Bacon. To quote an old Beef Council ad, “It’s what’s for dinner.” Unless you live under a rock, you’ve no doubt seen bacon on just about every menu in town—and out of town—and you’ve no doubt heard the popular phrase, “bacon makes everything better.” We’ve got bacon burgers, bacon mac-n-cheese, bacon-infused bourbon and even a new restaurantnamed Bacon.
And while it certainly can put a smile on your face, whether it's simply served as a side to eggs and toast or doctored up as a twist on the classic Manhattan cocktail, all of this bacon, all of the time begs the question: Does bacon really make everything better?
I asked a few of Austin’s notable chefs if this popular pork product was really an ace-of-spades ingredient as the trend would seem to imply, or has it become a crutch item that chefs use in lieu of culinary creativity.
James Holmes, Olivia and Lucy’s
For James Holmes, bacon is beautiful. He even has a bumper sticker that says “BACON” on his truck. But Holmes knows you can also have too much of a good thing if you’re not careful.
“It does seem that everyone has jumped on the bacon bandwagon. Ten years ago it was hard to find pork belly but now anyone can get a belly at the farmer’s market, look online to see how to cure it, and make delicious bacon at home. Let’s face it, bacon is delicious. I think chocolate-covered bacon or calling a naming a restaurant after it might be pushing it a little but it really only boils down to one thing: pork and pork fat are two magical culinary tools that elevate other foods.”
Tyson Cole, Uchi and Uchiko
At Uchi and Uchiko, there are a lot of magical ingredients in the kitchen. And bacon does happen to be one of them. But for James Beard Award winner Tyson Cole, it’s less about using bacon just for the sake of using bacon, it’s about considering every element in a dish to compose the perfect flavor combination in every bite.
“The quality of bacon has improved drastically over the last few years, especially with the popularity of pork belly. The new found popularity has lots of chef's making their own, and experimenting with different cures, salts, spices and techniques in the process. This drive to make ‘better bacon’ has given the meat a new life and an identity on menus beyond its typical role as a side, garnish or wrap. Creating a composed dish using bacon to highlight great seasonal ingredients is when you can see a chef has really thought things through, and that’s the key to using bacon wisely. Homemade bacon with an heirloom tomato is light year's beyond your mother's BLT.”
Bryce Gilmore, Barley Swine & Odd Duck Trailer
One of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs for 2011, Bryce Gilmore proudly includes bacon in some way in his daily menus. But for Gilmore, it’s about finding a way to make it fun and unexpected. Like many chefs, Gilmore makes his own bacon in-house, but he uses it in number of different ways that makes customers reconsider just how diverse it can be.
“Bacon is one of my favorite ingredients. With us, we try to use it in fun different ways. We’ll take our in-house bacon and braise it to give it a different texture. We’ll then use that braising liquid and add it to oatmeal, which gives a whole new meaning to your average breakfast dish. When you’re trying to create a new dish, bacon always pops into a chef’s head, but I really try not to over do it. You can’t be lazy about it. You’ve got to be creative about how you use it."
Shawn Cirkiel, Parkside and Backspace
While Shawn Cirkiel certainly is creative in the way he uses ingredients, when it comes to bacon—which he does use regularly—he insists on being judicious. He even challenges himself to find something else to use to create a similar effect.
“Bacon is a crutch, in a lot of ways. It’s an easy way to add more to a dish and even to make things look like there's more to a dish. But it doesn’t always work as well as you might think. Personally, I think bacon is awesome, which is why we make our own. But we use it to balance out a dish, not overpower it. I also like to try different techniques with other ingredients like nuts, mushrooms, onions, cheese, to mimic flavors, textures and the smokiness you get from bacon. It’s really more about finesse and restraint than anything else."
Andrew Wiseheart, Contigo
Andrew Wiseheart is no stranger to any part of the pig--whether it’s pork belly, ear, hoof, tenderloin, or just plain old bacon. And yes, he makes his own bacon too. But like other chefs who put so much effort into how to best use their ingredients, he’s found the trend to overuse bacon a little annoying. Abusive, even.
“Bacon is a great ingredient that will always have a place at the table in America. But it’s started to become a fall back for amateur and inexperienced chefs and it doesn’t have to be. You have to use restraint. You have to respect the other ingredients you’re using and you have to use them all well. Otherwise, you’re misrepresenting the best part about great food – the flavor. There’s nothing better than a fresh tomato when it’s in season, or a ripe peach picked fresh from a tree. But you have to think about how best to present those specific flavors. I still like bacon as a go-to ingredient for making a dish great, but not at the expense of everything else on the plate.”
So yes, bacon does make almost everything better.
And though some may err on the side of adding it to a dish simply for the sake of having it on the menu, most good chefs know better. Most good chefs know how to use bacon as their culinary friend, rather than as a trendy enemy. And most good chefs know that there are no shortcuts when it comes to great cooking—even if bacon is involved.
James Holmes reminds us that the truth about bacon is simply this: “When you wake up in the morning at your grandma’s house, what is your favorite smell coming from the kitchen, the pancakes, the coffee, the eggs, the toast and that bacon she’s got frying in a cast iron skillet. Plus she probably has a coffee can next to the stove that she keeps any spare bacon drippings in and if your real lucky she’ll use it to make some gravy to pour over your biscuits,”
And that’s what makes bacon so beautiful.
Photos by Bill Sallans