Bacon Fried in Lard from Big Jones
Baconfest is an event tailor-made for Chef Paul Fehribach of Big Jones, a man whose menu changes often but always belies a deep devotion to all things porcine. This year, he took some housemade slab bacon, deep fried it in lard and served it with a hog jowl and pea gravy, piccalilli, and benne cake biscuits made with heirloom sesame flour and bacon fat. This taste of smoky, salty, fatty, and acidic awesomeness was one of my first bites of the event and it stayed with me until the end.
Jerked Pork Belly from Perennial Virant
There is nobody in Chicago more attuned to the world of preserving food than Chef Paul Virant of Perennial Virant. After all, the man just wrote a book on the topic. Given that bacon came to be as a means of preserving food, my expectations of Virant were extremely high. He proved more than up to the challenge with his jerked pork belly served with a grilled ramp relish made with fish sauce, along with a five spice-dusted chicharrón, cilantro, and candied blood orange.
Coffee Cured Bacon from Pure Kitchen
Chef Stephen Hubbell of the catering company Pure Kitchen gets as into the spirit of Baconfest as anyone. This year he delivered Arabica coffee-cured bacon, which was served on a black olive puree with a Scotch and coffee crunch, red shiso, mustard greens, and a few drops of a liquid made from peppermint. Nothing about this bite made sense until I ate it. Actually, it still makes no sense, but it was freaking delicious.
Shake 'n Bake Bacon Steak and Bacon Shake from Three Aces
One of my favorite things about Baconfest is that it introduces me to restaurants that I haven't visited yet. That's what happened after trying these two items from Three Aces, which provided three hours of nonstop entertaining salesmanship along with some truly outstanding food. On the left is the Shake 'n Bake bacon steak which featured a hunk of breaded housemade bacon with a bacon bolognese sauce made with Nueske's bacon, all of which was served with arugula and a little parmesan. That dish alone would have had me eager to head down to Italy to check out the restaurant, but the vanilla bourbon bacon shake tells me (and should tell you) to run there ASAP.
Crispy Pork Belly from Peninsula Hotel
Avenues may have shut its doors, but there is apparently still plenty of stellar food being made at The Peninsula hotel. Chefs Kai Lermen & Anthony Coriell cured, marinated, blanched, poked holes in the skin, and roasted the pork belly, giving the tender meat a ton of flavor and a nice crispy skin. Served with schupfnudeln and sauerkraut, this German approach stood out in a sea of quality dishes.
Bacon and Egg Sandwich from Bacaro
The team from Bacaro in Champaign traveled the farthest to Baconfest, and attendees at the afternoon session were lucky Chef Thad Morrow made the trip. This bacon and egg sandwich included some house-cured bacon, fried egg puree, pickled ramp relish, and misato radish, all on a mini bacon challah roll.
Bacon-Chile Gulab Jamun from Red Butter
Monica Sehgal Sharma left her career in corporate America to pursue culinary dreams despite having no formal training. She entered the amateur cook-off at Baconfest last year and made it to the finals. Thanks to her Red Butter catering company, she's now a professional, and she returned to match bacon skills with some of the city's most established cooks. Thanks to this bacon-chile gulab jamun, she more than held her own. Topped with a bacon pistachio brittle and served with cardamom syrup, this was a sweet, spicy, salty, soft, crunchy, and sticky delight that stunned more than a few attendees. The gulab jamun also won the award for most innovative use of bacon in the afternoon session.
Black Dog Gelato's Whiskey Bacon Pops
If there was a question whether anyone makes better gelato in Chicago than Black Dog Gelato's Jessica Oloroso, these whiskey bacon pops (whiskey gelato, milk chocolate, and candied bacon) emphatically put an end to that silly discussion. Given the sheer amount of gelato, the bacon was necessarily relegated to a supporting role in this dish, but that just goes to show that chefs don't need to hit attendees over the head with porkiness to stand out at Baconfest.
Bacon Beignets from Mark Steuer
Before going off on his own to start The Bedford, chef Mark Steuer was responsible for the savory menu at dessert goddess Mindy Segal's Hot Chocolate. It turns out the man can whip up some kick-ass pastries as well. Exhibit A is this bacon fat beignet with lardons tossed in bacon powdered sugar and topped with a bourbon maple syrup with walnuts and small chunks of bacon.
Bacon Financier Cake from Terzo Piano
Bacon Confited Potato from Cabot Cheese Cooperative
The Cabot Cheese Cooperative joined forces with Oak Park's Marion Street Cheese Market to give me my biggest surprise of the day. During my first pass through Baconfest, I took one look at the potato and decided to skip it because I thought it would be more filling than it was worth. But when I found out that the potato was actually confited in bacon fat, I quickly changed my mind on the tender carb bomb. My second surprise came when I discovered that the potato was somewhat hollowed out to make room for an excellent ramp crema. The whole thing was topped with bacon crumble and dehydrated Cabot clothbound cheddar, completing a truly outstanding bite.
Bacon and Potato Tart from Smallbar Division
Another restaurant that Baconfest launched towards the top of places I need to check out was the Smallbar location on Division Street. This braised bacon and potato tart with jalapeño bacon marmalade, ramp dust, and Dunbarton Blue cheddar was one of the very few things I ate twice at Baconfest.
Sixteen's Chocolate and Smoked Brown Sugar Tart
The chances of me ever eating at Sixteen are pretty slim. But if pastry chef Sarah Kosikowski ever moves to a more affordable and/or casual venue, I'll be there the day it opens. After blowing me away at Chicago Gourmet with her Valrhona Caramélia pot de crème, she proved she's far from a one-hit wonder at Baconfest. This tart had a layer of chocolate ganache with bacon and a layer of smoked brown sugar cream with toasted meringue on top, along with a bacon pecan rocha that should be packaged and sold on its own.
Amateur Cookoff Winner Judith Singer's Bacon Banana Ice Cream Cones
Of the 33 amateur bacon lovers who submitted recipes for the cook-off, five were chosen to prepare their dishes in the finals for a panel of judges—which I was fortunate enough to be on. Judith Singer won the competition with a sweet and savory concoction that would have fared well in battle with most of the professional Baconfest participants. The cone portion of her dish was made with just two slices of thin-cut Nueske's bacon and some transglutaminase (AKA "meat glue"). She slowly rendered some of the fat and then filled the cones with caramelized banana sorbet and warm caramelized bananas, all of which was topped with bacon sponge toffee. Singer can do more than just desserts though; she's already planning the entree she intends to enter in next year's competition.