The smoky smell of bacon and the sound of fat sizzling fills restaurant kitchens around Chicago this month as chefs prepare for the seventh Baconfest Chicago.
The celebration of all things bacon takes place April 25-26 at UIC Forum and will draw hundreds of diehard bacon devotees and some of the biggest culinary talents in the city. We talked to a few chefs who are pulling out all the stops for Baconfest.
Troy Graves, Red Door
Growing up in Iowa, Graves says bacon was simply “sustenance.” But go to Baconfest, and you’ll find the craziest bacon enthusiasts, says the chef at Bucktown gastropub Red Door.
“It’s like the people who are into tattoos and leather,” he says.
This year, Graves will draw on his experience cooking Korean food — which he learned from an Army barracks mate — to make bulgogi-glazed pork meatballs with kimchi and bacon broth. He boils kimchi into the broth to impart flavor, then strains it out — yielding a “pure broth with a pile of porky goodness.”
His advice for home chefs? “Just buy really good bacon. That’s the secret. Start with the best and nothing else really matters.”
Patrick Sheerin, Trenchermen
Sheerin and his staff use Baconfest as a chance to experiment in the kitchen.
The Trenchermen team is making a dish called “Breakfast in Bed,” which pairs bacon cured in ground coffee and braised in whole coffee beans with egg yolk and bacon fat jam and toasted bread made with cocoa nibs.
The coffee-cured, braised bacon is so good, Sheerin says, he’s going to try to find a permanent place for it on the menu at his Wicker Park restaurant, where it will join at least one other Baconfest creation, “bacon-stuffed bacon” — bacon sausage stuffed inside pork belly.
Sheerin has been participating in Baconfest since its inception in 2008.
“Bacon’s just really awesome,” he says. “It’s a lot like sex — even when it’s really bad, it’s really good.”
Heather Terhune, Sable
Baconfest regular Terhune says she usually tries to choose a dish that fits the theme of Sable Kitchen & Bar, a gastro-lounge serving New American fare. This year, it’s made-to-order cheddar scallion bacon griddlecakes with bourbon apple compote and real maple syrup.
“Bacon’s always been a trend. I think people are just now thinking, is it trendy?” says Terhune, who smokes her own bacon at Sable. “We don’t do it because it’s trendy, we do it because it tastes good.”
Jen Templeton, Gingersnap Sweets and Such
Templeton, a vegetarian, hasn’t eaten meat in years. But that doesn’t stop her from using bacon in several of her pastries, including scones, quiche and her signature “whirlaway” rolls.
“My shop smells like bacon a lot,” she admits.
Inspired by a video a friend sent her of a nougat stand in Switzerland, Templeton is working on a “candy shop theme” for Baconfest. She’s already testing batches of nougat made with bacon bits and toasted pecans, for sale all month long at her bakery.
“Nougat tends to be really, really sweet,” she says. “Because of the bacon and pecans, it gives it a really nice salty element.”
Rick Gresh and Jove Hubbard, David Burke’s Primehouse
David Burke’s Primehouse is sending pastry chef Hubbard to Baconfest — but executive chef Gresh won’t reveal the actual dish.
“We have to keep it somewhat of a secret because of the competition,” Gresh says. “Maybe something with chocolate, maybe not. Maybe Skittles.”
Gresh says he’s participated in Baconfest for six years because it’s fun to see what other chefs are doing, and because he and his staff always have a good time. Making bacon tacos one year, they played a Latin radio station and dressed up in sombreros and woven ponchos.
He also enjoys meeting the bacon junkies who “get teary when they eat stuff.”
For home chefs, Gresh’s No. 1 piece of advice is to “do what your grandmother did and save the fat” — for cooking vegetables, in vinaigrettes, or even in dough.
Roger Waysok, South Water Kitchen
Bacon goes in everything at the Loop’s South Water Kitchen, from the “Chicago-style” Bloody Marys to the desserts.
Waysok, who has participated in Baconfest for four years, has brought several Baconfest creations back to his restaurant — including bacon s’mores using homemade marshmallows with chopped bacon whipped in.
This year, Waysok is making bacon jam-filled donut holes drizzled with real maple syrup. “It’s kind of like a jelly donut, but Baconfest style,” he explains.
Barbara Felt Miller, “Felt Like a Foodie”
Felt Miller is one of five contestants who made it to the final round of Baconfest’s Amateur Cook-off. This is her third attempt and her first savory dish: bacon and eggs maki.
Felt Miller loves sushi, but there are few Japanese restaurants near her home in Laporte, Ind. So the food blogger taught herself how to make sushi at home.
“I just kept thinking, how do I incorporate bacon into sushi?” she explains. “I was just obsessed.”
Inspired by the Japanese omelet, tomato, which involves bacon and eggs, Felt Miller spent hours creating different bacon sushi variations. The final product combines sushi rice, brown sugar-wasabi candied bacon, egg and green onion. The roll is wrapped in seaweed and covered in bacon bits and sesame seeds.
Felt Miller is already testing her dish on anyone she can. “We’re doing some work around our house and one of the guys here working, I said, ‘Do you like sushi?’ ‘Never had it.’ ‘Well you need to taste it. … It’s got bacon on it.’ ”