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Once upon a time, three guys had a crazy idea: What if they created a festival celebrating all things bacon just for pork-lovers like themselves? Fast forward to 2018, and Baconfest is in its tenth year of delivering delicious, creative bacon dishes from some of the best chefs around the Chicagoland area. This annual event has grown immensely since its inception in 2009 – from 10 chefs and 75 attendees that first year to 142 chefs and expected 4,000-plus attendees this year.
“I worry every year that bacon will have jumped the shark,” co-founder Seth Zurer joked, “but people still like to eat it.” He and I met up at Kaiser Tiger to talk about Baconfest’s big anniversary and, naturally, chow down on some hearty bacon bites.
Bacon has been a culinary and cultural phenomenon for the past decade, a force of flavor that has influenced and outlasted trends from cupcakes to cronuts. What is it about this cut of pork, once thought of as just a breakfast side dish, that has given it such long-lasting appeal? Zurer has a simple answer: “It tastes good.”
It’s hard to argue as we feast on chorizo-stuffed dates wrapped in bacon, a bacon board featuring four varieties of the cut, and bacon grenades, miniature versions of Kaiser Tiger owner Pat Berger’s signature bacon bomb. We even got a sneak peek at Kaiser Tiger’s dish for this year’s fest: Tiger Tacos stuffed with house-smoked pepper bacon, pico de gallo, slaw, and the eponymous sauce.
The tacos are a perfect example of why Zurer thinks bacon has stood the test of time and taste buds. “Bacon as an ingredient is unique,” he said. “It provides a delicious foundation for any dish. [My co-founders and I] tried to think of another ingredient that would provide the breadth of possibility that bacon does, but nothing comes close.”
It isn’t for lack of trying. In 2016 the team put on Dumpling Fest, a celebration of dough-wrapped bites from across cultures. However diverse dumplings can be, they still found that category to be too restraining. “Sure, the fillings and casings can change, but eventually you run out of possibilities,” said Zurer. He noticed the same limitations in other food festivals. “Looking at other vertical tasting fests, it’s hard to see the same variety and creativity as with bacon.”
There’s no doubt that Baconfest spawned a new culture of specific food festivals in Chicago, and Zurer is very aware of the changing landscape. “Just like the restaurant community is experiencing, there is starting to be a saturation of events. It’s not enough just to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to have bacon there’ anymore.”
For its tenth year, the festival is keeping things fresh with a few new features. The Old Forester Speakeasy Lounge will offer a VIP-only area to sit and relax while sipping on rare whiskeys. “There will actually be seating after 10 years!” laughed Zurer. Baconfest is also bringing back the People’s Choice award, allowing attendees to vote by text for their favorite dishes while a leaderboard gives live updates on the crowd’s preferred bites. New restaurants, including Birrieria Zaragoza and The Delta, will spice things up.
While new additions to the fest are fun, Baconfest has built a loyal following on the love of pork alone. From the restaurants and chefs who have participated every single year - like Vie, the Signature Room at the 95th, and chef Nathan Sears - to Dan Zemans, who has made it his mission to eat every single Baconfest dish (and trust me, that is an unholy amount of bacon consumed), the passion for this fest and what it delivers is strong and shows no signs of slowing. Zurer knows just how amazing that is. “I’ve had 10 years of doing something fun, something new,” he said. “There are probably things we could do better, but I’m happy. Even if we didn’t do one next year, I’d be happy.”
Baconfest will be serving up all the bacon you can dream of during three sessions on April 6 and 7. Get tickets for the fest on the Baconfest website and see if you could try every international iteration of the pork product.