Macaroni and cheese wasn’t always part of the plan for Derrick Turton. Now the owner of House of Mac, a Miami- and Orlando-based fast-casual concept serving cheesy comfort food, Turton attended culinary school right after high school. But when his first restaurant job soured him on the industry, a friend helped him get a gig as a club promoter, which then turned into promoting records, and eventually led to managing artists. For the next 14 years, Turton traveled the world managing big names like Lil Jon, Yo Gotti, A$AP Rocky, and Mr. 305 himself — Pitbull.
“As a music manager, I was always on the road, but when it came to spending quality time with friends and family, it usually happened at barbecues I hosted,” says Turton. “These barbecues were like my test kitchen, and I didn’t even know it. I would mess around in the kitchen and then just put things on the table to see how people would respond.”
Macaroni and cheese was the winner every time. “People would constantly ask what I was putting in it,” says Turton. “That moment when people would taste my food and do that little dance of excitement — that really did it for me.”
When his father, Keith, passed away in 2013, Turton knew it was time to make a serious life change. “It was like a switch flipped, and I suddenly felt like I needed to focus on my own legacy and take ownership of something,” says Turton. “I was giving so much energy and focus to other people’s legacy and their financial gain, but I knew I wanted more for myself and wanted to make my father proud.”
Turton’s friend, the artist and legendary rapper Bun B of UGK, was the one who urged him to shoot his shot. “We had a long talk and he convinced me that I should give cooking a chance,” Turton shared. “I gave him my word and bought my very first food truck.”
Quickly after, one truck turned into two and Turton’s comfort food became well known throughout South Florida as he served heaping orders of his inventive macaroni and cheese out of the side of his bright yellow truck. Then came the brick-and-mortar locations spanning from Miami to Orlando, offering dine-in, takeout, and delivery.
His father’s passing not only influenced the start of Turton’s culinary empire, it also inspired him creatively. An illustration of his father’s face serves as the House of Mac logo, making him “the Chef Boyardee of my brand,” says Turton. “Knowing that he’s always looking at me pushes me to fight harder and give it my all every day.”
Another ode to his father is right on the menu: the “Keith’s Favorite” burger made with Angus beef, turkey bacon, mac and cheese, pickles, LTO, and a special sauce named after the big man himself.
Of course, the main focus at House of Mac is the macaroni and cheese, which is available in over a dozen variations like five cheese truffle, jerk chicken, and Philly cheesesteak.
“My family is Trinidadian and we make macaroni pie, which is firm and you can cut it into a slice,” Turton says. “But in culinary school, they taught me to play around with roux and I always thought it was so interesting how you can manipulate and do so much with it.”
Turton has found ways to fuse his two influences by adding Caribbean spices to the roux for some flair and kick. “I like using roux when it comes to my recipes because you can season it,” says Turton. “A lot of people skip that step, but it’s an easy way to see how your macaroni is going to taste without having to do any guess work.” Turton makes sure to always taste test it during the process, long before the noodles or cheese are added.
But running a multi-location restaurant brand isn’t all recipe testing and experimentation. Turton compares his trajectory on the business side of things to the popular “what people think success looks like vs what it really looks like” meme.
“That meme is my life in real-time,” laughs Turton. “I always had a plan and visualized what I was trying to do. I wanted a brick-and-mortar within two years of my first truck and I did it — almost down to the day — but it was the craziest roller coaster ride to get there.”
While Turton has opened several locations, he also understands the stress and tough decision-making behind closing or modifying locations, particularly in the wake of COVID-19 and a looming recession. Recently, his flagship location in Wynwood went from a full-service restaurant to a ghost kitchen concept.
“As a restaurant owner, you’re really carrying an entire tribe on your back,” explains Turton of the decision. “I could manage my own problems, but trying to help 50 or even just 15 employees through theirs takes a toll. It’s hard to pour from an empty cup.”
Turton’s partial transition to the ghost kitchen model has provided quite a bit of relief by cutting his overhead and leaning up certain parts of the business — which works out well since a majority of House of Mac’s customers opt for delivery orders, allowing them to enjoy the cheesy goodness from the comfort of their own home.
While Turton says he never knew this would be his life path, he’s proud of the legacy he’s created: “Cooking is art, just like music, and it's a form of self-expression that I’ve always loved.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Justin Namon