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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

BBQ & Barrels or How I Finished My Summer

A giddy sense of anticipation propelled me through the front dock doors of Goose Island Beer's new barrel house on the sticky and humid last Saturday of Summer.  Yes, my eagerness was partially because I could smell the salivate worthy aroma of fire roasted heritage pork being grilled by some of the tops chefs in Chicago.  The prospect of drinking freshly poured glasses of Goose Island beer didn't hurt either.  But, between you and me, I was most excited about just stepping foot into the football field sized building housing rows upon rows upon rows of weathered looking, repurposed barrels.  This was the Nirvana of beer geerkery.  The Holy Land for craft snobs.   The Asgard for thirsty people every where.

The last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark played in my head as I wandered down aisle after aisle of wooden barrels, some filled and some still waiting for their chance  to shine in the greater scheme of things.  Hastily handwritten signs taped to the ends of  the rows indicated what each barrel was filed with (or waiting to be filled with in some cases.)  There was the Lolita section, the BCBS area and the elusive Rare zone among others.  Along the far wall was a series of  saran wrapped lots of already packaged cases of Bourbon County Bourbon Stout just waiting for their November debute.  Every so often I'd spy a slick, tar like spill on the cement floor under a lower rack of barrel.  And while I resisted the urge to lick the partially aged stout off the ground, I did smell it at least once.

But the fact of the matter is that I wasn't there just to tip toe through the tulips of aging BCBS & Sisters Sours.  Goose Island was the host of Chicago's stop on the COCHON5555 Heritage BBQ Tour.  Cochon 555 is a ticketed traveling bar-be-que competition with the purpose of raising awareness of the sustainability of heritage breed pigs in the culinary world. It was designed be an afternoon of tasty draft beer provided by Goose Island, intriguing cocktails created by distilleries such as Templeton Rye, Four Roses Bourbon and Buffalo Trace and, well, expertly prepared grilled heritage pork.  I know, I lead such a difficult life.

Five chefs from each city on the stop are given five different heritage pigs to do with what they will grill-wise and are judged in competition to determine exactly who the head hog is (so to speak).  The chefs competing that Saturday were: Mexique's Carlos Gaytan (of TV's Top Chef fame), Laughing Bird's Crissy Camba (also a Top Chef alumni), Big Star's Cary Taylor, Fat Rice's Abraham Conlon and Das Radler's Nathan Sears.  And while I was well aware of the fame of each these restaurants, I'd never had the opportunity to enjoy anything prepared by any of them before this event.  This meant that I was able to go in with no expectations or clear favorites.  Which was good, because the abundance of food available made it impossible to eat everything there (but to be clear, I was not one of the judges.)  Full disclosure and my only regret was that I ended up missing das plates from Das Radler completely.

The food area, located just outside the warehouse's backdoor under a shaded dock,  was lined with smokey booths manned by each chef and their hard working staff.  And by hard working, I mean men and women who cooked on hot grills for hours on end during a day that would make Satan himself ask for a frosty pitcher of ice water.  In addition to their competition dish, the restaurants each provided an array of small plated tidbits for the guests to enjoy. It reminded me of a large tapas restaurant with a somewhat schizophrenic identity crisis. 

With Goose Island providing an amazing assortment of their beers on tap, from the food friendly Sisters Sofie & Matilda to their special series brews like Green Line & The Ogden (check out my review of The Ogden here) to their mainstay 312 ale, it was easy to try a different beer pairing with each chef prepared dish. Personally, I found that Sofie's soft saison qualities worked wonderfully with Big Star's slightly sweet yet still spicy tacos as well as with the pork filled empanadas from Mexique. I also discovered the joy of drinking a Matilda with a plate of Fat Rice's kimchi.   I also think that a pale ale, such as Green Line, could have worked with the vinegar fermented pickle notes in Fat Rice's dish as well.
But the most surprising pairing of the day, for more reasons than one, was Laughing Bird's stickey rice and blood sausage bowl enjoyed with a glass of Goose Island's BCBS aged in Templeton Rye barrels.  Yes, you heard me.  Blood sausage and BCBS Templeton Rye.   I know, right?  It seems so wrong even as I type this sentence (how meta.)  Now, I'm Irish and have been well versed in the aviodance of black pudding since an early age.  I'm that person who is always warning the newbies in the Irish Breakfast food line that "It's not real pudding!  Don't be fooled!  It's Soylant Green!"  That last part never fails to make my mom cringe and regret ever teaching me to talk.  Anyway, Crissy Camba must be some sort of culinary wizard because the shallow bowl of this meaty & lightly spiced  pool of blood sausage witchcraft, when combined with the starchy (and shockingly pink) sticky rice and the mellow yet slightly sweet with a kick of spice BCBS Templeton Rye was delicious.  While I'll never become a black pudding aficionado, my mind was expanded a smidge at least.  Now to just get those damn Irish Breakfasts to serve BCBS Templeton Rye...

Inside the warehouse, out of competition in the very special VIP area of the event, was the Pilot Light section quartered off by two rows of empty barrels.  Pilot Light (link here for more information) is a charitable organization headed by local culinary greats Matthias Merges the executive chef of Yusho, Paul Kahan of Blackbird, The Publican and Big Star fame and Jason Hammel the proprietor of Nightwood.  These are some heavy hitters in the Chicago culinary world using their abilities to give back to Chicago Public School students.  As Chef Kahan explained to me, the objective of Pilot Light is to educate the students, through lesson plans, interactive classroom activities and chef visits, exactly where their food came from (apparently Mariano's is not the correct answer, kids)  and why it's important to understand/respect the subsistence  that we fuel our bodies with.  Honestly, I like their take on food education.  There are other, better established organizations that concentrate on teaching the youth about how to eat.  I get the feeling that knowing exactly why we eat what we eat is just as important in raising kids to be healthy.        

Now, since I had Paul Kahan cornered, I took the opportunity to ask him what he would pair with his event dish of watermelon cubes, razor thinly sliced swordfish and feta cheese.  I suggested the fruity and peach forward Halia (of the Goose Island Sour Sisters fame) to offset the saltiness of the cheese and compliment the fruitiness of the watermelon.  Chef Kahan surprised me with his answer, however.  He personally would drink the good old standby of 312 with his dish.  He stated that the qualities of a soft, easy going wheat beer made it his go to beer of choice for dishes like this.  So, beer snobs of the world, take note.  One of the most craft beer knowledgeable chefs in the city drinks 312 with his meals.

As the evening came to a close, Nathan Sears of The Radler, already stein deep into some Goose Island ale, was named as the winner of the grilling competition.  I'll be honest, it wasn't made exactly clear what he won. I gathered that the loot consisted of a high school VIP trophy, a table of Breville kitchen equipment, a few bottles of scotch (one was Templeton Rye at least, so that was worth an afternoon's effort in my opinion)  and bragging rights of besting two former Top Chef contestants. But somehow it didn't really matter what the prize was.  It was an end of summer extravaganza of delicious food enjoyed with a plethora of Goose Island beer.  The winners, as cliche as it may sound, were all of us there.  I spent an afternoon with unlimited Goose Island beer (including the much sought after BCBS Templeton Rye), bite sized creatively prepared food and great conversation.  I could think of far worse ways to spend the last weekend of Summer.