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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  Fair
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Pork-Off chefs and guests choose pig over pigskin at the Weary Traveler
Porcophiles pack the house to benefit REAP Farm to School program
Earthy, smoky, rich flavors dominated the landscape of pork.
Earthy, smoky, rich flavors dominated the landscape of pork.
Credit:Kyle Nabilcy

For a couple hours on Sunday, while the Green Bay Packers were fighting for their playoff lives, The Weary Traveler put on a good impression of a bar that actually has televisions. Over a hundred people filed hungrily into the front half of the restaurant to take part in the first ever Pork-Off. Chefs from eight kitchens in the Madison area put their best spin on pork shoulder, plus a few bonus goodies.

I made sure to arrive early, about 3 p.m, so I could get some good photos of the setup. I met a friend, and we got some prime seats. Turns out that the early arrival was a very fortunate choice. By 4 p.m., it was clear that the organizers had vastly underestimated the incoming hordes; the line soon stretched out the door and around to Williamson Street.

But really, what could you expect? Putting chefs from the Weary, Restaurant Magnus, Natt Spil, Barriques, Mermaid Cafe, Alchemy, Underground Food Collective and the kitchen at Epic Systems into the same room, giving them pork shoulder and carte blanche to create whatever dish they wanted, and only charging $10 per person for a heaping plateful -- that's a recipe for a massive turnout.

Of course, there's also the cause: REAP Food Group's Farm to School program. Through Farm to School, students are provided healthy snacks, educated about responsible farming and eating, and given the opportunity to engage in fundraiser sales. The daughter of my friend is the recipient of some of these benefits, and she joined us for the meal. Many of the chefs also had young children of their own in attendance.

Driven by passion both personal and professional, these chefs put out an impressive spread of porky goodness. The little plates we were given could barely handle the tasting portions from all of the stations. Organization was haphazard, but a few first-time glitches can be forgiven. The food was enough to make amends.

Earthy, smoky, rich flavors dominated the landscape of pork, standing generally in opposition to the zingy and bright flavors normally associated with barbecue pork and other summery preparations. Alchemy braised its pork with cardamom and juniper; it was accompanied by beets and slaw. Natt Spil's shoulder was braised with chiles and served with shiitake mushrooms over Chinese long-life noodles. Barriques paired its pork with onions, potatoes and turmeric; they also brought chocolate-dipped candied bacon.

Keeping track of all the chefs affiliated with the Weary was a challenge; many chefs emeritus were invited to participate on their own, in addition to the current staff. There was a Szechuan peppercorn, rice wine and prune pork shoulder, topped with pickled beauty heart radish. Another chef made a pork rillette topped with pistachios and a gelée of New Glarus beer. A third dish was smoked and braised with fennel. Current Weary Traveler chef Joey Dunscombe used Lake Louie Arena Premium Pale Ale in his braise, alongside poblano peppers, tomatoes and garlic.

There were some deviations from the winter flavor formula, however. Restaurant Magnus braised its pork with Dr Pepper, fennel and parsnips. Epic's chef used Honeycrisp apples and sausage as well as Jordandal Farms pork, and served it with a side dish of skewered curry bacon. And the Underground Food Collective, never ones to be bound by convention, turned their pigs into a pair of sausages -- at first glance they appeared to most resemble a sopressata toscana and a Spanish salchichón.

Mermaid Cafe took inspiration from the farthest distance, offering up a Balinese roast pork (babi guling) with ginger, garlic and shallots and steamed with banana leaves.

With all this meat on one plate, and a huge crowd pressing in -- the line didn't die down until 5:30 p.m. -- it became slightly harder to keep each little serving distinct from its neighbors. The Dr Pepper pork was sweet, tender and caramelized, while the babi guling was easily the spiciest bite on the plate. The hot pink pickled radish made the Szechuan pork a standout, as did Natt Spil's lengthy, flash-cooked noodles. The pork rillette, a strong dish conceptually, was inexplicably bland.

While the rules for selecting a winner limited diners to the pork shoulder dishes, there was definite sentiment that the curry bacon skewer was the best bite to be had. Phoebe, the youngster at our table and unofficial Junior Correspondent to The Daily Page, confirmed this; she also found herself loving the candied bacon despite initial misgivings. I preferred the chocolate-covered variety, but she liked the plain version. She and I agreed on our favorite -- Natt Spil's pork with Chinese noodles.

When all the votes were counted, though, there was a clear victor. Mermaid Cafe's babi guling, perhaps benefiting from being distinctly spicy, took the crown with 23 votes. Magnus' Dr Pepper pork took a somewhat distant second with 15 votes, and chef Dunscombe's poblano-tomato pork earned 14 votes and third place for the home team. The winning chef received first choice from a table full of wines, beer, and a giant ham; the rest followed suit.

The crowd was huge. The cause was worthy. Everyone was happy; my friend described it as a social high, a sense of joy and excitement rising at a geometric rate. We could have all been watching the Packers game, but it wouldn't have ended as well (of course the Pack lost in overtime, 51-45) and the food wouldn't have been nearly as good. Best of all, REAP Food Group will have made a tidy haul for Farm to School, and I got to eat bacon on a stick.

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