbread.
“I’m a Southern cook by heart but I was always intrigued by food out of all of the places that I went. And I always wanted to try different things,” he said. “Found out I like a lot of things that I didn’t think I would like. ... my favorite to travel, probably, in the SEC, is Louisiana. I’m a big fan of New Orleans Creole and Cajun cooking. Really love the hot and spicy stuff.”
He collects cookbooks, loves to watch cooking shows, enjoys sampling various cuisines. He prefers cream sauces to tomato-based ones.
“Lately I’ve been liking the ‘Pioneer Woman,’ for some reason. ... I started off with Emeril and Paul Deen,” he said. Now he’s into Anthony Zimmerman and the late Anthony Bourdain. “I like the guys that travel to different regions and try the best of the best.”
His involvement with the “Top Chef” taping came about because the word had gotten out about his passion for cooking.
“It was just fun, because I’ve watched so many of those shows on TV, and to see how it was all put together,” Walker said.
What did he think of the food? “It was good. ... With me being a cook, I can only imagine when you’re in front of a live audience and you’ve got to try to meet a deadline,” he said. It was “intense.”
“Those guys were sweating ... it’s kind of like playing a basketball game. In practice there’s no people in the stands ... the minute it’s a real game ... you react a little bit differently,” he said. “Put it this way: I thought I was ready for that but I think I need to continue to practice probably a little bit more before I get out in front of a live audience.”
Would he rather be known as a basketball player that cooks or a cook that plays basketball?
“I guess, since I honed my basketball skills first, I would say I’m a basketball player who cooks. But I would say this: ... I’ve been watching for a long time. So even though I wasn’t cooking, I was watching,” he said. “My biggest regret now that my mother’s passed away and now that I cook: She used to make certain things that I’m trying to perfect. And I can’t quite get it. I wish I could say, ‘what did you do?’
“She probably would say I’m a cook that plays basketball.”
Here’s the recipe:
Sky’s Mac & Cheese
1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 teaspoon of salt
2 1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sour cream
3/4 cup gruyere cheese, grated
3/4 cup parrano cheese, grated
3/4 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1/2 cup muenster cheese, grated
1/4 cup grated pecorino romano
Heat over to 375. While elbows boil for 7 minutes, make a roux by whisking flour, salt and dry mustard into melted butter in a saucepan. When the roux has browned well, slowly add milk, a half cup or so at a time, and whisk together.
After all the milk is added, add about 3/4 of the grated cheeses (but not the pecorino romano.) Whisk cheese and milk mixture together until smooth.
Drain cooked elbows and fold in sour cream. Combine cheese sauce with elbows. Place in a lightly greased casserole dish.
Top with remaining shredded cheese and the pecorino romano. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 375. Then broil on high for another 2-3 minutes. Let rest before serving, so it can set. Serves 4.