by Mike Sula
In terms of attendance, Saturday's Baconfest Chicago Pro Cookoff at the Publican (the precursor to the main event in April) was a bit of a sausagefest, with dudes (quite a few of them in matching meat couture) outnumbering females by about two to one. Apart from that, it defied most stereotypes of the supposedly moribund bacon fad, with ten chefs turning out thoughtful, creative dishes accompanied by smart beer pairings, with nary a hint of gratuitous looniness (even though attendees were given bacon lip balm in their goody bags).
Chris Pandel of the Bristol won the Golden Rasher for the Best Use of Bacon by a Culinary Professional, judged by me, Louisa Chu, Gary Wiviott, Chuck Sudo, and the Baconfest Triumvirate. His dish, a maple-sage-sausage-stuffed, alderwood-smoked bacon braciole, was simple, straightforward, and powerfully delicious, with braised greens saturated in lightly sweet maple-scented juices. Troy Graves of Eve won the People's Choice Rasher with a pumpkin-bacon waffle and belly, whose fatty richness was offset with a judicious use of tart pomegranate.
But nearly every dish entered had something to recommended it, from Rick Gresh's implausible sounding but buttery good bacon beer to John Manion's plate, which deserved some kind of award for sheer effort, since he brined his bellies in one of Goose Island's bourbon barrels, then smoked them over the chopped-up wood.
Vie sous chef Nathan Sears turned in the least baconlike dish of the day with this bacon boudin blanc with lentils and butternut squash aigre doux. Along with Pat Sheerin's fresh bacon in the style of carbonara, below, it caused the greatest amount of dissension among the judges, and very nearly took the day.
I ran into a few people in the midst of their tasting attempting to use Chalkboard chef Gilbert Langlois' vanilla-bacon ice cream as a palate cleanser. It was booby-trapped with an explosively decadent "swirl" of maple-lard icing that would have destroyed me if I hadn't tasted it near the end of my tour.
The perfectly cooked over-easy quail egg on a buttermilk blini by Gemini Bistro chef Jason Paskewitz with a light apricot syrup was a performance miracle.