In five years, Baconfest has grown from an idea born in a late night drinking session among friends into arguably the most anticipated culinary event of the year in Chicago. On Saturday, 3,000 ticketed guests descended on the UIC Forum to eat a truly obscene quantity of pork belly. 128 Chicago-area chefs made use of approximately 6,000 pounds of bacon in every manner you can imagine and several more you can’t. Nearly all of the chefs make use of Nueske’s bacon, provided gratis by the company, while a dozen or so of the more ambitious among them make their own. And $50,000 was donated to the Greater Chicago Food Depository at the end of it all. We’ve been there every year, and helped judge both professional and the amateur competitions this year. Our slideshow of both sessions, including the winners of both competitions, is below.
Each of the two sessions began with a relatively tame hour open to people who paid $200 for the privilege as well as invited guests and freeloading media jackals like ourselves. Once that first hour ends, about 1,400 people responsible for the event selling out in just 41 minutes pour into the hall. The next two and a half hours is a frenzy of unbridled bacon-eating and bacon-drinking joy. From the chefs to the diners to the volunteers with unenviable task of making sure the trash is properly divided between bins designated for composting, recycling, and actual garbage, everyone seems thrilled to participate in this over-the-top celebration of porcine gluttony.
A panel of five judges convenes each session to select the winner of the Golden Rasher for most creative use of bacon. As a participant during the dinner session, we can report that taste and “baconness” factor into the equation as well. Among the many outstanding choices at the lunch session, Lockwood’s Chef Joseph Rose claimed top honors thanks to a bacon ragout with bacon dashi and nori topped with a sous vide egg peeled to order. The dinner session saw the crowning of the first two-time winner in Baconfest Chicago history. Chef Matt Troost and his team from Three Aces delivered the “Wake n’ Bacon,” a hunk of bacon scrapple served with a bacon sriracha-style sauce and black sesame seeds, all of which was topped with shaved egg yolks that were cured in bacon salt. To wash that down, Troost provided a bacon-Malort Orange Julius.
Once again, the triumvirate behind the event - Seth Zurer, Michael Griggs, and Andre Vonbaconvitch (possibly not his real name) - used the event, in part, as a means of doing some good in the world. This year’s event resulted in a $50,000 donation to the Greater Chicago Food depository and over 5,000 pounds of donated food, 2,500 of which came from a matching contribution by Ekrich.
As for what’s next? Baconfest will return to Chicago next year and will presumably be even bigger (there’s talk of three sessions). In the meantime, the Baconfest boys are ready to begin their quest for global bacon domination. Baconfest San Francisco will be held on October 11, 2013, while events in Washington, DC and Green Bay are in the works for 2014.
While a few VIPs nosh inside, the overwhelming majority of the 1,500 ticketed guests gather outside the UIC Forum to do their best to devour about 3,000 pounds of bacon at the opening lunch session.
The most eager Baconfest Chicago attendees stand at the front of the line about 30 seconds before the doors open and bacony chaos begins.
At least 100 Baconfest eaters came decked out in their finest bacon-related threads.
Baconfest Chicago co-founder Andre Vonbaconvitch makes the final announcements before Baconfest Chicago 2013 kicks off.
We’ve been to every session of every Baconfest and there is nobody with a more impressive track record than Paul Fehribach, Executive Chef and co-owner of Big Jones. This year’s offering was refried bacon confit with country ham sauerkraut, toasted pumpernickel, and sweet and sour beets.
Charcuterie masters Jared Van Camp and Ray Stanis from Old Town Social kept things simple this year, delivering strips of housemade applewood-smoked, chicken-fried bacon made from local heritage breed hogs.
Baume & Brix has two chefs so it only makes sense the restaurant brought two dishes to Baconfest. Fat Elvis #1 (on the right) was the savory offering from Chefs Thomas Elliot Bowman and Ben Roche. It included a chunk of peanut butter-braised bacon on a bed of brioche-banana mousse, all topped with bacon roasted peanuts. Fat Elvis #2 is a peanut macaron filled with banana ganache and bourbon-bacon jam.
Bread & Wine’s braised bacon with bacon dashi jelly and fermented turnip was a stellar funky umami bomb that has us planning our first visit to this northwest side bistro.
Lockwood’s bacon ragout with with bacon dashi and nori waits for Chef Joseph Rose to add the finishing touch.
Okay, a sous vide egg with nori sprinkled on top is a lot more than a finishing touch. This dish won Lockwood the Golden Rasher for most creative use of bacon in the lunch session.
