With the 800-lb. gorilla of Chicago restaurant cookbooks just hitting stores and an exquisitely rarefied seafood tasting menu earning the title of best new restaurant in America, it's easy to see ours as a restaurant scene dominated by artifice, weird science, and great-brain chefs. But I think last night's mulefoot pig dinner
, initiated by the Reader as part of Mike Sula's writings
about this heritage breed and planned by Paul Kahan at Blackbird with the aid of five other chefs, ought to stand as an equally momentous occasion-- the moment when a movement devoted to cooking rooted in the flavors of midwestern products reached a critical mass and a level of comprehensive achievement that needs no excuses or significant ringers from outside to make a good meal. Obviously there have been restaurants cooking midwestern products for a long time, and given that four of the chefs came from within Kahan's company and a fifth was a longtime employee who went off on his own, you could argue how widespread the movement is on our scene-- but on the other hand, given that those restaurants represent a pretty significant chunk of the most-admired restaurants in town, if they
have a movement, there's a movement.
More significant to me, and on a practical basis, isn't the names of the chefs involved but of the farmers whose names I kept hearing as Mike Sula and I followed the progress of the dinner.* Gunthorp, Green Acres, Rasmussen, Nichols-- this is where the critical mass has been reached, that the chefs support the quality farmers enough to keep them going, and the quality farmers produce consistently enough to keep the chefs supplied and satisfied with the level of their product. What we saw last night was that given a great ingredient-- the clean, lushly fatty meat of the mulefoot pig-- as a focus for the meal, these six chefs (actually more across all six restaurants) could produce a coherent meal reflective of a similar approach to showcasing the inherent flavors of the midwest's products at their most heightened and refined, without artifice or gilded pork-lilies, but with plenty of good midwestern stuff like bacon or pickled onions.
And by "coherent" I mean "spectacularly good." Around me I heard comments like "I feel like I've never tasted pork before," and that more than once in relation to different dishes. The chefs had divvied up the meat to give different chefs different opportunities and places to focus, and so each course brought us a different view of what pork, that "wonderful, magical animal," could be, from the organy funk of Vie's cotechino (not as organy-funky as hoped, thanks to the USDA inspector flunking most of the offal at the processor, alas), to the simple clean flavor of a ham chop from Blackbird's Mike Sheerin. For me there were two particular standouts: Vie's cotechino, salty and strong, but leavened by the sweet note of a pickled plum, and the headcheese ravioli in a pork consomme from Avec's Justin Large, the broth a marvelous, slightly lemony shot of concentrated pork savoriness. But there was revelation throughout the meal-- I heard others say they were blown away by Lula's pork belly, amazed at how delectable a cube of almost pure fat could be, or by the snow-white pork rinds that made up part of Blackbird's cheese course, or the deeply comfy rosemary-scented roast-pork satisfaction of The Publican's porchetta.
There was one spectacular dud, not a course but a wine pairing-- an Indian (!) sirah which, evoking comparisons like "burnt soup" and "V-8 juice," did not suggest that India will be replacing Chile or Australia just yet. But otherwise wine pairings (and in The Publican's case, Goose Island Harvest Ale) were well-chosen and enjoyable, service was impeccable at a level of crowding even beyond the likely norm for Blackbird, and all in all, it was a wonderful, magical dinner, basking in the waves of enjoyment which outstanding pork provided, and knowing that just a few seats away were, for once, the farmers who had made our exquisite cityfied pleasures possible. Tremendous thanks to them and to Paul Kahan and all his team for creating an occasion which showcased and honored them and their contributions in so spectacular a fashion (and not least of the heartening aspects of the meal was getting to watch such a bunch of heavyhitters in the kitchen working together side by side so graciously and humbly). * He will post reports on the Reader's Food Chain blog, and eventually have a lengthy piece in the Reader, while I'll have a Sky Full of Bacon podcast about the event at the same time.
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