Baconfest: An Ode to Pig Belly in Chicago

"If any attendees walked out of Baconfest disappointed, 100% of the blame falls on their defective palates."

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Inside-out pig in a blanket from David Burke's Primehouse. [Photographs: Daniel Zemans]

You never know when inspiration is going to hit. For Michael Griggs and Andre Pluess, it came early this year after seeing the Neo-Futurists perform Beer, a puppet-filled musical about the visions of a ten-year-old boy who gets drunk after sneaking into a brewery. The play left Michael and Andre wondering what they loved as much as the playwright loved beer. Before long, they had their muse: Bacon.

Once that realization hit, the wheels started turning and they decided to plan a huge tribute to bacon. Late that night, they called Seth Zurer, their food-loving friend who is one of the founders of LTH Forum. Seth immediately recognized that they were onto something and from that conversation, Baconfest was born.

Described at times as a bacon version of Burning Man, the Taste of Chicago and Lollapalooza, Baconfest would include bacon to eat, bacon to buy, bacon classes, bacon music, bacon theater, and bacon paraphernalia.

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Baconfesters.

After some helpful consulting with Ellen Malloy at Restaurant Intelligence Agency, a public relations firm that specializes in restaurants, they settled on a two-day event that would feature a professional cook-off the first day and a bigger, more varied event the second day. The initial plan was to have both events in one weekend, but the group decided to postpone the big event until next April so they would have more time to flesh it out and procure more sponsors (Baconfest is both a public service and a for-profit enterprise).

On September 21, 75 tickets for the cook-off went on sale for $75. On September 22, the event was sold out. Chefs from ten of Chicago's best restaurants rewarded the enthusiastic bacon lovers handsomely. Every one of them clearly put thought and effort into their dishes and they all succeeded, most incredibly well. In addition to the outstanding food, each dish was paired with a beer. Bottom line: If any attendee walked out of Baconfest disappointed, 100% of the blame falls on their defective palates.

Gemini Bistro

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Until the bacon/pork belly craze took over a few years ago, I don't think I was alone in thinking of bacon primarily, if not exclusively, as a breakfast food. Chef Jason Paskewitz of Gemini Bistro was the only chef to pay homage to bacon's breakfast past with his "Belly Up Breakfast," which featured glazed pork belly, an over-easy quail egg, apricot glaze and a vanilla buttermilk blini. Other than my blini being a little cool, this was an exceptional dish.

One Sixty Blue

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Chef Michael McDonald of One Sixty Blue brought an outstanding rebuttal to those who advocate restraint in eating bacon and fried foods: Chicken-fried bacon on a pretzel bun with garlic chili mayo and house-made dill pickles. Even better, he served them with bacon french fries (french fried strips of bacon) and a concord grape ketchup that I could have eaten by the spoonful. While every chef was generous with their portions at the event, this thing was a filling lunch on its own.

Signature Room at the 95th

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Chef Partick Sheerin of Signature Room at the 95th had some fun with carbonara and everyone was better off because of it. He cooked egg yolk on a very low heat and emulsified it with olive oil. On top of that: guanciale, onions, garlic, and pecorino romano emulsified with butter, all of which was tossed with pasta cooked in bacon water. And on top of all that: a nice piece of seared smoked pork belly, which was in turn topped with a very crisp, glistening piece of dried house-cured guanciale. This was an incredible dish, probably my favorite of the event.

The Bristol

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Chris Pandel of The Bristol came in with one of the more creative dishes of the event, a "Breakfast Braciole," a four-part dish that featured a piece of house-cured alderwood-smoked bacon wrapped around maple-sage breakfast sausage, which was wrapped around a hard-boiled egg. The rich, lightly sweetened treat was topped with cavalo nero, or black kale, that was braised in bacon fat and bacon juice. As good as the braciole was, and it was outstanding, the ridiculously rich braised kale was even better.

David Burke's Primehouse

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Chef Rick Gresh of David Burke's Primehouse showed up with four different bacon treats at the event. In order to figure out what he was going to bring, Gresh held a competition in the restaurant kitchen for his staff. Two of those dishes made the final cut: the reverse pig in a blanket (pictured above) consisted of buttermilk biscuit dough mixed with bacon bits, all wrapped in bacon and then griddled. That tasty morsel was served with bacon mustard that was so good, I finished it off after the reverse pig in a blanket was long gone. The bacon and apple fritter was a bit more straightforward (a regular fritter filled with apple and bacon) but every bit as good.

