Sky Full of Bacon

In this Sky Full of Bacon video produced for the Good Food Festival, I visit an organic farm in Michigan to see how they’ve made connections through the festival— and why farming matters, to them and to us. (13:44)

Chicago’s Good Food Festival, now in its 10th year, connects food producers with investors, advisers, sellers and customers. I visit Big Head Farm, an organic blueberry farm in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and talk to farmers Karen and Jody Warner about how the festival has helped them make connections and grow— and why they chose the life of a farmer in the first place. (13:44)

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In this Sky Full of Bacon I embed with a barbecue competition in downstate Illinois to experience the world of championship BBQ teams.

Go inside the world of competitive barbecue in this edition of Sky Full of Bacon. Mike Mills of Murphysboro, Illinois was co-captain of the winningest team in BBQ history, three time Memphis in May Grand World Champions, and 2012 was the 25th anniversary of his BBQ competition Praise the Lard. Meet the teams, hear their secrets, and join in the camaraderie and tension of competition as 75 teams compete for the title and demonstrate how BBQ brings people together. As Mike Mills likes to say, “I’m pretty sure the spaghetti people don’t get together like this.” (26:58)

Here’s the site for 17th Street Bar & Grill, sponsor of the contest, and for this year’s competition which will be September 19-21. Here’s Mike Mills’ and Amy Mills Tunnicliffe’s book Peace Love & Barbecue.

I shot both stills and video there— for basically about 28 hours straight except for sleep, something I plan not to do again— and here’s the original slideshow I put up right afterwards at Grub Street Chicago. (Don’t look at it until after the movie if you want to preserve the suspense of who wins, though.) Dave Raymond of Sweet Baby Ray’s— who’s in the film briefly when Duce’s Wild is brought the news of its results— also posted a very moving firsthand account of the contest, using my pictures, here.

As it says at the end, I’ve made other films about barbecue. Here’s one about African-American barbecue in Chicago; here’s one about Texas barbecue.

In the second installment of a series devoted to real Chicago places and people, I talk with John Veliotis, of Bridgeport hot dog stand and neighborhood center Johnny O’s, sharing stories of the old neighborhood and looking at two unique South Side treats, the Mother-in-Law and the breaded steak sandwich.

For Sky Full of Bacon’s 20th episode, I take a trip to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands— and find the same issues there that farmers, chefs and diners face in the midwest, but with palm trees.

Eating locally, farm to table, ethnic food cultures— this time the subject matter of Sky Full of Bacon finds a new, tropical location. I’m invited to the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but go beyond the fancy events in the resorts to see the whole picture of food on this small island (pop. 40,000). From beer-drinking pigs to a rainforest farm which sees farming in terms of how it affects both land and ocean, it’s a picture both familiar and exotic. (33:25)

Here’s the St. Croix Food & Wine Experience site.

Here’s ARTfarm on Facebook.

Here’s Jason Kessler, who’s in my video, writing at Food Republic about two of the places in the video, the market and Ridge to Reef Farm. The top photo in the market piece will look very familiar once you’ve seen the video.

The fifth and final chapter of Finding Grace, my series about the creation of Curtis Duffy’s Grace, is here:

Watch 4th-generation Italian grocer Jim Graziano wrestle with an 85-lb. parmigiano-reggiano cheese as he tells his family business’s story. (7:26)

The fourth chapter of Finding Grace, my series about the creation of Curtis Duffy’s Grace, is here:

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Former underground dinner chef Iliana Regan talks about foraging for her new restaurant, Elizabeth. (5:32)

Video produced for the Chicago Reader to go with Julia Thiel’s profile of Regan, which is here. If you want to see another movie about foraging, check out this past Sky Full of Bacon video.

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Two weeks before closing for good, Charlie Trotter held a $2500-a-plate blowout for longtime customers, and I was invited to record it (and dine there) and interview guest chefs Sean Brock and Nathan Myhrvold. (Here’s more about the night at Grub Street Chicago.)

Last Night at Charlie’s from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

So how was it? I hadn’t been to Trotter’s since 1988 (it was already famous though only less than a year old) and so I have no real standard of comparison for his food. The star, undoubtedly, was Myhrvold, whose tricks of transformation like the centrifuged pea flavor or the liquid caprese salad were stunning, injections of pure flavor almost freed of their corporeal form. I don’t necessarily think that’s entirely a good thing— we’re getting close to the old jokes about futuristic steak dinner in a pill form— but as magic tricks and thought provokers these were astoundingly good, and also satisfying as dishes (he’s not just capturing flavor but also body, form, in different form). Brock’s best dish (he also did a pleasant but unsurprising chocolate dessert) was sous-vided catfish, amazingly clean and silky, with butter beans and lovage puree, but it needed a little twist of pepper or something— and that’s what a number of people have said about his food, that it often isn’t sharpened up to as fine a point as is typical in Chicago kitchens. Tetsuya Wakuda did a crab salad that was, as I think I said in the article, like the best takeout Chinese you ever tasted, but both his and Trotter’s (or chef de cuisine Michael Rotunno’s) dishes seemed on the subtler side, until we got to Trotter’s beer-can squab, which was on a tripe ravioli that was as good an earthy-funky dish as I’ve ever had from Paul Virant or his ilk.

The room, both architecturally and in terms of the crowd, was very 80s-90s money, surely the highest per-capita wealth of any crowd I’ve ever been in; I’ve heard things about service slipping at Trotter’s of late (like from Steve Dolinsky) but all I can say is, for this crowd it could not have been more on point, as good as I’ve ever seen. The wine, much of it brought in by collectors attending the dinner, was incomparable, at least as far as my experience (which obviously is many steps below that of many people there) is concerned.

And Trotter? He was ready to be done with interviews and greet his guests, he made that clear by not responding to my questions but razzing me. Some interviewers seem to get bent out of shape by him doing that. Some may, in fact, write three-part articles after feeling dissed by Trotter. I have no ego as an interviewer, I am happy to ask what seems like a dumb question if it will get someone talking, so it didn’t bother me. The video shows what I genuinely saw about the warmth between Trotter and his staff; that I did not personally feel it is the least interesting thing imaginable about the night. He is who he is, and I think this video is truthfully who he was on one night, at least, of the 25 years his restaurant was open.

The third chapter of Finding Grace, my series about the creation of Curtis Duffy’s Grace, is here:

Finding Grace 3: Plates from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

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