Until this weekend, I hadn't attended Baconfest since 2009, when I gave a talk on bacon making (which owed liberally to Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie). Chicago's annual salute to cured pork belly draws over 100 chefs, thousands of attendees over the course of three sessions, and raises tens of thousands of dollars for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. It also sells out in about 12 minutes, so when coorganizer/old pal Seth Zurer invited me to go inside the belly of the beast—that is, to be a judge for the Friday night session—I grabbed my older son and jumped at the chance.
The other judges on Friday night included Chris Koetke, dean of Kendall College; David Manilow and Catherine De Orio, producer and host of Check, Please!; writer Dan Zemans, who has not only been to every Baconfest but claims to have tried almost everything at each one, and who won a pig trophy himself last year for his efforts; and the queen of bacon herself, Darlene Nueske, of the Wisconsin bacon-making company and family that supplies an amazing 8,000 pounds of bacon each year to the contestants.
We assembled in a meeting room at the UIC Forum so Seth could run us through our judging duties, which were carefully thought out to offer as objective a process as you can apply to something as subjective as eating bacon. A this session there were 55 entries and just six judges, so each of us had nine or ten assigned items to try. Out of those, we would each pick only one that would advance to being judged by everyone. Staff would bring in samples of those for each of us to try, and then we would pick one winner of the prize for Most Creative Use of Bacon.
We looked over our lists. Zemans spotted Trenchermen on mine and said, "There's the one to beat on your list." Probably true, but I wanted to be open to the possibility of discovering an underdog—like the first year, when a new bar called Longman & Eagle took the Golden Rasher out of nowhere. I looked at his list and pointed out Fork, an underrated Lincoln Square farm-to-table restaurant, and told him to be sure to give it serious consideration. Koetke mentioned that years before, he had taught Fork chef Tim Cottini: "He was a little hellion, then!" Zemans talked about his experiences of past Baconfests, including noting in passing that Asian flavors were always a smart strategic choice—they cut through eating smoky pork after smoky pork. Those would prove to be prescient words.
We had an hour to go out and try our assigned dishes during the VIP sessions. I started with dessert, where Eddie Lakin of Edzo's had a shake with chunks of bacon in it—and, he pointed out, an extrathick straw so they wouldn't get clogged.
Next I tried Bourbon County Stout caramel corn with bacon bits from Goose Island. I was tempted to dump a couple of those in a coat pocket for later munching—you know, in case Baconfest ran low on food.
It was time to focus on savory dishes. I went first to Trenchermen so I could have it as the baseline for someone to beat. Pat Sheerin's dish was Asian flavored, a bacon fried rice with bacon-fat hoisin sauce, bacon XO sauce, a piece of bacon, and lots of other things you see on Thai plates (peanuts, scallions, lime). Damn, it was the one to beat, clearly.
I tried some more and on the savory side I found one more strong contender—Giuseppe Scurato of Ceres' Table had a meat loaf ball topped with mashed potatoes. It didn't necessary look like a flavor star, but the seasoning of the meat loaf was terrific.
But in the end my son and I settled on Trenchermen's entry as being the standout. We tried a few others and looked around before deliberations would begin.
Back in the meeting room, we had our six contenders: Trenchermen, Fork (a bacon-stuffed date wrapped in bacon), Red Door (an arepa, a South American corn cake, topped with bacon, wild boar, and chimichurri), Tanta (chicharron in a sweet Asian glaze in sweet potato puree), Woodhaven Bar and Kitchen, which none of us had ever heard of (it's in River North), with bacon-and-goat-cheese-infused bison, wrapped in bacon, and, the only dessert choice, Big Jones' bacon-praline bread pudding with bacon-fat whipped cream.
We took an initial vote on favorites, and Trenchermen and Tanta each got two votes—the Asian flavors cutting through. We discussed both, but my feeling was that if we were going to reward Asian flavors with bacon, Trenchermen's was more complex and thus the more creative use of bacon. But we hit an impasse when Darlene Nueske, whose bacon expertise one has to respect, said she strongly disliked the Trenchermen dish. We turned to the Red Door dish next and, much as we liked it, it seemed kind of low on the bacon part of Most Creative Use of Bacon. Then Chris Koetke suggested another dish to try that had impressed him from another restaurant none of us knew, Ara-On. There was no reason we couldn't widen the field—our mandate was bacon excellence no matter how we got there—and so we summoned the chef to assemble the dish, a pork consomme poured over bacon and shrimp.
It was a terrific dish, and it made me want to check out the restaurant (located at the top of a Loop building where my wife used to work). Could it come in at the end and sweep the field? But when we voted to rank our first, second, and third choices, Trenchermen beat Ara-On by one vote.
Afterward, my son and I went back out to sample a few more. I was especially impressed at this point by some gnocchi with bacon from Osteria via Stato, and a Cuban sandwich taco from Velvet Taco, which had some real odd pig parts in it (I spotted a slice of pig ear) and which pretty much instantly raised my opinion of a place with a bro-humor name. Meanwhile, Zemans went on to try everything else he hadn't already tried—and then to go serve as a judge for the amateur bacon cook off too.