Local Chefs Bring Their Best to Baconfest

Chefs Bret Bohning (Marion Street Market) and Dan Pancake (Autre Monde) Vie for the Golden Rasher

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By David Hammond

Baconfest is the annual celebration of America's favorite cured meat: bacon! Baconfest takes place at UIC Forum on Saturday, April 30th and Sunday, May 1.During this festival, thousands of bacon-lovers feast upon bacon-based creations served by some of Chicagoland's most accomplished chefs, all bringing their best to showcase the belly of the pig in many creative variations. This year, our part of the world will be represented by Chefs Bret Bohning of Marion Street Market (100 S. Marion) and Dan Pancake of Autre Monde (6727 Roosevelt, Berwyn).

According to Bohning, "Baconfest is fun. I like being involved. It's a lot of work, but the event seems more like a party than a job."

At past baconnalias, Bohning and his team presented chicken and bacon meatballs with a roasted red pepper cream. Explaining that "we're always trying to push the envelope to see what we can come up with," Bohning plans to prepare what sounds like a clever and creative take on bacon that reflects the energy and skills of the Marion Street Market kitchen. Bohning tells us he'll be serving up Watermelon & Pork Belly Gazpacho, which he describes as a cold soup of the sweet fruit and the pig meat (pork loves sweet) "garnished with pork cracklings, dehydrated bacon and a bacon-wrapped, Gouda-stuffed jalapeno pepper."

And that's the way it is at Baconfest: if there's a way to pack more bacon-y goodness into a dish, chefs will do it, and "that's always the goal," says Bohning. "To do something new and get it to all work together." 

At Autre Monde, Pancake is working on his Baconfest contribution, an interpretation of the bahn mi, the Vietnamese sandwich that joins the pickles and fresh herbs of Southeast Asia with the meat pate and baguettes of the French, who colonized and left their imprint on this part of the Asian world.

"We're grinding pork shoulder with pork liver to make the pate," says Pancake. "We're going to add pickled radishes and carrots, mildly spicy peppers, like little Cherry Bombs, not too hot, and then dress it with a lot of cilantro and little aioli. All on French bread; it's our take on the bahn mi. And it's within the Mediterranean tradition, so it fits in with our menu, it's within our wheel house, and it's fun."

I've been to every Baconfest since the event began in 2009, and one challenge is portion size: chefs want to give fest goers a good taste of their creation, but with 50 chefs competing, there are a lot of tastes out there and you don't want visitors to dump half your dish so they can move on to the next (I've seen it happen hundreds of times; it's a shame). "Portion control is a problem at Baconfest," says Pancake. "So we're using a torpedo-sized baguette cut in half. We have it down now, so that people can get a taste of this and maybe 25 other samples."

Pancake and the Autre Monde crew have been at Baconfest for several years now, and as Bohning mentioned, it's a "lot of work." So what keeps Pancake coming back?

"For me, Baconfest is about camaraderie and competition. There's such a great vibe, and nobody really cares who wins. It's fun because unlike so many of the other fund-raising events every year, everyone at Baconfest has to use the same ingredient. It's more about being able to appreciate what everyone is doing. Seth [Zurer, co-founder of Baconfest] brings together people who are comfortable with each other, so there's lots of talk among the chefs, and we all have a great time. Chicago is a great restaurant community; Baconfest gives us an opportunity to come together."

Community is fundamental to Baconfest, and as Zurer explains in his Bacon Manifesto:

…We are committed to creating shared bacon experiences that strengthen the bonds of the human community, across religion, across race, across gender, across class. That is the promise of bacon. That is the aim of Baconfest.

In addition to the reward of hanging with peers in a huge hall full of food makers and food lovers, Baconfest chefs who turn in the best entries in each of three sessions (Saturday lunch, Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch) go home with one of the coveted Golden Rasher Award (the Oscars of the bacon world).

There are also a number of smaller competitions, for achievements like Best Bacon Poem and Best Bacon Costume, which was won last year by Wednesday Journal's own Alicia Plomin.

Baconfest, however, is about more than just making and eating and having fun with incredible bacon-focused creations. It's about helping deliver food those who many times don't get enough to eat. On April 9, Baconfest Chicago hosted a Baconfest Volunteer Day at the Greater Chicago Food Depository. At this event, volunteers spent the day working to put together family-sized portions of healthy food for those in need around the city.  Last year alone, Baconfest donated $75,000 to the organization.  Since 2009, Baconfest has donated more than $300,000 to Chicago's food bank, which translates into nearly 1,000,000 meals for hungry people living in the Chicago area.

Next Saturday, Pancake of Autre Monde will be at Baconfest at the A.M. session and Bohning of Marion Street Market will be at the P.M. session, when I'll be one of four judges selecting winners (#myhardlife). If you'd like to join us, you can still buy tickets at http://baconfestchicago.com/ticket/

 

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