Baconfest 2010: Pig Belly Paradise in Chicago
The conciliatory side of me likes to think that in most arguments there is some validity to both sides. But sometimes one side is just plain wrong and the battle over bacon is one such case. On one side sits a small number of judgmental souls who inexplicably feel the need to rage against the shared love of bacon that is currently bringing people together throughout the culinary world. On the other side stands the vast majority of eaters who love bacon.
When tickets went on sale in March for this past Saturday's Baconfest Chicago, all 600 tickets (300 to each session) sold out in 10 minutes, and thousands of eager eaters were left salivating in hopes of more space opening up. The bacon loving world is so strong that 24 of Chicago's top chefs donated their time and food to the event simply because the love the idea and wanted to share their bacon creations with a wildly appreciative group of eaters. Adding to the fun were a wide collection of entrepreneurs, some of whom have no background in food, who have poured the hearts and dollars into creating bacon-themed products. While the bacon haters sat at home on Saturday, hundreds of people poured into at Stan Mansion in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood for a spectacular event.
I'd been looking forward to Baconfest since I went to the preview last fall. Michael Griggs, Andre Pluess, and Seth Zurer had done such a good job putting that event together that there was no doubt in my mind that the bigger version would be better. My confidence was well placed: Baconfest 2010 was an absolute success that should make anyone who wanted to go but was unable to feel even worse about missing out. Fear not—I suspect next year's event will be even bigger so there will be ample opportunities to experience this for yourself. In the meantime, come along for a journey through this weekend's event.
Who Came to Baconfest?
Baconfest was divided into three rooms at Stan Mansion in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. Downstairs there was one large room dedicated to a variety of companies selling bacon-themed products (and giving away loads of free samples). There were four different companies offering selling meat, two bakeries—Bleeding Heart Bakery and More Cupcakes—offering bacon-themed pastries, multiple vendors with chocolate-covered bacon and other sweet bacon treats, a brand new company called Bacon Hot Sauce, and flavored bacon syrup from Torani. Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman's was there selling his outstanding tome, Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon, and taking names for people interested in the Camp Bacon he's organizing in June. And Soggy Paws was there to make sure puppies were included by selling a variety of dog treats made from pig parts. Of course, there were dozens of bacon-themed knick-knacks available, but I was too focused on food to pay much attention to those.
When festgoers ascended the stairs to bacon heaven, they found two rooms. To the right was the bar where attendees could exchange their drink tickets (included in the $45 admission) for drinks from a number of concessionaires. Bar DeVille served up two bacon themed drinks. The Fifty/50 and Candid Wines both made bacon-themed Blood Marys. And Bakon Vodka made a couple of drinks while Pabst handed out some PBR that had nothing to do with bacon, but might have been the most popular drink at the event.
Of course, the star of the show were the 24 chefs that donated their time and food to the cause. The breadth of offerings featured an incredible displays of taste and creativity. Nueske's bacon, one of the best around, offered free product to all of the chefs to use. A number of them took advantage of the offer, but about half either cured their own or remained loyal to the brands they normally use. Not only did that allow people to get a little taste of the variety of bacon out there, but that restaurants opted to pay for bacon themselves rather than use very good free bacon served as a real testament to how committed these chefs were to the event.
Almost everyone who attended Baconfest limited themselves to one of the two 12-chef shifts. In the name of
thorough reporting staggering gluttony and a complete absence of self-control, I ate at least one of everything that the 24 chefs served up. A small part of my brain wants to say that was a bad idea, but then I think about what I ate and I don't regret a single bite.
Rounding out the event were presentations by Gary Wiviott, author of Low & Slow: Master the Art of Barbecue in 5 Easy Lessons and Mike Gebert, the man behind Sky Full of Bacon. Wiviott did a demo of how to make Dragon Turds, jalapenos stuffed with Italian sausage and fig, all of which is wrapped in bacon, and Gebert did a presentation on the art of making bacon at home. An entertaining Paul Kim performing his original song "Sizzle Sizzle Pop Pop" that won Baconfest's video contest.
The five finalists in Nueske's Amateur Cookoff came for the festivities. Murphy Rynell, Tina Bennett, Andrea R. Abel, Brad (David) Bradley, and Mark Smrecek competed for the judges and Bennett took home the Golden Rasher for her Bacon Strip Cookies. You can see all of their entries here.
As good as Baconfest was, there is some slight room for improvement. One of the great things about bacon is that a little of it can go a long way in enhancing another dish. Many of the chefs take advantage of that to make spectacular dishes that don't necessarily feature the bacon. Given how good the event is, I would not want to see the organizers stifle any of that creativity. What I would like to see is some sort of bacon tasting in which people can sample a number of different kinds of bacon served with nothing else so tasters can really appreciate the wide variety of bacons on the market. But when my only criticism of this over the top bacon celebration is that even more bacon would have been better, I think it's fair to say Baconfest exceeded the hype.
