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Poutine Fest Celebrates Canada's 'Late-Night Drunk Food'

By Janet Rausa Fuller | January 25, 2013 8:21am
 Decadent lobster poutine ($16) at the Boarding House, 720 N. Wells St., one of the participants in the inaugural Poutine Fest.
Decadent lobster poutine ($16) at the Boarding House, 720 N. Wells St., one of the participants in the inaugural Poutine Fest.
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Anthony Tahlier

WEST LOOP — If bacon, oyster and sausage fests aren't enough for the city to chew on, another food will soon be on the festival menu: Poutine

The warm, oozing, Quebec-born concoction of fries, gravy and cheese curds will be celebrated and elevated at the inaugural Poutine Fest Feb. 24 at Haymarket Pub and Brewery, 737 W. Randolph St.

The event will be divided into lunch and dinner sessions much like the unrelated but similarly gut-busting Baconfest Chicago, now in its fifth year.

Eleven restaurants, the Publican, Boarding House and EL Ideas among them, will throw down their best version of poutine for five judges. Notably absent from the entries: BadHappy Poutine Shop in River North, which had signed on but has since dropped out.

Proceeds will go to Common Threads, Chef Art Smith's charity.

The fest will almost certainly sell out. Only 100 tickets will be sold per session, and the e-mail list that organizers will use to announce ticket sales at the end of January is up to 1,000 names, said Becca Skoch, one of the organizers. Go to poutinefest.com to sign up for the list.

Ticket prices have yet to be determined, but will include beer and possibly a mixed drink, Skoch said. After all, poutine is "a late-night drunk food," she said. "Chefs are getting off at two in the morning and that's what they eat after cooking all day."

The idea for Poutine Fest was Jay Daly's. By day, Daly works in finance for Jim Beam. By night, he writes the Stockyard Palate dining blog.

Daly said he wanted to highlight not only the dish, which has been popping up on menus around town, but also the depth of culinary talent in Chicago.

"We were not interested in lowest common denominator poutine, and we feel that the folks that have signed on to compete embody the very best elements of Chicago food culture," Daly said.

Daly's day job didn't allow him much time for planning Poutine Fest, so Skoch, a fellow food blogger, and her friends Molly O'Sullivan and Melissa Karlin took over.

Skoch has been surprised by the amount of unsolicited, passionate input from the neighbors up north.

"A lot of chefs from Canada have e-mailed us their feelings on how it should be judged, the ingredients that should be used, almost to the point of being angry," she said. "We're like, 'Uh, this is for fun.' "

Still, the presence of two Canadian judges — Chicago photographer and Montreal native Huge Galdones and chef Cam Dobranski, who is flying in from Calgary for the fest — should boost the legitimacy of the poutine proceedings.

"Every element is important," said Galdones of what makes a winning poutine. "French fries have to be just right. I like them crisp on the tips but soft and soggy on the inside. If I had my way, I'd make it illegal to use shoestrings in poutine. As for sauce, dark, rich, aggressively seasoned and ideally dark chicken stock-based. Squeaky cheese, too."

Skoch, meanwhile, was in Toronto last weekend eating poutine. For research.