Chef Week 2017 wrapped up on Sunday, March 12, after a week that looked markedly different on the calendar from the two previous year’s events. There was less of a city-spanning fever pitch, with chefs less likely to be tasked with multiple events on the same calendar day. After a 10-day “week” filled with 35 official events in 2016, Chef Week 2017 spanned eight days and put on only (listen to me, only) — 17 events. Almost half of them were ticketed or some other variation on prix fixe.
This is fine, of course. The idea behind prix fixe is not to make you pay more for what you’re eating, but to establish a baseline for return on investment. And Chef Week should rightly be a chef showcase, and an opportunity for the participants to work with new friends in the local industry. But when the event tally is so significantly diminished, so that a day’s lone Chef Week event is a meal at L’Etoile, there’s a kind of generalized pressure to either spend spend spend, or just skip it and wait for the next day’s events.
On another day, the options were a $60 supper club meal at the Old Fashioned, a $150 tasting menu at the Madison Club or sausages at Natt Spil. For me, and I’m guessing for a lot of people otherwise generally interested in Chef Week, that’s hardly a choice. You go for the sausages because you can pop in whenever, have a bite, soak up the scene and head on your merry way.
So, sadly (because although I’m bagging on them a bit, a lot of the event dinners did look really interesting), my 2017 Chef Week boiled down to one day. Well, technically two.
I started my day with the most important meal of the day and the second-most important meal of the day rolled into one and smooshed between bagel halves. Gotham’s bagel sandwich competition has been a Chef Week favorite of mine from year one, and this time, instead of rewarding the winning chef with a prize, there would be a donation to Planned Parenthood in the winner’s name.
This year’s bagel sandwich contest was a five-chef affair between Gilbert Altschul (Grampa’s Pizzeria), Dan Bonanno (A Pig in a Fur Coat), Dan Fox (Heritage Tavern), Patrick DePula (Salvatore’s Tomato Pies) and Tory Miller (like, everywhere else).
Altschul’s 2015 entry was one of my favorites of that year, but this time around I wasn’t quite feeling his glazed pork belly — sliced too thinly and applied too judiciously — paired with butternut squash purée and kimchi-esque pickled fennel. All on a pumpernickel bagel, it was too dark and funky.
Fox’s and DePula’s could be considered breakfast sandwiches as they included the signature over-medium Gotham fried egg. DePula’s sandwich included serrano ham, pea vines, olive salad and a tomato/garlic aioli, standing savory and acidic flavors in sharp contrast. I chose a sesame bagel for that one.
Of the three, Fox’s was my favorite, though I’m almost certain I didn’t get all the intended ingredients. Egg and a chorizo patty, a disc of crisp chicharron, plus avocado and pickled onion were all there on an onion bagel; cotija cheese and a salsa verde mayo were imperceptible at best, absent at worst. Still delicious.
My 2017 love affair with Dan Fox would continue much later that night, as a friend and I settled in for the late-night barbecue menu at Heritage Tavern. 11 p.m. is a late start for any service, but I like to describe my eating habits as particularly Eurotrash, and no clock can stop me from eating barbecue. We ended up eating until two in the morning, which thanks to daylight saving time instantly became three in the morning. I regret nothing.
The menu was globally inspired, and Fox shared his kitchen with chef Evan Dannells and some other Merchant folks. We loved the idea behind Porn Bread — a pork-studded corn bread, chuckle chuckle — but the pork needed better distribution in the mix. A barbecue version of the Heritage “Old Fashioned” ham sandwich bore just a kiss of coffee in the sauce, and the Filipino-inspired chicken wings were crisp and juicy. What looked to be a grill-charred clementine half provided a really excellent sweet and tart side note when squeezed over the wings.
Less successful but certainly interesting, the char siu halibut collar was dramatically presented but didn’t do much to evoke char siu. Fox told us later in the meal that he didn’t think they came out exactly to what he had in mind. Merchant’s tequila and teriyaki ribs were meaty but too neatly trimmed and cut. The kind of neatness that makes you suspicious of barbecue. They were also a little cool, but the kitchen was swamped, and I don’t hold temperature against them.
Steaming hot, however, was Fox’s barbecue pig tail ssam platter. Two crisp tails, the crunchy skin holding in ropes of tender meat and seemingly endless flows of luxurious pork fat, were served alongside perfect bibb lettuce cups, kimchi and a vinegary scallion-heavy sauce. Fox told us a lot of the late night barbecue menu was something of a tune-up for Heritage’s barbecue event March 20-23, so if you missed it on Saturday, you may find some of those dishes making a return appearance.
I may be weird for relishing scheduling chaos, but one of the appeals of events like the Wisconsin Film Festival or Madison Craft Beer Week is the conflict, the aspect that makes you realize you can’t do everything, but you can make a happy fool of yourself trying to. Bouncing from venue to venue used to be a Chef Week thing, too, and it’s okay if that’s not what the team wants to do anymore. But I kind of missed it this year.