Every Dish from Baconfest
Chef Paul Fehribach of Big Jones made two dishes, one savory and one sweet. For the former, he took some house-made pecan-smoked bacon, topped it with pickled mustard seed and a little sorghum, and served it on a bacon fat seared sweet potato biscuit.
Fehribach's sweet offering was a bacon praline that he made with applewood smoked bacon from Niman Ranch. Texturally, it was more caramel than praline, but the taste was excellent.
Boka's Giuseppe Temtori made some Canadian bacon gnocchi that he served with morel mushrooms all with an artichoke sauce. Thanks to the bacon choice, the meat flavor was light, but the gnocchi were delicious and the morels and artichoke sauce packed some seriously excellent flavor.
Cafe Matou Frenched up the occasion with Brochette de Moules a la Toulounnaise, a Provencal-style brochette of mussels, Schlagel Farms bacon and spring onion with oregano, olive oil and lemon. The mussels really shined through on what was one of the lighter dishes of the day.
Chef Dan Smith, one of the two Hearty Boys represented their restaurant, Hearty, with bacon blueberry corncakes topped with bourbon brown sugary syrup and sweet cream. Rather than rely on mere bacon crumbles, each corncake had a nice strip of Nueske's apple-smoked bacon inside of it.
Longman and Eagle blew my mind with a bacon waffle topped with brown sugar bacon ice cream and a piece of candied dehydrated bacon. The warm, slightly crisped waffle, the cold creamy ice cream and the crunchy candied bacon made for an incredible combination of textures, temperatures and flavors. The dish, which featured bacon from New Hampshire's North Country Smokehouse deservedly won the Golden Rasher as the crowd's favorite dish in Shift One.
Province's Randy Zweiban used some of his house-cured honey-ancho glazed bacon to make a sandwich that also had lettuce piquillo salsa and avocado.
Roger Herring from Socca was the only chef I asked who did not know where his bacon came from. According to him, he had some "generic" bacon left from a special burger night he'd done. His dish actually included three preparations of bacon. The hickory-smoked bacon and veal meatballs included bacon he'd bought cured and smoked and some that he made in house. The third bacon came in the pork belly and foie gras sugo the meatballs were served with. This dish won the Golden Rasher for most creative use of bacon in Shift One.
Sable Kitchen and Bar's Heather Terhune, Baconfest's sole female head chef, stood up to the boys very well with Nueske's cherrywood smoked bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with blue cheese from Ewe's. While not the most creative item at the event, it was one of the few I returned to for seconds.
Otom featured Illinois' Dreymiller & Kray bacon in two different dishes. The savory came in the form of vacuum oven pad thai bacon.
For Otom's second dish, chef Thomas Bowman made some outstanding tea cookies with tiny pieces of candied bacon inside and bacon fat (turned into powder with some tapioca maltodextrin) along with powdered sugar and salt.
In what had to be the shocker of the day, the dish that emphasized a big hunk of bacon more than any other at Baconfest came from an Indian restaurant. Chef Steven Hubbell of Veerasway cured some Compart Duroc bacon from Minnesota in jaggery and served it atop a ridiculously good roasted cashew and green chili upma. Rounding out the dish were some mustard greens and pickled bacon that Hubbell had cured for a month. With an amazing combination of flavor and creativity, I thought this plate epitomized Baconfest.
one sixtyblue was one of the returning restaurants from the preview and chef Michael McDonald brought back his chicken-fried cherrywood smoked bacon and homemade pickles. In the fall, he made a ketchup from concord grapes and this time he opted for sour cherry. Fortunately for the health of everyone involved, he made his servings much smaller this time. Even more fortunately, these toned down sandwiches were every bit as delicious.
The Bristol's Chris Pandel and his team found four uses of bacon in their corn dogs. The meat was made from Neuske's uncured cherrywood bacon, the corn batter had some bacon in it, and it was all fried in oil that was a combination of traditional frying oil and bacon fat. The corn dogs were served with some outstanding bacon maple mustard.
Recent Chicago transplant chef Derek Simcik is so new at Atwood Cafe that he hasn't even launched his own menu there yet (although that's coming in the next couple weeks). But he announced his arrival with sweet authority with a bacon Snickers bar. Made from peanut butter semifreddo topped with Nueske bacon lardons and caramel, all of which is surrounded by 75 percent dark chocolate, this was the best bacon dessert I've ever had (the waffle with ice cream from Longman & Eagle goes in the breakfast category).
