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Le Grand Tour du Porc: the Reader mulefoot pig dinner

Le Grand Tour du Porc: the Reader mulefoot pig dinner
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  • Le Grand Tour du Porc: the Reader mulefoot pig dinner

    Post #1 - October 20th, 2008, 9:36 am
    Post #1 - October 20th, 2008, 9:36 am Post #1 - October 20th, 2008, 9:36 am
    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.
    Last edited by Mike G on October 20th, 2008, 9:56 am, edited 1 time in total.
    Watch Sky Full of Bacon, the Chicago food HD podcast!
    New episode: Soil, Corn, Cows and Cheese
    Watch the Reader's James Beard Award-winning Key Ingredient here.
  • Post #2 - October 20th, 2008, 9:55 am
    Post #2 - October 20th, 2008, 9:55 am Post #2 - October 20th, 2008, 9:55 am
    I really enjoyed last night's dinner and I appreciate the work that Mike Sula did on this project to bring it to fruition. The dishes were sublime and the wine was fine! What struck me this morning, when the afterglow of last evening's feast had worn off, was that we were not served any of the "good parts" of the pig. While every course was a journey to the heights of deliciousness and creativity and the chefs went out of their way to stretch their culinary chops, I would have liked to taste just a simple piece of pork to compare the basic taste of this breed to what we are normally able to get our hands on. OK. admittedly, the ham came close, but ham is not a cut that I normally eat (except once in a whoile at breakfast). Would it have killed them to fire up a smoker and serve us a couple of ribs, or a small serving of pulled pork or even a couple bites of a simply prepared pork chop? That's the one thing I missed in last night's otherwise spectacular dinner (and, or course, there's the mystery of what happened to all of those shoulders and racks of ribs we never saw).
    Last edited by stevez on October 20th, 2008, 10:03 am, edited 1 time in total.
    Steve Z.

    “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
    ― Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Post #3 - October 20th, 2008, 9:59 am
    Post #3 - October 20th, 2008, 9:59 am Post #3 - October 20th, 2008, 9:59 am
    You had the pork chop meat in the ham chop, and the shoulder in both the cotechino (aka crepinette per the menu) itself, and the country bacon on top of it. The ribs were in the pork consomme-- that is, they were cleaned pretty close and I believe that (and maybe other broths) used those bones.
    Last edited by Mike G on October 20th, 2008, 10:00 am, edited 1 time in total.
    Watch Sky Full of Bacon, the Chicago food HD podcast!
    New episode: Soil, Corn, Cows and Cheese
    Watch the Reader's James Beard Award-winning Key Ingredient here.
  • Post #4 - October 20th, 2008, 10:00 am
    Post #4 - October 20th, 2008, 10:00 am Post #4 - October 20th, 2008, 10:00 am
    I had a spectacular time last night and was meaning to stop to meet the LTH'er's that I recognized, but I was "stuck" finishing my wife's Porchetta and Pork Rinds. Life is hard.

    My favorite courses in order of favorite to least favorite, and, mind you, my least favorite course was still very, very good, were the head cheese ravioli is bacon consomme, the caillette, the porchetta, the pork belly, the country ham, and then the rinds and cheese.

    The communal tables were a great way to meet new folks and by the headcheese course, we came together to request spoons for the table after one of our table mates had successfully lifted the bowl to sip the consomme.

    The different plates of pork showed the versatility of the wonderful animal.
  • Post #5 - October 20th, 2008, 10:04 am
    Post #5 - October 20th, 2008, 10:04 am Post #5 - October 20th, 2008, 10:04 am
    Mike G wrote:You had the pork chop meat in the ham chop, and the shoulder in both the cotechino (aka crepinette per the menu) itself, and the country bacon on top of it. The ribs were in the pork consomme-- that is, they were cleaned pretty close and I believe that (and maybe other broths) used those bones.


    That's true, and those dishes were very good, but none of them featured the pork simply prepared, standing on its own except for the small pieces of country bacon, which were spectacular, but unfortunately only used as a garnish. Mind you, I'm not complaining about the dinner. I'm just saying that it would have been nice to be able to evaluate the pork on its own in the name of food science.
    Steve Z.

