David Campigotto seemed unnerved that I was taking my cassoulet to go. "If you cover the beans while they're hot it can make them pass out," he told me, insisting I leave the lids ajar on the two 32-ounce plastic deli cups he had carefully packed with sausage, pork rib and duck leg confit, creamy white haricots lingots, and a heart-stopping amount of fat.
He'd shipped five 10-kilo sacks of those beans to Publican Quality Meats from his hometown of Castelnaudary in southern France, where they'd been harvested and dried in August. He wasn't going to let them 'pass out'—his Franglicism for breaking down and turning to mush—under my questionable protection.
Earlier in the week I'd told him that last winter I made a version of his cassoulet recipe—published in Paul Kahan's Cheers to the Publican—along with some tweaks inspired by Paula Wolfert's famous recipe for Toulouse-style cassoulet from The Cooking of Southwest France.
Campigotto stared at me blankly for a moment.
"You can make a cassoulet out of whatever you want," he said. "That's not gonna be a Castelnaudary cassoulet." I did in fact mash up the two recipes, but I was really just trying to bait the chef. I received a similar pregnant pause a few weeks earlier when I told Kahan the same thing.
But Kahan didn't always know better either. In his cookbook he tells the story of the first time he met Campigotto four years earlier and he brought up breadcrumbs and tomato, two ingredients commonly found in a Toulouse cassoulet that wouldn't be caught dead in one made in Castelnaudary. As Kahan told the guests assembled at PQM for Campigotto's fifth annual cassoulet throwdown last Thursday, using breadcrumbs and tomato is like "sticking a knife in Chef David's heart."
Castelnaudary is often described as the buckle on France's cassoulet belt, which terminates 43 kilometers to the south at Carcassonne, and begins 60 to the north in Toulouse. Campigotto, 44, was actually born in Toulouse but moved to Castelnaudary at the age of three when his chef-father took over a restaurant in the little town and inherited its cassoulet recipe. The son grew up waiting tables, but "I wasn't welcome in the kitchen," he says. "When we finished the service, all the beans left in the terrines the customers didn't have—we put them in one dish and we put them back in the oven and by the time we finished the service we used to eat this cassoulet. That's the best cassoulet. That's the cassoulet I want my customers to have."
Proper cassoulet, no matter where it's from, is the very emblem of slow food, requiring a long bake in a low oven before a period of rest—preferably overnight—and then another slow reheating, so that the beans are creamy but intact, the meat tender as butter, and the crust that forms on top a bewitching crunchy, caramelized lid on the immoderate richness below.
He learned this after striking out on his own at 23 with a small place outside of town, and hiring a fiftysomething chef with a drinking problem. "He was doing a crap job. We had a fireplace. He was burning the meat, so I said I don't want to employ any more chefs. I want to make it."
Campigotto's father eventually taught him the recipe, and he reopened his restaurant in town in 2012, a 30-seat spot that can put out 30 terrrines per day in the summer high season, and is gradually achieving a reputation as a destination for cassoulet tourists. That's how Delilah's owner Mike Miller found him six months later. Miller, on a quest to find the world's best cassoulet, came in one day. The Gun Club, Violent Femmes, and Ministry were on sound systems, and the beans blew him away. When the chef emerged from the kitchen a bond was quickly formed. "I said I can make in Chicago if you find me a place." That April the chef arrived, and Miller began leaving persistent messages on Kahan's voicemail.
Kahan tells the story of their first meeting in his book, and last week he told it to the guests at the first of five dinners held at PQM and Publican Anker. The chefs agreed to do a series of dinners that first year, but Campigotto insisted on using Castelnaudary beans as well as the glazed ceramic terrines, or cassoules, manufactured in neighboring Mas-Saintes-Puelles in a factory along the Canal du Midi. Kahan would source the ducks from foie gras producer Au Bon Canard in Minnesota and use the same fine local pigs he gets for his restaurants. "The pigs are fatter in America," says Campigotto.
The dinners have been so successful among a hardcore group of One Off Hospitality regulars, and habitués of Delilah's (where Campigotto tends to hang out when he's in town), they've repeated every year since with the latest harvest of beans, shipped to Fulton Market. A set of terrines spends the year locked up in a cabinet in Kahan's office, and when Campigotto gets to town they come out of storage. First he soaks the beans while making the pork jelly they're cooked in, bringing pig trotters to a furious boil to extract their collagen. After two to three hours in the water, the beans are brought to a boil, then drained and placed in the stock with garlic and brought to boil again.
Then Campigotto begins to build the cassoulet, rubbing the interior of a cassoule furiously with garlic. He ladles some beans in, sprinkles them with crushed black pepper, grates nutmeg on top and on the sides of the bowls, and layers the beans with pieces of pig skin and shredded trotter meat. He props alternating pork ribs and sausages on the sides of the bowl, ten apiece, then layers spilt-duck-leg thigh pieces in the middle. The terrines are filled to the brim with more beans and topped with fistfuls of duck fat.
They go in a low oven for six hours. Every half hour Campigotto breaks the crust that begins to form on top with a wooden paddle, each time ladling more stock into the fissure. Cassoulet is always better the next day, he says, but he only has time to give them a two-hour rest before rewarming them for another two hours.
The dinners are great theater, with Miller telling the story of Castelnaudary cassoulet and how it came to Chicago, while Campigotto serves guests tableside, making sure each gets a rib, a sausage, and a piece of duck, along with the fat-saturated beans and pieces of the precious crunchy crust. There are no breadcrumbs—that's a cheap shortcut to achieving a proper crust, according to Campigotto. And there's no tomato—the acidity would cause the beans to pass out. But the depth of flavor and texture and the power of the extraordinary richness that slowly develops over days of work have the effect of a Quaalude, in Kahan's description. "You don't eat it and go 'this is rich,'" he says. "Your body tells you how rich it is. And you don't need a lot of it. When you eat something that good it completely changes your mood." v