Southwater Kitchen's Chris Lateano dished out bacon rillettes on a bacon fat-griddled brioche crouton with pickled ramps and a coddled egg dressing. Baconfest attendees gave this one the Golden Rasher for best dish in Shift Two.
Balsan was one of only a couple of restaurants that served up something that is regularly on the menu. In this case chef Jason McLeod served the Balsan lyonnaise salad with a bacon vinaigrette, some very crispy Neuske's bacon, and a perfectly cooked soft but not runny quail egg. At the restaurant, where the serving is bigger, a hen egg is used.
Chalkboard's chef Gilbert Langlois's ice cream was so well received at the Baconfest preview that he came back with something very similar this time. Once again, his dish included vanilla bacon ice cream along with a bacon/butterscotch/curry crumble that he now calls "bacon cotton candy." The new and improved version replaced the bacon fat/maple syrup/vanilla bean "frosting" with an aji caramel sauce. This was the last thing I ate at Baconfest and it was a great note to go out on.
Eve's chef Troy Graves used Neuske's bacon to make cod and bacon sausage that was served with a bacon-ramp vinaigrette. The favor was great but the texture was a little soft for my tastes.
Rick Gresh of David Burke's Primehouse made four items at the last Baconfest and this time he took all of that creativity and combined it into one exceptional dish. Using Benton's bacon from Tennessee, Gresh made bacon tacos that he served on a bacon tortilla with truffled cabbage and ramp salsa.
The Purple Pig's Jimmy Banos Jr. made it a goal to serve up a "springy" dish on this beautiful Saturday afternoon. He succeeded with a salad of English peas, snap peas, bacon, and pecorino, The salad was sweet and salty and crunchy and chewy. It's hard to imagine how a salad could stand out in the Baconfest sea of heavy food, but this one definitely did.
Paddy Long's chef Mark Steuer and sous chef Sean Spradlin made a version of an Irish Breakfast starring bacon fat braised house-cured pork belly with a milk stout glaze along with rye blood sausage made from bacon confited in bacon fat. That was all served on a fantastic pickled cabbage leaf that was, for me, the surprise highlight of the dish.
Sous chef Nathan Sears of Vie featured braised Berkshire pork belly from Eden Farms in Iowa with English peas, braised onions, and smoked paprika, all on a panisse. The combination of flavors worked really well and did a good job letting the outstanding piece of pig shine through. Sears has a new recipe book coming out soon called belly & bacon.
The Signature Room at the 95th's chef Patrick Sheerin served some amazing meat from Illinois's Triple S Farm and cured it before cooking it sous vide. The result was some incredibly tender "bacon pastrami" that was paired with kimchi cole slaw and a small piece of crispy rye. The people voted and awarded the Golden Rasher for most creative use of bacon in Shift Two.
Piccolo Sogno presented malfatti all'amatriciana, which is pillowy ricotta gnocchi (no potato at all) in a tomato-based sauce with house-cured pancetta, red onion and fresh marjoram. The light gnocchi and the chewy pancetta worked together spectacularly both in terms of taste and texture. It's not on the menu, but I was told that if they routinely have the sauce available for other dishes and they can, depending on the night, make the gnocchi on request.
The team from Bar DeVille served two stellar bacon based drinks. Up first for me was the Bartender's Breakfast, a concoction of Averna, Maker's Mark, whole egg and candied bacon. Creamy, sweet and savory, this drink from Brad Bolt really should be added to DeVille's menu.
The second offering from Bar DeVille was my favorite drink of the day. Their Bacon Old Fashioned starred some bacon-infused Maker's Mark along with sweet maple syrup, bitters, and some orange peel that bartender Eric Hay squeezed some oil out of before dropping the rind into the glass. I'm biased in favor of this drink as Old Fashioneds are one of my favorites, but this really was an exceptionally balanced cocktail.
The Wobble Stopper, a regular menu item at The Fifty/50, is a Bloody Mary that features house-smoked bacon and a black bean and corn concoction on the rim. The stuff on the rim was not my favorite, but the drink itself, made with corn and black bean infused vodka, was quite good.
Bakon Vodka offered their spirit in two drinks, one combining their vodka with chocolate milk and the other in a Bloody Mary. I opted to try the chocolate milk version, took two sips and tossed it. I'm not ready to dismiss the concept yet though. There were two things working against my drink. One, it was not adequately mixed. Two, I had it right after the Bacon Old Fashioned and nothing made with vodka was going to measure up to that drink.
The bacon bourbon caramel popcorn from Salted Caramel takes the already delicious sweet and savory combination of caramel corn and ups the ante on both ends. The result is a really delicious treat from the kitchen of culinary school grad Ginna Haravon.
And For Man's Best Friend...
Baconfest even had treats for dogs.
Mine was certainly pleased to get what appeared to be a delicious pig heart.