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Two top chefs bring home the bacon at Pro Bacon Cook-Off

by Therese Ruiz
Oct 28, 2009

Pan fried. Seared. Braised. Slow roasted. Deep fried. Sliced and served to perfection.

Ten Chicago area chefs whipped up a variety of bacon dishes last Saturday, filling the lofty main room of The Publican with the meat’s smoky, distinct smell.

It was the inaugural edition of The VIP Pro Bacon Cook-Off. Held at the restaurant in the Fulton Market district, it was an opportunity for the chefs to show off their bacon-wielding skills.

For the 75 guests in attendance, it was a day of bacon-tasting merriment, during which they sampled 10 dishes, variations on the main bacon theme. In the spirit of the day, some bacon-eaters scrounged the recesses of their closets, their friends’ closets, and the Internet to find bacon-related items to wear. “I heart Bacon,” “BACON!” and “Bacon-fied” were among the expressions displayed on chests, purses and hats. One group wore matching team shirts declaring, “Bacon. Everything Else is Just a Condiment.”

For the chefs, however, the day resembled the Food Network’s “ Iron Chef America.” Only one bacon-themed creation would reign supreme in the People’s Choice and Judge’s Choice categories.

At 2 p.m. Seth Zurer, Baconfest Chicago co-founder, announced the winners. Troy Graves, executive chef at Eve in downtown Chicago, won the People’s Choice Award, and Chris Pandel, chef at The Bristol on North Damen Avenue, was the Judge’s Choice winner. Both walked away with Golden Rasher awards, a small golden pig perched atop a wooden pedestal.

“Each was delicious and used bacon in a unique way,” Zurer said.“The two that won were delicious, not too complex [but] had a lot of textural complexity. Pretty much straightforward and complicated all at once.”

Coincidentally, both winning chefs served up a version of breakfast favorites. Chef Grave says he was inspired by the sights and smells of autumn. His dish combined pumpkin and bacon into a crisp waffle. Topped with pomegranate-glazed pork belly, it was infused with maple syrup and, of course, more bacon. A small garnish sprig and pomegranate seeds finished the plate.

“It’s a tribute to the season, with the orange of pumpkin and the brown of bacon,” Grave said. “The flavors paired well together.”

Chef Pandel opted for something a tad more traditional: meat rolled around more meat rolled around a hard-boiled egg. His “Breakfast Braciole” included house-cured, alderwood-smoked bacon with house-made maple-sage breakfast sausage, braised greens and a hard-boiled egg. He drizzled the tops with spoonfuls of maple-scented juices.

There was a genuine camaraderie among the chefs as they tasted each other’s dishes, learning new techniques, new flavor combinations and new pairings.

Zurer, who is self-employed, was almost giddy by the end of the event.

“We had a lot of good feedback ,” he said. “A guy from Serious Eats [a food blog] said if there wasn’t anybody who didn’t leave 100 percent satisfied, the fault was with their palate and not Baconfest.” Many guests noted how flavorful the dishes were, though they admitted that their cholesterol levels had increased by the end of the two-hour event.

The Cook-Off was a preview of a larger event, Baconfest Chicago, to be held in April next year. Tickets for the preview were $75 and sold out in a record 36 hours.

For Zurer, the event reinforced what he calls “the capacity of bacon to contribute to sensual and interpersonal pleasure.

“Everyone there was so nice and so happy,” he said. “I can’t help but say bacon fat was a big part of that.”

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Therese Ruiz/MEDILL
Attendees Mark Bergrin, Brent Rosen and Rob Rosen show proepr bacon pride during the VIP Pro Bacon Cook-Off.

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Therese Ruiz/MEDILL
Seth Zurer (right), with event co-founder Andre, denies being caught with the bacon in his mouth, despite  photographic evidence. Afterall, all the bacon was supposed to be for attendees.

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Therese Ruiz/MEDILL
The two winning dishes both emphasized rich bacon flavor and added a unique textural element to entice the palate, said Seth Zurer, co-founder of Baconfest.  Chef Troy Graves’ dish (left) featured autumn flavors of pumpkin, pomegranate and bacon.The winning chef serves up creative dishes at Chicago’s Eve restaurant. The Bristol Chef Chris Pandel’s dish (right) combined beloved breakfast favorites baked together for flavor packed with juices.

Related Links

Slideshow: A peek at the chefs, dishes, and venue for the Bacon VIP Cook-Off