    “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
    ― Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Post #6 - October 20th, 2008, 10:36 am
    Post #6 - October 20th, 2008, 10:36 am Post #6 - October 20th, 2008, 10:36 am
    Steve,

    The porchetta was made from the loin, though I could see how you'd be distracted by its envelope of belly fat. :wink:
  • Post #7 - October 20th, 2008, 10:41 am
    Post #7 - October 20th, 2008, 10:41 am Post #7 - October 20th, 2008, 10:41 am
    m'th'su wrote:Steve,

    The porchetta was made from the loin, though I could see how you'd be distracted by its envelope of belly fat. :wink:


    Mike,

    Don't get me wrong. I loved 100% of the dinner. It was revelatory.
    Steve Z.

    “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
    ― Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Post #8 - October 20th, 2008, 10:47 am
    Post #8 - October 20th, 2008, 10:47 am Post #8 - October 20th, 2008, 10:47 am
    stevez wrote: Re: Le Grand Tour du Porc: the Reader mulefoot pig dinner Reply with quote
    m'th'su wrote:
    Steve,

    The porchetta was made from the loin, though I could see how you'd be distracted by its envelope of belly fat. :wink:


    Mike,

    Don't get me wrong. I loved 100% of the dinner. It was revelatory.


    I getcha, brother. Thanks to all who came.
  • Post #9 - October 20th, 2008, 2:23 pm
    Post #9 - October 20th, 2008, 2:23 pm Post #9 - October 20th, 2008, 2:23 pm
    Just a great experience last night and one at which I feel lucky to have been in attendence. I loved all 6 dishes. There were aspects of each that stood out and shined. In the end, my favorite was the one that was in front of me at the time someone asked.

    It's hard -- perhaps impossible -- to put the event into context. It was one of those singular events, like meal at Alinea or a Grateful Dead concert, which come and go in what seems like an instant and are never to be duplicated. So many food-oriented events carry the same potential but don't deliver. But at its core, this was distinctive because those who were involved, from the farmers, to Sula, right on down to the last prep chef, genuinely cared about what was taking place. It was distinctive because it brought together an unlikely group of people in a collaborative effort that will probably never be duplicated. Things change and 5 years from now, when the constituents of last night's event have all progressed down their respective paths, the memory of what was collectively built last night will still endure.

    The seeming simplicity of it all was a ruse. For starters, this was a meal based on a breed of pig that, only a few years ago, was on the verge of extinction. From that precipice, the journey to being featured in this sort of meal required astronomical effort. Can you imagine sleeping with the newly-born litter of piglets because "that's what farmers do"? And that is but one mere detail which was shared with me by farmer Valerie Weihman-Rock last night. The quantity of commitment of those who undertook to "save" this breed, is incalculable. And yet, there we were dining at Blackbird, enjoying what, to the untrained eye, may have looked like just another meal. Appearances can be deceiving.

    The participating chefs' collective experience with such precious ingredients is vast, yet it seemed effortless on the plates. The years of training and amount of knowledge required to transform this animal could be easily discerned in the tasting. Sula certainly made the right choice when he approached Chef Kahan about this endeavor. Not only is Kahan rightly regarded as the 'king of pork' by many in this town but the level of emotion he displayed when discussing the meal revealed so much about how committed he is to farm-to-table dining. The dream team he assembled to prepare this meal is a well-seasoned (pun partially intended) group who make their livings cooking in this mode. The opportunity was placed in the extact right team of hands -- hands which prepare everyday for such opportunities.

    Even for me, a person who is generally more interested in 'getting his grub on' than being educated at the table, the evening had a profound effect. While I'm certainly not naive about where our food comes from, last night's meal connected the living animal to the plate in a way I'd only experienced a few times before. Sure, the flavors, aromas and textures at last night's meal were truly memorable, but the emotion and commitment which powered it all was the most nourishing part. I thank everyone involved for providing such a transformational experience.

    =R=
    Gardening is a bloodsport --Meghan Kleeman

    Why don't you take these profiteroles and put them up your shi'-ta-holes? --Jemaine & Bret

    There's a horse loose in a hospital --JM

    That don't impress me much --Shania Twain
  • Post #10 - October 20th, 2008, 2:47 pm
    Post #10 - October 20th, 2008, 2:47 pm Post #10 - October 20th, 2008, 2:47 pm
    A few pics of last night's sensational food . . .

