HOW BIG IS THE AUDIENCE FOR ARTISANAL food and drink in Chicago? We had a chance to find out this weekend, when the events around the James Beard Foundation Awards shared the Chicago area with Dark Lord Day, Pastoral’s Artisan Festival, food programming from the Chicago Humanities Festival, and the 8th annual Baconfest, among others—and they were pretty much all packed. Now some might say that the bacon moment has passed, and maybe it’s not as ravenously fanatic as it was half a dozen years ago, as foodies flock to new loves such as ramen or Nashville Hot chicken. But all that meant for Baconfest was that it doesn’t sell out instantly—it merely packs in crowds for three different sessions with some 50+ chef teams each, all of them competing for the Golden Rasher. Bacon’s place as the salty-sweet (sometimes) porky (always) meat that nearly everyone loves seems secure for at least another few years.

Fortunately, smoking bacon is still allowed. Michael Gebert

Fortunately, smoking bacon is still allowed.

I was a presenter at the second, still relatively small Baconfest in Logan Square years ago, and I returned for the second year in a row as a judge. The founders of Baconfest, including my fellow LTHForum co-founder Seth Zurer, have learned large-scale event management on the fly over the many years, and they have a well-honed system for judging and making sense out of so many bacon dishes up against each other.

Tanya Nueske and David Hammond listen as Baconfest co-founder Seth Zurer instructs the judges. Michael Gebert

Tanya Nueske and David Hammond listen as Baconfest co-founder Seth Zurer instructs the judges.

There were five of us at the Saturday evening session—myself and fellow food writers David Hammond and Dennis Lee, Check, Please host Catherine De Orio, and Tanya Nueske of the Nueske’s Bacon family, one of the main sponsors of the event (and supplier of free bacon for use in the recipe of anyone who wants it, though quite a few chefs chose to make their own). Each of us was assigned approximately 12 teams to sample. The goal was to come back with one standout among your assigned teams; then we’d each try the top choice of the other judges, and pick a winner out of that group.

First stop: the Paramount Room.Myles Gebert

First stop: the Paramount Room.

My list was a nice mix of chefs I’ve worked with many times, and places I’ve never even heard of. Though the winners are usually people you’ve heard of—surprise, our best chefs turn out to be our best chefs—one of the things that’s exciting about this to me is the possibility of plucking somebody out of obscurity.

Graziano OMG

 

The second year, Longman & Eagle, a freshly opened place which had gotten some negative buzz, whomped the competition and, I’m convinced, put themselves on track to become one of our best and most stalwart spots. And my friend Dan Zemans, who’s the self-appointed chronicler of Baconfest and has tried almost everything in its entire history, had tweeted earlier that day that one of the star dishes at the afternoon sessions had come from World of Whirlpool—a conference center in the Loop owned by the appliance manufacturing company. I think it’s safe to say that any of us would be excited to give the prize to a place like that no one would have guessed in a million years.

Three Aces' rumaki. Michael Gebert

Three Aces’ ramacche.

Matt Troost (left) and the Three Aces crew pose for the official photographer. Michael Gebert

Matt Troost (left) and the Three Aces crew pose for the official photographer.

My first stop was the Paramount Room, which coated an apple with bacon bits; this was just odd. Much better and my first contender was a ramacche, a little fritter-like ball, from Three Aces chef Matt Troost. Just as good was the dish from Paul Virant’s Perennial Virant, in which the bacon sat atop a potato galette and a ramp chimmichurri. This had the sharp spring flavors I associate with Virant’s cooking in spades, and it also went onto my finalist list.

Perennial Virant's bacon on potato galette with ramp chimmichurri.Myles Gebert

Perennial Virant’s bacon on potato galette with ramp chimmichurri.

Bacon-wrapped brisket, I think, for Moxxie's pastor tacos. Michael Gebert

Bacon-wrapped brisket, I think, for Moxee’s pastor tacos.

Moxxie's brisket-bacon pastor taco. Michael Gebert

Moxee’s brisket-bacon pastor taco.

If I had a discovery, it was a place near the U of I and Maxwell Street called Moxee Restaurant and Mad House Mouse Brewery; they did a bacon-wrapped brisket served al pastor style with sauce and bits of pineapple that was full of bold, bright flavors. I want to check the place out further.

Bang Chop's bacon version of nam khao tod, a dish many will know from Spoon and Rainbow Thai.Myles Gebert

Bang Chop’s bacon version of nam khao tod, a dish many will know from Spoon and Rainbow Thai.

Two restaurants taking an ethnic food approach made dishes that I liked… but were a little problematic in light of my work. Naansense’s Indian take on bacon had good flavor, but it sat on a rice loaf that would was dense and would have taken up key stomach room. And I really liked Bang Chop’s version of nam khao tod, but it was plenty spicy, and it took five of my precious minutes for the heat to cool off.

Talking bacon man to man with Kevin Hickey of The Duck Inn.Myles Gebert

Talking bacon man to man with Kevin Hickey of Rocket Burger Bar and The Duck Inn.

