Bacon is getting a whole new sizzle on the gourmet scene these days — would you believe chocolate bacon Fudgsicles? — and Russell Bird is making sure Alberta gets its due.
The Sherwood Park man represented his country in the bacon category at the World Food Championships in Florida last month and reports things have never looked better for everyone’s favourite cured meat.
“Bacon has been a hot spot in cooking the last three years,” said Bird. “I saw bacon desserts at the WFC that would blow your mind.”
Bird, a marketing specialist in promotional products, is also doing his part to add to bacon’s culinary canon — an effort that began last year when he and wife Jocelyn, also an accomplished cook, wound up with 16 pounds of bacon after a work-related swap.
“We get together with three other couples who love food and have these ‘fests,’ judging each other’s entries. So we decided to have a Baconfest. I made a bacon salad, and my wife made sushi with bacon. Her dish won.”
The concept was resurrected when Bird, who had won a couple of ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen cooking contests, was invited to compete in the Canadian Food Championships, part of the Taste of Edmonton promotion, this summer.
“Initially I said no, because I didn’t want to lose, being up against pro chefs,” said Bird.
But the opportunity was too good to pass up, so Bird set out to perfect his wife’s creation, testing different types of bacon.
“Some were more or less fatty, while there was a lot of variability in flavour,” he said. “We were looking for a more neutral-flavoured bacon, with a medium fat content and a standard thickness to help with the rolling. Presentation made up 15 per cent of the marks.”
The Canadian championship was just days before Jocelyn was expecting their third child, so her dad, Ron Yoneda, stepped in as Russell’s ‘sous chef.’
The duo perfected the process for their first-round entry, a butter-poached lobster tail bacon sushi roll. The second round required using maple syrup, so they created a sushi roll with the bacon and rice glazed in maple, and traditional tomago cooked eggs in the centre, also enhanced with maple. The lobster tail sushi came fourth and their breakfast entry first, giving them a third-place overall finish. The top two teams earned a berth in the world championships, but when one couldn’t make it, Bird and his father-in-law joined 18 Canadian teams competing in the various categories. The event attracts hundreds of teams competing for a $100,000 grand prize.
“For an amateur cook, I figured that was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Bird.
Using 25 pounds of President’s Choice Blue Menu natural wood-smoked bacon (which Loblaws shipped to Florida for him), Bird created two dishes. The first category — a ‘structured build’ — was a bacon dumpling, and his green onion cake with bacon and fennel was judged 14th best overall. His now signature bacon and egg sushi grabbed 13th spot.
“We wound up just a half-point out of the Top 10,” said Bird, who also got a taste of the World Barbecue Championships, held at the same time.
That whetted his appetite for more pork product experimenting.
“Barbecue is my first love, but I’d never thought about competing in it. There are growing barbecue competitions in Alberta now, like Porkapoolooza in Edmonton.”
While the juices are flowing as Bird ponders exploring barbecue cooking contests, he’s already dreaming up more bacon possibilities.
“We get a bye into the Canadian Food Championships next year since we were Top 5 in bacon, so my brain is already going on what I want to cook. I may compete in other categories with my wife, but I’m sticking with my father-in-law for the bacon category.”
He’s also become a bacon ambassador.
“I’ve promoted bacon heavily on my Twitter feed, and since March, my own personal bacon consumption has been through the roof,” he said. “While that may not affect Alberta pork consumption a ton, there is a multiplication factor to consider from all these bacon competitions.”