Here’s something that all chefs should know: judicious use of bacon is powerful kitchen magic. This humble staple is built on four simple pillars: pork, salt, smoke and patience. It has no equal in the kitchen. A pinch of bacon in collusion with a poached egg transforms nearly inedible frisée into one of the world’s most delicious salads. A pot of plain lentils is pretty dreary sustenance, but if cooked with a few ounces of diced bacon (and its rendered fat), you have a luxurious, satisfying meal. A clambake implies sunburn and a warm beer; introduce bacon and you are noshing Clams Casino at the Ritz Carlton. The lesson is clear: Bacon doesn’t need you. You need bacon.
Recently, bacon’s magic appears to have turned dark, appearing with alarming, head-scratching frequency. We live in a world where you can get an ice cream sundae sprinkled with bacon bits at a chain restaurant. At trendy bars, foodies happily swig back Manhattans full of bacon grease (um, hork?). Baconnaise, bacon candy, bacon soda, bacon cupcakes — even bacon lube. Bacon has become ubiquitous.
This peculiar addiction can be traced to the moment when a few innovative chefs slipped bacon into previously unthought-of preparations. Heston Blumenthal’s maple-bacon ice cream at the Fat Duck and Grant Achatz’s “bacon trapeze with apple leather” at Alinea both come to mind. Sure, these dishes appeared on the menus of two of the world’s most exclusive restaurants, but it was back in the early 2000s. These experiments must be viewed in context — on the leading edge of culinary exploration (at the time). In this elite realm of true invention, where few eat and even fewer cook, you might consume hundreds of ingredients, each massaged to its peak, during the course of a meal. The bacon appears in scant portions, sometimes as just one of seven (or more) components on a plate. These dishes would themselves appear as part of 15 or more courses on a tasting menu. Yet, despite sharing the stage in these dishes, as in our humble pot of lentils, the unexpected use of bacon is what shone.
Fast forward a few years and of course we’ve missed the whole point. We took the power of bacon and let it go to our heads. What did the hungry American see? Bacon ice cream! Nomz! Yes, nomz indeed! But I beseech you to pump the brakes before we careen gluttonously off the precipice; a bunch of greasy-fingered Thelmas and Louises.
You will find no greater proponent of bacon than me, but bacon needs no champion. Bacon is the champion. I propose we go back to a position of respect for bacon’s powerful magic with judicious use, a restrained vision and a measured hand. Let us lift bacon up, but do so to humbly return it to its rightful pedestal. We should return reverently to take only what we need — no more, but certainly no less.
— Chad Gibson is the kitchen manager at 12 Bones Smokehouse, rarely wrong and often drunk on a bicycle. Gibson tweets @Mayor_of_BBQ