Baconfest 2012 | Photos and report
Chicagoans might be the luckiest eaters in the country these days. Our city is home to the world’s greatest restaurants—21 with Michelin stars—without the pretension of San Francisco or the odor of New York. As far as the intersection between good people and good food is concerned, you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to dine or drink. It’s our Midwestern roots—those Big Shoulders of the country—and our city’s long-standing love affair with all things meat that has produced such fertile ground for culinary innovation. To experience it in the flesh, all you need is a ticket to our Pantheon of pork: Baconfest.
This year’s fourth annual fest saw lines around the block for admission, and left guests nearly comatose afterwards. For perspective, here are the uncured facts behind this year’s event: Guests: 3,000 (twice as many as 2011.) Participating restaurants: 110, over two shifts. Meat donated per restaurant: 30 to 50 pounds. Hours for tickets to sell out: four. Total pounds of Nueske’s smoked meats served at the event: 4257.
That’s over two tons of bacon.
The event gives chefs a chance to push pork to its physical boundaries, and from the variety of dishes—everything from bacon pop-rocks to bacon beignets—one would think we’ve got a bunch of crazed cubists heading up our kitchens. If you have to be insane to be brilliant, be glad to live in our asylum, because nearly every dish at the fest was delicious.
We didn’t get a chance to try everything—to do so would risk serious health concerns—but here were some of our favorites:
THE BEDFORD: Bacon beignets tossed in bacon powdered sugar, drizzled in bourbon-barrel aged maple syrup caramel with bacon and walnuts
This year brought a revelation in bacon desserts, which makes perfect sense for those who like a little savory with their sweet. One of the best was The Bedford’s offering, created by Chef Mark Steuer.
“We’ve always had savory dishes at Baconfest, so this year we wanted to do something sweet,” said Steuer, whose beignets sold out after three hours during the dinner shift. “Beignets made sense; we subbed out the butter with bacon fat and kind of went from there. We tried to incorporate bacon into every step of the process.”
That much is clear from the dish description above. His beignets were piping hot and struck a good balance between fluffy and thick, with sweet and salty notes throughout. The maple bourbon syrup sealed the deal. “Bacon and maple is pretty much what you’re getting,” he said. “I noticed last year there wasn’t a whole lot of sweet, so we wanted to do something different.”
He wasn’t the only one—with more chefs moving away from tried-and-true pork-belly dishes, bacon deserts were definitely on the rise.
THE BACON LADY: Bacon chocolate chip cookies, bacon whoopie pies, maple bacon rice krispie treats, bacon pecan toffee, maple marshmallows
Danielle Desire’s first day of business as The Bacon Lady—“Strictly Savory Deserts”—was this Saturday at Baconfest. She’s going to be one happy lady in the coming months, judging from the response to her booth.
“I found out I do have a market!” she exclaimed, next to a menu that was nearly crossed out with sold-out offerings. “I walked in this morning and I’m like, I’m crazy, I’m really crazy—why did I think I could come up and do this? And I am so happy. I’m on the biggest high right now, it’s been great.”
Danielle’s business has been in development for a year; she uses shared kitchen spaces to make her catered bacon deserts. After doing a taste test in December she approached Baconfest as an exhibitor; a full-time massage therapist completing her master’s in Chinese medicine, this is her passion project—“There’s no such thing as the 40-hour work week, and I will work for my money, not gonna lie,” she noted.
Her deserts were mouthwatering, with bacon-chocolate-chip cookies as the headliner. Her goal is to branch into food trucks: “I want to bring my food to the people, versus the people coming to me. If you want to make a business you have to be out there with the people, and that’s what I’m here for.” Sprinkles Cupcakes, you’ve been warned.
LEOPOLD: Braised pork belly with beluga lentils, pickled asparagus and peaches, black-peppercorn crème fraiche and sorrel
Amid a deluge of pork-belly dishes, Leopold’s stood out. The offering from Chef Jeffrey Hedin was simultaneously smoky, smooth and spicy, making for a layered dish that marks him as a talent to watch at the 15-month-old Ukranian Village restaurant.
“The dish came together today, but we started pickling things and braising and rubbing the belly two or three days ago,” explained Hedin. “You get the heartiness, the smokiness of the dish but then you get the pickled flavor, the creaminess of the crème fraiche, the sorrel’s tartness, and it leaves you with a little heat at the end because I rubbed it with chili flake and there’s cherrybomb pepper in there too.” Those flavors came together for a subtle dish that gave more established booths at the fest a run for their money, and left us wanting a full-sized plate.
STATE AND LAKE: Bacon chocolate truffle rolled in maple sugar
State and Lake’s booth display was one of the more creative we’ve seen—guests were asked to dig through 75 pounds of ground Oreos to find a truffle, which was perfectly balanced between sweet and salty and melted in your mouth. Framing the display were colorful, hand-painted mushrooms, and one could find chocolate “roots” with enough scooping.
“This was a team effort,” explained Executive Chef Evan Percoco, “and all our team members got involved—from engineering to security, everyone had a role. And I say this all the time, but Toni [Roberts, pastry chef at The Wit], your deserts are well balanced, they’re not overly sweet or salty.”
“It’s just a super classic ganache, so it’s two parts chocolate, one part cream, throw in some bourbon, fold in the rendered down bacon bits, and it’s rolled in maple sugar,” said Roberts on the creation of the dish. What inspired it? “It was really just us sitting down and screaming out ideas,” she explained.
“Maybe there was a little alcohol involved,” added Percoco. “Maybe some from the night before. That’s what happens when you get a couple of brains in one room together.” One couldn’t imagine better uses for bourbon; both in the creation process and in the actual dish itself.