Chalkboard Chef Brings Home the Bacon

By Patty Wetli | Friday, March 25, 2011

The Chalkboard art changes every month and doubles as the restaurant's menu. Photo by Patty Wetli.

Bacon might seem a strange obsession for a vegetarian such as myself. Unlike the organic and locavore crazes, here was one food trend I thought I could ignore. But then it started showing up in doughnuts and chocolate, ruining perfectly good meatless options.

The power of bacon would not be denied.

To better understand why bacon is the new cupcake, I turned to an expert, Chef Gilbert Langlois.

Along with his wife, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Langlois is co-owner of Chalkboard (4343 N. Lincoln). He also happens to be one of the original participants in Baconfest.

If you haven’t heard of Baconfest, it’s a day-long celebration of all things bacon. Bacon foods, bacon cocktails, bacon activities. Basically, if it oinked, you’ll find it there. This year’s event is scheduled for April 9 at the UIC Forum but if you’re planning on a major pig out, you’d better already have a ticket. The 2,000 available slots sold out in 22 minutes.

“So many people are asking, ‘Can you sneak me in?’” Langlois says. One or two friends he might be able to pass off as assistants, but adds, “I can’t have 17 people behind the table.”

The current frenzy is a far cry from Baconfest’s humble beginnings. Langlois remembers receiving a call a couple of years ago from Andre Pluess, a friend of Laidlaw’s and Baconfest founder. “He said, ‘Do you think you know enough people that we could do a bacon fest?’ I said, ‘I think so, if you can get sponsors.’”

About a dozen restaurateurs eventually jumped on board, including Paul Kahan of Blackbird who suggested his pork-friendly Publican for the fest’s location, between lunch and dinner seatings.

“We only offered 65 tickets, but literally within months of announcing the event, bacon just exploded,” Langlois recalls. “It was such a big hit. We were all really surprised how excited people were about it.”

He and his fellow chefs were caught off guard partly because while the public has only recently gone gaga for the cured meat, it’s long been a secret weapon in professional kitchens. “Bacon’s like the candy of meats,” Langlois says. “If something doesn’t taste good, you just add bacon or wrap it in bacon.”

Langlois occasionally waits tables. "You let the food, your charisma and the room take care of people," he says. Photo by Patty Wetli.

What does bacon have that, say, salami doesn’t? For starters, it fires the taste buds on a number of levels—there’s the undeniable appeal of fat, the smoky flavor, the indefinable quality of umami and a crispy texture. Bacon also hits an emotional note. “It sparks that childhood memory of food,” Langlois says.

The challenge for chefs like Langlois, particularly during Baconfest, is to develop ever more innovative uses for the meat.

Though Langlois is no stranger to pork—pork belly often appears on Chalkboard’s menu—for the festival, he needs a dish that’s easy to transport and serve in individual portions.

“Last year we did bacon ice cream with bacon cotton candy. It involved a deep fryer and coffee grinder.”

You probably shouldn’t try this at home, but if you do, you didn’t get the recipe from us: First Langlois fried the bacon and once it was extremely hot, he put it in a coffee grinder. After grinding at high speed, somehow, magically, the fat and protein turned to fluff.

“It was an accident. Originally I thought the bacon would crumble,” he says, noting that he broke four coffee grinders in the process.

“Sometimes when I’m in the kitchen, I just think, ‘What if?’” Langlois says. “There’s no way of making a mistake if you don’t try.”

This year Langlois is toying with the notion of a Manhattan Bacon Milkshake Bubble Tea. Ingredients include bourbon, sweet vermouth, bacon vanilla milkshake and tapioca.

While this particular concoction won’t turn up at Chalkboard, Langlois will whip up a Manhattan Milkshake upon request. It’s not on the menu, but those in the know can order one. “It’s kind of a culty thing,” Langlois says.

It’s typical of Langlois’ process to trust his instincts versus a recipe. “I’ve always had a palate in my head to know what food should taste like, of what goes with what,” he says.

One of the rare instances of his palate leading him astray: beef tongue. Langlois is a huge fan of this particularly succulent cut of cow, but he’s had a hard time convincing diners to give it a try.

“People are missing the boat,” he says. “They would like it if they didn’t know what it was. It’s just another part of the animal.”

OK, so if beef tongue isn’t going to be the next bacon, what is?

Langlois dismisses foie gras as “boring” and the chemical foam stuff as “passé.” Though partial to pork ears, he acknowledges, “No one’s going to buy them.” A friend of his recently suggested chitterlings as an up and comer, to which Langlois responded, “I don’t think so.”

Instead, he predicts the next big thing will have less to do with a particular ingredient (relax, bacon, you’re still king) and more to do with the dining experience in general. Langlois foresees a stronger connection between diners and chefs, with chefs strolling out to your table to customize a presentation or dish just for you.

"I think we're a place where people want to get away from the insanity," says Langlois.

“If we’re the artist, let us be the artist,” Langlois says.

Improvisation is already a hallmark of Chalkboard, where the menu, scrawled on the eponymous chalkboard, changes frequently, often on the fly.

Given his surname, one might suspect Langlois perfected his high-wire act in the bistros of Paris. It’s a misperception he’s happy to foster—“I wouldn’t say that it hurts”—but in actuality, he grew up in Mokena, Ill., and trained at Joliet Junior College, though his real culinary education began at home.

His mother often enlisted young Gil to assist with pasta making. “I was the drying rack,” he says, demonstrating the way she’d drape lasagna noodles over his outstretched arms.

His grandmother, who hailed from Sicily, was also an early influence. “She was a wonderful cook,” he says. In addition to inheriting her talent in the kitchen, Langlois also inherited her recipes—seriously, she left them to him in her will.

“Those are sacred,” he says, “and tucked away.”

Perhaps he’ll pass them on some day to his son, Owen, who was two days old when Chalkboard opened and is now 4 ½.

Langlois gives Owen the run of the place, dispelling the myth that Chalkboard’s fine dining is incompatible with kid-friendly. (“We’ll clean up your Cheerios—it’s OK.”)

“He loves to cook squid and eat it on a stick,” Langlois says of his mini-me. Owen also helps out in the front of the house, polishing the silverware and setting out plates. When he’s tall enough, Langlois has plans to put him on dishwashing duty. “Does that break child labor laws?”

Assuming there’s a Chalkboard to run in 20 years, Owen would be well advised to stick to his father’s philosophy of what makes for a successful restaurant. “Buy good product, get it hot and put it on a plate.”

And don’t forget the bacon.

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