I knew Rockit Burger Bar’s chili would be good, chef Kevin Hickey handing it out personally, but it didn’t quite stand out next to my two leaders at this point—Three Aces and Perennial Virant. I’d been saving the last one for last, because I strongly suspected it would be a contender—The Radler. Nathan Sears (another Virant protege) had made bacon pumpernickel and bacon jam—then put spicy crawdads and bitter broccoli rabe on top. It was great.

The Radler's crayfish and broccoli rabe on bacon-lard pumpernickel with bacon-tomato jam.Myles Gebert

The Radler’s crayfish and broccoli rabe on bacon pumpernickel with bacon-tomato jam.

My son Myles, tagging along as my photographer, and I gathered second helpings of the top 3 to split—the Three Aces ramacche, Perennial Virant’s, and The Radler’s. Now we came to the question that always comes up at Baconfest. The judges are out to find “the most creative use of bacon.” But what does that mean? Is it the most tasty, or the most artistically innovative? For me, it can be the latter but it damn well better be the former too. Three Aces’ was maybe the most scarfable, but The Radler’s was incredibly delicious, complex and interesting, and used bacon for something no one else that day did—to impart a smokiness to the bread the rest of the dish sat on. In the end, we agreed that it was the best of my bunch, and I went back to report my official choice to the volunteers.

 

 

Another display favorite was Travelle's mock science fair project for "pork tarts." Michael Gebert

A display favorite was Travelle’s mock science fair project for “pork tarts.”

NOW WE GATHERED IN THE judges’ room as the volunteers brought us five plates of the choices of each one of the judges. Cat De Orio picked bacon-stuffed plin (ravioli, more or less) from Osteria Langhe; David Hammond picked the “pork tarts” from Travelle, whose stand was a parody of both Pop Tarts and a high school science fair project, with text and diagrams explaining why pork is the most delicious thing on earth; Dennis Lee picked a bacon-stuffed lumpia with ube cream from Sunda, and Tanya Nueske picked a bacon chili dog stuffed in an egg roll wrapper, from Monti’s Philly Cheesesteaks.

Sunda's bacon lumpia with ube (purple yam) cream. Michael Gebert

Sunda’s bacon lumpia with ube (purple yam) cream.

Osteria Langhe's Sears Tower of bacon, which would win the prize for best display. Michael Gebert

Osteria Langhe’s Willis Tower of bacon

Monti's, the cheesesteak place, made a bacon chili dog inside an egg roll wrapper that was a favorite. Michael Gebert

Monti’s, the cheesesteak place, made a bacon chili dog inside an egg roll wrapper that was a favorite.

Dennis pointed out that Monti’s had made the same dish before—a fact he knew because they’d beaten him with it at a hot dog contest a while back. Honestly, though, we take it for granted that restaurants will reuse techniques they know work—Osteria Langhe’s specialty is plin, but the overall dish was so good and had so much rich porky flavor that no one objected that it was the obvious thing for them to make. Again, we got into the question of how you judge dishes—the most delicious or the most creative. And again, I made the case for my interpretation of the rule—you can do any crazy thing and be “creative,” but it better be damned tasty too.

Fellow judge David Hammond, deep in thought as his wife Carolyn Berg has her own thoughts.Myles Gebert

Fellow judge David Hammond, deep in thought as his wife Carolyn Berg has her own thoughts.

We decided to go around and have everyone name their two favorites. That narrowed it down pretty quickly; three of us named The Radler and Osteria Langhe, and the other two named at least one of them each. We took another vote, just of the two favorites—and Osteria Langhe won, 3-2. Compared to last year, when three of us had been on a panel which spent a good half hour at least deciding, this year was easy, but everyone was happy enough with the choice. Seth Zurer popped in again and when we told him that was our choice, he said that chef Cameron Grant had called him a few times to tell him he was aiming to win both the Golden Rasher for best dish, and for the best display (his bacon-wrapped Willis Tower)—though that prize would elude him.

My solemn and august duties completed, the beloved place of bacon in our hearts confirmed, we went back out to try some more of the dishes and see the displays that we hadn’t had time to check out before. The creativity of Chicago’s scene, expressed in salted cured pork belly, had been confirmed for another year.

The history of bacon as told in housemade meats of different cultures, by Bad Apple.Myles Gebert

The history of bacon as told in housemade meats of different cultures, by Bad Apple. This shared Best Front of House for display with a booth from Gingersnap Sweets and Such.

Knife & Tine's BBQ Carnival. Michael Gebert

Knife & Tine’s BBQ Carnival.

Sandra Holl of Floriole. Michael Gebert

Sandra Holl of Floriole.

IMG_7304Myles Gebert
Vincent's chicken fried bacon on a pea fritter with bacon jam. Michael Gebert

Vincent’s chicken fried bacon on a pea fritter with bacon jam.

At the end of Baconfest, $50,000 would go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.Myles Gebert

At the end of Baconfest, $50,000 would go to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

 


Michael Gebert knows his bacon as editor of Fooditor.


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