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'Outlaw' Bacon a Guilty Pleasure

By Keith Griffith | November 28, 2012 6:54am | Updated on November 28, 2012 8:38am

LOGAN SQUARE — By his estimate, Drew would need six separate licenses to legally operate his meat-curing business, Flesh for Food.

Until he gets them, he’s stuck operating his kitchen as an outlaw, curing his craft bacon at an undisclosed location and discreetly distributing the illicit pork belly through delivery orders and clandestine food events. He also prefers, naturally, not to disclose his last name.

Drew, 32, grew up on the northwest side in Belmont Central, and in his 20s worked as a cook at Lula Cafe, where he got his first exposure to whole-hog butchery and meat curing.

“I got so sick of working at restaurants, cooking the same hamburger two or three hundred times a night,” he said, lamenting how repetitive a line cook’s job can be, even at upscale restaurants. Among others, Drew has worked at The Southern in Wicker Park, and Logan Square’s Michelin-starred Longman & Eagle.

So in April, Drew struck out on his own, founding the craft meat-curing company Flesh for Food with his girlfriend, Amanda, who handles the administrative side of the business.

With support from Drew’s network of foodie friends, the business is growing.

“It’s the best bacon I’ve ever had in my entire life,” said Mickey Neely, chef at Scofflaw. “There’s a nuance and depth of flavor, more than just salt and smoke. I wish they could get legal so we could serve it at the restaurant.”

Drew and Amanda say that demand for the illicit bacon is steady enough to support a weekly batch of about 50 pounds, which they deliver for $12 per pound and sell at special events around town. Using pork belly from a family farm in Michigan, Drew cures the meat for seven to 10 days, packing it in a mixture of salt, peppercorn, brown sugar, cinnamon and thyme. A second refrigerator in his home is dedicated to the operation.

Until a neighbor threatened to call the cops on him, Drew smoked his bacon on a grill in his Logan Square apartment’s back courtyard. Now he smokes the pork belly at a location he’s hesitant to discuss, using woodchips from the barrels that Goose Island uses to brew Bourbon County Stout, which he secures through a back-channel connection at the Chicago brewery.

One regular customer is Wicker Park resident Tom Gustafson, 32.

“You can really taste the smoky, bourbon-y flavor of the barrel wood,” he said.

Gustafson added that he buys the bacon in 2-pound blocks to slice it as thick as he likes, cooking some straight in the skillet and using the rest in soups, salads and pasta dishes.

“It also lasts a lot longer than most of the stuff you’d buy in the store,” he said, speculating that Drew’s natural curing method preserves the meat more effectively.

As their outlaw bacon operation grows, Drew and Amanda seem optimistic about dealing with regulators when the time comes.

“If we get to the point where the city wants a cut, that mean’s we’re doing OK,” Amanda said. “That will be an affirmation.”

Despite this optimism, Drew and Amanda have entered into territory that city and state agencies decisively police. After the Chicago Reader published an account of the city’s growing underground meat-curing movement in 2009, the state's Department of Agriculture raided one of the restaurants mentioned in the story, celebrity-chef Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill.

More recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Gary McCarthy in July announced a list of businesses that the city planned to target with code violations in response to alleged connection to gang activity. One Wicker Park taqueria on the list was accused of illegally curing meat in their basement.

"Home-prepared food is prohibited from being sold or provided to the public,” said Chicago Public Health Department spokeswoman Quenjana Adams. Citing the state’s Cottage Food Law, Adams said that vendors at a farmers’ market are the only exception to this rule.

Even without a stall at the local farmers’ market, Drew and Amanda are looking for ways to expand. One idea would have them peddling their bacon from a food cart outside of bars, catering to the late-night crowd. In July, the City Council passed a new food truck ordinance that allows onboard cooking, but restricts the trucks’ hours and range of activity.

But Amanda’s research turned up bad news: selling prepared food from a non-motorized cart remains verboten.

Drew grinned as Amanda listed the legal roadblocks to the cart idea.

“I’m gonna do it anyways,” he said.