When Chef John Manion opened La Sirena Clandestina, he decided to serve vegetarian black beans. He has since changed his mind. These feijoada baconed black beans with malagueta sauce are on the menu at the restaurant and were one of the best bites we had at Baconfest. Manion described the two to three-day cooking process to us. He renders the bacon, saves the fat and cooks the bacon in chicken stock. He then skims the fat off the top of the stock and saves that while he cooks the beans in the stock along with onions and garlic. The final step involves taking the remaining stock and emulsifying all of the rendered fat back into the stock that is then mixed with the beans. He’ll never go back to vegetarian black beans again.
Chef Carlos Gaytan of Mexique delivered among the smallest bites at Baconfest Chicago history but one with no shortage of flavor. These pepita macarons were topped with bacon fudge mole and Pernod orange meringue that was kissed by a blowtorch on-site. We are not ashamed to admit we ate three of them.
One of the best offerings at Baconfest was technically very light on actual bacon. A beautiful piece of uncured and unsmoked pork belly cooked sous vide in pork lard was the star of Mercat a la Planxa’s “El Cerdito,” a sandwich that also included guindilla slaw and pickled Fresno chiles, all served on Bahama Bread made with pork fat and topped with candied bacon.
Chef Pat Sheerin from Trenchermen is one of just a few chefs who have attended every Baconfest. As we have come to expect, he made something whimsical and delicious. The “Velvet Elvis” features Thai bacon, which he made by curing it in fish sauce instead of salt and then smoking it before finishing it off by cooking it sous vide. That tender pork belly was paired with banana-baked peanuts and pickled pineapple.
Chef Rosalia Barron, Sheerin’s successor at Signature Room at the 95th, ensured the restaurant’s Baconfest cred lives on with smoked banana bread pudding and pork tenderloin stuffed with chorizo and wrapped in bacon, all which was topped with bacon-braised red cabbage and bacon ancho sauce.
This man was more than prepared to enjoy Zed 51’s mini waffle cones with bacon ice cream topped with candied bacon along with chocolate bacon at the bottom of the cone.
Do nearly 2,000 people packed tightly together while overeating prove that we are what we eat? If so, these are some very happy pigs for a day.
And on to the second (dinner) session. Across the board, people serving food at Baconfest seemed every bit as happy as the gluttons eating. These two from 2 Sparrows were no exception, happily dishing out bacon-wrapped pineapple upside down cupcakes with pineapple frosting and candied bacon bits.
Chef Heather Terhune from Sable prepares for the onslaught of eaters by putting together her smoked pork belly sliders, which included the belly with a brown sugar/ginger/soy glaze along with pickled pineapple relish.
Going in for a closeup on Sable’s sliders.
Vera built its rice pudding around bomba rice that was sautéed in rendered bacon fat. The pudding was topped with marcona almonds, golden raisins, banana, and, of course, bacon.
Visitors to the Acadia table were given a bacon onion jam poptart with bacon icing and access to a bacon topping station. We covered ours with bacon hot fudge, bacon bourbon maple caramel, candied bacon and peanuts, and smoked vanilla ice cream.
Rosebud’s display has forever changed our view of Ms. Piggy and left us too shaken to try the restaurant’s bacon and caramelized ravioli with a demi-glace sauce.
The “Black Pearl” Bacon Nem Nuong from Saigon Sisters’ Chef Matt Riordan was a real standout. The bacon fish meatballs were served with nuoc cham dressing, cucumber, chili oil, and Vietnamese herbs, all on bed of salty squid ink tapioca. This dish was deservedly one of the finalists for the Golden Rasher for most creative use of bacon in the second session.
Edging out Saigon Sisters for the Golden Rasher for most creative use of bacon in the dinner session was last year’s winner, Three Aces. Chef Matt Troost told us that he came up with his initial idea to make bacon scrapple the day after Baconfest last year. He finally settled on the “Wake n’ Bacon,” which saw his scrapple served with a bacon sriracha-style sauce and black sesame seeds. That was all topped with shaved egg yolks that were cured in bacon salt. Not pictured was Three Aces’ pairing, a bacon-Malort orange Julius.
We served as a judge for the Nueske’s Baconfest Amateur Cook-Off and can confidently say winner Alexa Harra’s “Popped Pig,” popcorn and bacon coated in bacon fat caramel, would have held its own competing against the pros.
This guy’s shirt sums the attitude of pretty much every single person at Baconfest Chicago.