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[Photograph: Rick Gresh, via Twitter]

Gresh brought two of his own creations (along with the bacon mustard, which is actually served on occasion at Primehouse). Rather than rely on the Publican to select the beer pairing for his treats, Gresh, who is an accomplished home brewer, brought his own bacon beer. His final contribution was Bacon Fun Dip: a strip of bacon pastiage and a dip made from bacon fat and a little bit of bacon.

Vie

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Vie sous chef Nathan Sears made a bacon boudin blanc: white sausage made from bacon. Served braised lentils, sweet and sour butternut squash, grilled onion, pickled garlic and crisp rye sourdough toast, this was one of the lighter dishes of the night. The flavors were excellent, but I was not a huge fan of the texture—soft sausage with soft squash and soft lentils.

Goose Island Brewing Company

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John Manion of Goose Island Brewing Company started with some bacon that he smoked using wood from an oak bourbon barrel. He cut thick pieces and served them with City Farm carrots and chiles en vinagre, along with absolutely exceptional frijoles charros that were highlighted with multiple kinds of chiles that hit the taste buds in mouthwatering succession.

Boka

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Boka chef Giuseppe Tentori's featured hunks of bacon braised in black mole for four hours, leaving behind a tender and incredibly flavorful piece of meat. He trimmed and cooked so much of the fat out of the dish, that, combined with the mole flavor, I don't think I would have identified the meat as bacon. Much more importantly, I still would have identified it as delicious as was the paired quince sauce. The dish also included semolina gnocchi.

Eve

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[Photograph: Seth Zurer]

Chef Troy Graves represented Eve well with his pumpkin bacon waffle with pomegranate glazed, maple syrup infused pork belly. The waffle was excellent both in taste and texture, although I couldn't taste the bacon that had been cooked and crumbled into the batter. The sweet pomegranate glaze worked really well with the pork belly and waffle. The brussel sprout and apple salad nicely lightened the dish.

Chalkboard

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Gilbert Langlois of Chalkboard may well have been the most talked-up chef at the event. Not only did he and his staff wear specially made aprons that read: "Bacon: The Candy of Meat," but he transformed into a mad scientist, creating the only dessert of the event.

The base of the three-part dish was vanilla-bacon ice cream. On top of that was "frosting" that he made by roasting two pigs' heads on low heat for 12 hours, collecting the fat drippings and emulsifying them with maple syrup and vanilla bean. He also made a crumble for the top by crisping some bacon in a coffee grinder, recrisping it with butterscotch chips, then letting it rest until it became a brittle. After the bacon butterscotch concoction crystallized, he sprinkled it with curry powder and then shattered it into the crumble that topped the dessert.

The Golden Rasher Trophies

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There were two Golden Rasher trophies given out at the event, one for the best dish as selected by the judges, the other selected by everyone else. The judges, Louisa Chu, Chuck Sudo of Chicagoist, Mike Sula of the Chicago Reader, and Gary Wiviott, founder of LTHForum and barbecue life coach, chose The Bristol's Breakfast Braciole.

The people chose Eve's pumpkin bacon waffle with pomegranate-glazed, maple syrup-infused pork belly. I can't argue with either choice. The chefs all went above and beyond and I'd say more like seven or eight dishes were my favorite.

Bacon Swag

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In addition to ten excellent dishes, each of which was paired with a different beer, Baconfest Cookoff attendees were all rewarded with a nice bag of bacon swag. The bag included chocolate covered bacon from Bleeding Heart Bakery, bacon bourbon caramel corm from Salted Caramel (not pictured as my bag didn't have it), bacon salt (vegetarian and kosher!) and bacon bip-balm from J and D's, bacon maple man-bait lollipops from Das Foods, bacon maple doughnuts from Glazed Chicago Donuts, bacon sea salt caramels from Floriole Bakery, and bacon peanut brittle from Fig Catering.

As much as I love sweets and bacon, I have to confess—I'm not a huge fan of the candy bacon movement. Even with that prejudice, the bacon sea salt caramel and the bacon peanut brittle were both really good.

The next Baconfest will be on April 10, 2010. Event details still need to be worked out, but if the preview cookoff is any indication, all serious bacon eaters in Chicago need to mark the date on their calendar right now. For those who want to keep up with all things Baconfest, follow them on Twitter or Facebook.

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