    Image
    Pork belly, house-cured sardine, local honey, celery, and green apple jam from Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshcilds of Lula Cafe


    Image
    Head cheese ravioli with whole grain mustard pasta, cavolo nero, pork consomme and lemon oil from Justin Large of Avec


    Image
    Roasted crepinette with Tuscan kale sauerkraut, plum and pinot noir jam, pickled onions, country bacon and pork jus from Paul Virant of Vie


    Image
    Braised 'country-style' ham with cippolini onions, matsutake mushrooms, red grapes, and butternut squash-miso from Mike Sheerin of Blackbird


    Image
    Porchetta with lobster mushrooms and black mission figs from Brian Huston of Publican


    Image
    Muenster Gerome with larded brioche, golden raisins, korean pears and grattons from Tim Dahl of Blackbird and Avec

    =R=
    Gardening is a bloodsport --Meghan Kleeman

    Why don't you take these profiteroles and put them up your shi'-ta-holes? --Jemaine & Bret

    There's a horse loose in a hospital --JM

    That don't impress me much --Shania Twain
  • Post #11 - October 20th, 2008, 2:58 pm
    Post #11 - October 20th, 2008, 2:58 pm Post #11 - October 20th, 2008, 2:58 pm
    Great pics and words too, Ronnie.

    Mike Sula has posted where you can try some of what we ate in his Food Chain report.
    Watch Sky Full of Bacon, the Chicago food HD podcast!
    New episode: Soil, Corn, Cows and Cheese
    Watch the Reader's James Beard Award-winning Key Ingredient here.
  • Post #12 - October 21st, 2008, 6:44 pm
    Post #12 - October 21st, 2008, 6:44 pm Post #12 - October 21st, 2008, 6:44 pm
    LTH,

    The Reader Mulefoot meal at Blackbird was one of the more interesting and delicious dinners I have had the pleasure of attending. The hoof to hearth aspect of Mike Sula's Mulefoot educational, camaraderie and teamwork of the talented chefs an object lesson in esprit de corps and course after course of beautiful, thoughtfully prepared astoundingly delicious pig perfect.

    The first course of seemingly simple pork belly a revelation, yielding yet textured belly fat having a clear, clean flavor rather than the mildly diffused taste of lesser pigs. Paring rich pork belly with the fishy salty counterpoint of sardine a riff worthy of a jazz-master.

    Pork belly, house-cured sardine, local honey, celery, and green apple jam from Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshcilds of Lula Cafe

    Image

    An inspirational meal, thanks to all involved, in particular Mike Sula.

    Enjoy,
    Gary
    One minute to Wapner.
    Raymond Babbitt

    Low & Slow
  • Post #13 - October 21st, 2008, 8:03 pm
    Post #13 - October 21st, 2008, 8:03 pm Post #13 - October 21st, 2008, 8:03 pm
    G Wiv wrote:Pork belly, house-cured sardine, local honey, celery, and green apple jam from Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshcilds of Lula Cafe

    Image

    Wow.
    ...defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions." Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis

    Fuckerberg on Food
  • Post #14 - October 21st, 2008, 8:30 pm
    Post #14 - October 21st, 2008, 8:30 pm Post #14 - October 21st, 2008, 8:30 pm
    Kennyz wrote:Wow.


    Exactly!
    Steve Z.

    “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
    ― Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Post #15 - November 7th, 2008, 10:59 am
    Post #15 - November 7th, 2008, 10:59 am Post #15 - November 7th, 2008, 10:59 am
    There's a trailer up for the upcoming coverage of everything that went into this event here. Next Thursday, Mike Sula's story will appear in the Reader's food issue, and my Sky Full of Bacon podcast about it will go up as well.
    Watch Sky Full of Bacon, the Chicago food HD podcast!
    New episode: Soil, Corn, Cows and Cheese
    Watch the Reader's James Beard Award-winning Key Ingredient here.
  • Post #16 - November 13th, 2008, 9:02 am
    Post #16 - November 13th, 2008, 9:02 am Post #16 - November 13th, 2008, 9:02 am
    Mike Sula's Reader piece is here, the first part of the two-part Sky Full of Bacon podcast is here, and a few recipes are here.
    Watch Sky Full of Bacon, the Chicago food HD podcast!
    New episode: Soil, Corn, Cows and Cheese
    Watch the Reader's James Beard Award-winning Key Ingredient here.

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