It's 11 AM on Monday, but Josh Kulp of Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Sunday Dinner Club already looks beat. "We had the biggest night of Honey Butter's life on Saturday," he explains. "We sold out of chicken by 7:30. It was insane." Apparently, as soon as the polar vortex was over, a significant portion of Chicago's population decided to celebrate by eating Honey Butter's fried chicken.
Today, however, Honey Butter is closed; and Kulp and his business partner, Christine Cikowski, and some of their staff—or rather staffs—aren't here for chicken. Instead it's a busy day for their other business, Sunday Dinner Club, the underground dining club that Honey Butter evolved out of. This is actually the first time that Sunday Dinner Club's staff has used the Honey Butter kitchen, because the two are legally separate—Kulp and Cikowski have partners in Honey Butter, but own Sunday Dinner Club outright—and as separate businesses, they can't share a kitchen without a shared kitchen license from the city. Honey Butter got the license in time this year, so it will be the prepping location for the series of events that the people on Sunday Dinner Club's e-mail list look forward to each year: a month and a half of dinners starring the classically rustic French dish cassoulet.
Cikowski can't say exactly how many seasons of cassoulet dinners they've done—eight or nine is her best guess—but it's been an annual tradition and their most popular event almost since they started hosting underground dinners in her apartment nearly a decade ago. But why cassoulet?
"I think we were looking through Alice Waters's cookbook [Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook] and saw cassoulet, and said, 'We should do cassoulet,'" says Cikowski. "Well, I've lived in France for a little bit, too, and definitely had a lot of French cooking influence. And also, I had taken a job at Blackbird, so there was that influence too. But looking through the book at the cassoulet menu we were thinking, this is going to take a few days to make, we should make it a special."
"I think we have looked for those dishes, like mole in Mexico or cassoulet in France, that have a good long storied tradition to them," says Kulp.
"And make them our own," adds Cikowski.
The recipe evolves every year as they discover new things to try—one recent addition is San Marzano tomatoes stewed in duck fat, an idea they got from a Joël Robuchon recipe—but they've pretty much nailed down the technique for producing it in large quantities. With two or three dinners a week plus half a dozen private parties, they're looking at about 20 nights of cassoulet dinners, with the ability to add more as requests come in to their website. So the plan is to make and deep-freeze about 500 portions in 40 aluminum pans. The scale of today's work is evident in the supplies around the room—60 pounds of dry cannellini beans, a full tub of fat yellow onions, two entire pork bellies cured to bacon by Nueske's, a whole box of salted ham hocks from Slagel Farms.
Though the menu will be the same, Kulp says there's a definite difference in tone between the dining club dinners and the private dinners. "When people know each other at dinner club, it's a little more exciting affair," he says with a laugh. "When you sit at a communal table at Sunday Dinner Club normally there's a lot of connections and people know each other, but having a little bit of stranger-ness around you, I think gives people some shame. When you're in a room of 24 people and they're your friends, that's when . . . wildness happens."
"We've only had people dancing on the table once or twice over the years," he adds helpfully.
They start with a meeting to work out the battle plan, rattling off what they need to make based on the dining preferences that came in with the reservations. There's the vast quantity of the regular cassoulet, and later they'll make a smaller batch of vegetarian cassoulet with a completely different recipe. And then?
"We'll have to make one small pot without pork," Cikowski says.
"So we have a person who eats meat but not pork?" asks Kulp.
"We have a couple of those that I saw," Cikowski says.
"No 'no duck' person?"
"No, none of those."
"We have a friend who came one year," Kulp explains to me, "and he's a total meat eater but he won't eat duck because he grew up on a duck farm. So we had to make it without the duck fat. Because it reminded him of—"
"The family ducks," Cikowski interjects.
"Little Ducky," Kulp says.
The beans go on first, in five stock pots of different sizes. The onions are added with the ham hocks as soon as they're cut, and other aromatics such as leeks and carrots follow, all big enough to be easily fished out once they've given up their flavor. Most of the other meats that will go into the finished dish will be held until the cassoulets are assembled, but the fresh sausages will be poached in the bean liquid, transferring their own flavor to the beans. Not only the beans but the liquid they sit in will be integral parts of the dish. The "bean stock," with all its vegetable and meat flavor, becomes the main source of the jus that will be ladled over the cassoulets when they're served.
Once the beans are started, Cikowski pulls out a tub of confit duck legs embedded in white fat with thyme sprigs jutting out of it like it was a frozen pond. It goes in the oven for a few minutes to soften up the fat, and then she settles in for what she guesses will be about four hours of picking the meat off the duck legs. For her, cassoulet is a typical comfort food in that "it isn't all that hard, it's just labor intensive. And labor intensive in a way that's not challenging. I mean, cutting up bacon is not a hard thing to do. Cutting vegetables, soaking beans, poaching sausages—none of these things is very challenging as kitchen tasks."
If there's a creative side to cassoulet, it's in deciding what goes into it. "The origin of cassoulet was people using up ingredients they already had," says Cikowski. "They already had duck confit made, in these villages in France. They already had their sausages. And they would just put it all together, because it was all the leftovers."
Sunday Dinner Club bought or made everything fresh for the cassoulet, but the act of deciding what would go into it is still a highly personal act. "There are a lot of people, especially in France, who would tell you that this is what cassoulet is or this is what needs to be in cassoulet," Cikowski says. "When we make cassoulet, we make it with what we can get from here. And I think this is the truest we can be to the French way of making cassoulet, which is using what we have from the region that we're from. Here, we have access to a lot of different local meats, we use a lot of smoked bacon and sausage. Bacon isn't traditionally found in most cassoulets, but we're from the midwest. We like bacon."
Kulp picks up Cikowski's point. "We have a few things that are consistent, like our saucisson à l'ail is always from Fabrique Délices in California, it's a cured garlic sausage that's like a signature thing for us. The lamb this year is from Slagel, which is beautiful, legs of lamb which we get whole and butcher. We have Big Fork sausage from here in Chicago, which I just love. It has great smoke flavor."
"The bent this year is definitely toward smokiness," Kulp says. "Nueske bacon is incredibly smoky. This year, we're putting a lot of smoke into our cassoulet. And I had a guy from France one time say it's not really cassoulet, because you'd never use bacon in it. You'd put in unsmoked pork belly. Well, that's great, and I'm sure that cassoulet's great, but again, I love smoke, and we're kind of going at it with our own sensibilities. We like to say we put in the Chicago cassoulet bits."
"That's what I just said," Cikowski says from the other side of the room.
"Did you just say that? I just said we like to say that," Kulp laughs.
"Well, at least we're on the same page, Josh," Cikowski says.
Tomorrow: assembling the cassoulets
For information about attending Sunday Dinner Club events, e-mail email@example.com.