Tom Corbett

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Pilot Light: Not Your Grandfather’s Cookout

Ariane Batterberry - July/August 2014

Sometimes, you’re in luck. On Sunday, May 18, the day of Food Arts’ BBQ & Cookout, puffy white clouds scuttled across a dove blue sky, white sails scuttled across Lake Michigan, and the end of Chicago’s Navy Pier looked like a children’s book illustration, complete with views of a candy colored lighthouse perched above the foam of a blue-green sea.

The air was pungent with the smell of grilled meats, and this year the chefs were particularly ingenious with their accompaniments. The English have a long tradition of pointing up meats with something sharp and sweet—chutney with beef, for example, or mint jelly with lamb (because the lamb’s mother probably dined on wild mint). Well, sweet with “meat” almost defined the event. Martial Noguier (Bistronomic) served up marinated pork tenderloin with cervelle de canut (“silk worker’s brain,” an herbed cheese and vinegar spread named after the silk workers of Lyon, France, in the mid-1800s) and fig marmalade. Those figs also figured in Tim Graham’s (Travelle) piri-piri chicken with harissa aïoli and Chris Gawronski’s (Henri) foie gras torchon, which was grilled and served with sea urchin, ras el hanout, Thai basil, apricots, and figs. David Posey’s (Blackbird) pork ribs conveyed the sweetness of a kombucha glaze, and Michael Cairns (Omni Scottsdale) doused his coffee- and pepper-crusted flatiron steak with a snappy pineapple chimichurri. Then there was Frank Dominguez, whose fire-glazed applewood smoked brisket ham was encased in a sweet chile brittle, all hot and crunchy. Steve Jilleba, David Russell, Rudy Smith, and Heinz Lehmann served a smoked Berkshire pork shoulder with a rich honey mustard demi-glace, sweetly drenching white cheddar grits. John Csukor and Spencer Cole prepared Korean pork and fig rillettes with fig mostarda, itself a unique figgy version of honey mustard.

Those meat preparations that were not somehow sweetened ran from the grandly and unapologetically traditional, like Doug Psaltis’ (Bub City) pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw and Richard Farina’s (Moto) barbecued brisket with cornbread puree and baked bean noodles, to brazenly nontraditional, like Bill Kim’s (Belly Q) meltingly smooth Wag­yu, which was smoked and served with black bean salt, or Dirk Flanigan’s (Il Coniglio) barbecued lamb shoulder accompanied with its crispy braised neck, or Andrew Hunter’s teriyaki tsukune (Japanese feather-light chicken meatballs) with baked adzuki beans.

By now, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that this was not your grandfather’s cookout. For sheer imagination, it was breathtaking. And you haven’t heard everything. For seafood lovers, there was Paul Fehribach’s (Big Jones) char-grilled andouille po’ boy with shrimp rémoulade and green tomato pickles, and Justin Hamilton’s lobster ravioli with saffron crema, oven-roasted heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, and toasted saffron leek strings. Which brings me to the Italian-inflected, with Tony Priolo of Piccolo Sogno Due, who served pipettes (little pipes) with roasted peppers and frisée with a sharp tuna/caper sauce, and John Coletta’s (Quartino) knife-cut salsiccia Barese (Italian sausage in the style of Bari), which was served with grano arso crespelle (burnt wheat flour crêpes) and spring pea/dandelion salad.

To cap this phenomenal feast, there were Greg Biggers and Leigh Omilinsky’s (Café des Architectes) “mini pies,” really exquisite little egg cups of banana cream or strawberry/rhubarb (or my favorite, the hot foie gras and peach). And how about this! A grilled open-faced salted caramel ice cream sandwich with smoked bacon and toffee. This masterpiece was the brainchild of a group: Anthony Giannini, Bill Gormley, Jim Churchman, Jody Klocko, Kenny Magana, Tom Preniczky, Tracie Barrett, and Brendan Jones. Finally, chef John Esser laid out a dream cheese board—spicy blue cheese crostini, 12 month aged Asiago, morel/leek Jack, etc.

Of course, everyone was thirsty. To the rescue came Elissa Narow (Vie and Perennial Virant) with sweet, puckering “grilled rhubarb shooters.” I was also soothed by icy buckets of fresh brewed green and Southern sweet teas, and Belgian beer. Finally, there were tables of Rhône wines, and, magically, there seemed to be one to pair with every dish. If all this sounds glorious to you, the recipes will be on our website, as will be the names of our extraordinary sponsors. And turn to Say Cheese for photos!

Chicago, in fact, seems a kind of city of Oz in terms of culinary invention. It has its own wizards—Grant Achatz of Alinea and Homaro Cantu at Moto. Moto’s form of theater is already well-known (as is Alinea’s), but it is still amazing. It would be trite to say that Cantu and Farina’s plates are works of art. Rather, one might say they offer an integrated sensory experience. The dish disingenuously called “Green Almonds” is a canny abstraction, a kind of collage of minced cucumber, heart of palm, nairagi (striped marlin), and sorrel with pink flowers for color and, yes, green almonds. “Flavors of the Ocean,” on my multicourse menu, was an aqueous canvas of tosaka seaweed, kombu, scallops (a point), with crispy sweet chips of both scallop and squid ink, and what one might imagine to be a squishy seabed of coconut puree. For the “Fallen Log” course, I was transported to the deep forest floor, what the French wine lovers call the “fond du bois,” where a fallen log of sweet salsify sat deep in an earth of mushroom puree (which most critics would describe as “earthy” in flavor), from which sprang delicate little flowers and crunchy greens—fiddlehead ferns (naturally, in several senses of the word), peas and pea tendrils, with enoki mushrooms sprouting from this melange of “underfoot” flavors. But perhaps my favorite of all were old-fashioned marshmallows, sitting on picks fitted into the burl of a log, with a fire pit in its heart, complete with flames with which to toast them. When you do, you find their center is melted chocolate—reverse s’mores!

And I remember Chicago when overnight passengers on the 20th Century Limited went to the Pump Room for lunch when it was the only decent place to eat between New York City and “the coast.”

Ariane Batterberry, Founding Editor/Publisher