When Michael Griggs, Andre Pluess, and Seth Zurer (three guys with no professional connection to the culinary world) organized the first Baconfest in the fall of 2009, it was pretty evident they were onto something special.
Ten chefs donated their time and food that day and made 75 eaters very happy. Last April, the bacon triumvirate upped the ante, selling 300 tickets to each of two-twelve-chef sessions. Once again, the event was a bacontastic success. This year, the Baconfest boys set their sights much higher and rented out the UIC Forum in Chicago to accommodate more hardcore bacon fiends and a whole lot more bacon.
The response was overwhelming: 55 chefs, 7 alcohol companies, and over 20 "bacontrepreneurs." As good as the previous two events were, this year's Baconfest made both of them seem like child's play. Baconfest Chicago 2011 was a ridiculously over-the-top pig belly playground.
One hundred particularly eager bacon fans spent $100 on VIP tickets, which got them into the event an hour early. The remaining 1,400 tickets sold out at $65 a pop within five minutes of them going on sale. And as more details about the upcoming event came out, anticipation only intensified, captured perfectly in this video from media sponsor the Chicago Reader:
Video: Bacon Noir
The event could not have gone better. Lines were almost non-existent and they moved quickly when they did form. Every chef was told to bring 900 servings, which, even counting the 500 guests and media, comes out to more than 25 servings of bacon-bearing food per person. Now, most people weren't going to eat close to that amount. Why not divide the event up into multiple sessions? Zurer said the overload was key to achieving the "vision of Baconfest as a bacon wonderland so full of Bacon goodness that the mind reels at the scope of experience on offer."
I managed to try 53 of the 55 offerings from the Baconfest chefs. Yes, the meat sweats and severe dehydration that followed were well worth it.
The chefs completely embraced the spirit of the event and put out a remarkable display of creativity and pure cooking talent. But at the end of the day, my clear favorite came from chef Patrick Sheerin of the www.signatureroom.com">Signature Room at the 95th. His plate centered around bacon-stuffed bacon: a sausage filling made of bacon, which was then stuffed inside pork belly, then smoked. He topped the sensational smoky chewy bacon with "whipped pancakes," which he made by taking buttermilk pancakes and putting them in a blender with creme anglaise and buttermilk from Wisconsin's Sassy Cow Creamery. And underneath it all was an egg and maple jam made from egg yolk and maple syrup. Together, each bite made for a complete mini-breakfast of pancakes, eggs and bacon.
My second favorite bite was at the opposite end of the spectrum and might have been the most straightforward bacon dish at the event. Chef Carrie Nahabedian of Naha took slabs of bacon, scored them and rubbed a ton of seasoning into it, including green coriander, fennel, brown sugar and maple syrup from Burton's Maplewood Farm in Indiana. Nahabedian then roasts the bacon for eight hours, then covers it with a light rhubarb sauce. Between the variety of aromatic seasonings and the sweetness from the rhubarb, sugar and maple, this beautiful piece of chewy meat was about as good as bacon gets.
Four Baconfest judges, three local food writers and Tanya Nueske of Nueske's Bacon, each tried a different set of 14 bites and picked their two favorites. All four judges then tasted the eight finalists.
The winner? Vie's sous chef Nathan Sears, who put out an expertly cooked crispy pork belly topped with a Meyer lemon marmalade and served with a pine nut aillade and buttermilk biscuits.
More of the pork belly playground in the slideshow »