It felt like we walked into an episode of "Top Chef Cocktail Party." Standing at the front of the room behind a very long table were more than a dozen men and women dressed in slick black coats, their chests puffed out like a drill team receiving an award.
I was handed a flower bud and told to put it in my mouth. It sizzled on my tongue, retreating into a numbness that reminded me of spicy Sichuan peppercorns. Apparently this was the first course of our dinner: the "mineral" element. (The six-course meal would take us through all the taste sensations like salty, bitter, umami.) The buzz button flower was paired with something called a "lemongrass citrus mezcal buzz boba," which looked suspiciously like a vodka screwdriver.
There was a short speech, and then suddenly all the chefs sprang up and bustled about the dining room, prepping fancy plates and running them out to tables themselves. The atmosphere began to relax and take on a fraternal vibe, less formal and more like we were being initiated into a cool new club; a club that revolved around weird things you could do with pork?
El Tour de Tastebuds was the third in a series of "Snout-to-Tail" dinners at The Carriage House downtown, Janos Wilder's events venue for City of Gastronomy promotions. While each dinner had a different theme, the general idea was the same: meal as travelogue, with courses from all over the world tied together by the unifying element of pig. ("Pork floss" cotton candy for dessert?!)
I later found out, that the pig is just the messenger ... The message is the club itself, a one-of-its-kind educational resource for more than two dozen local chefs. They call it the Gastronomic Union of Tucson, or GUT! for short.
The club started about a year ago when members of the Facebook group Tucson Chefs decided to meet in person, at Ermanos bar on Fourth Ave. A week later they were butchering animals together at the Carriage House, and teaching each other about the basics of fermentation. (They got the meat hookup from Tucson's local butcher Ben Forbes and E & R Pork on Tucson's south side.)
"The butchery was really what got us together for the first few things, but what holds us together is to be 1. A chef's community, and 2. To be able to do some mentoring and teaching for others," said the group's president Devon Sanner, AKA "Big Papa D," during a recent phone chat. "And being active in the food community and promoting local food" through partnerships with organizations like Iskashitaa Refugee Network.
The dinners serve as fundraisers for the club, which is pursuing a 501c3 nonprofit status. But they're also a space for the chefs to experiment with funky stuff that pushes the boundaries of the traditional restaurant. A fun example was the dinner's third course, "umami," which played with the similarities between Southern cooking and Chinese dim sum. (Executed by chefs from The Parish and the private Mountain Oyster Club.)
On one side of the plate sits a brown block of "Chicken-fried headcheese," named so because it was made by cooking down an entire pig head, which yielded "tons of gelatin, and a great fat-to-meat ratio," Devon said. On the other side, a flat Spammish looking patty of hog trotter and "BBQ Devilfish," apparently a Southern euphemism for octopus.
The chef then takes an Asian teapot filled with a dashi broth (made from crawfish rather than bonito flakes) and pours the juice directly onto the diner's plate, uniting the flavors together in a savory soup. The dish was all over the place, but it made me realize how much both Southern and Asian cuisines worship the crisp, and celebrate the gooey fat.
Unfortunately, GUT's porcine fascination won't last for long. (The pig theme was just for the summer, and soon they'll be onto other culinary genres.)
Your last chance to get down and oinky will be Oct. 1, during The Block Party On Broadway. The group is bringing in four whole hogs and cooking them up using different techniques from around the world, including an Italian porchetta and a Caja China roasting box. Four local breweries are on board for the drinkees. You can purchase tickets for $40 here.
"Nobody's going to leave hungry," Devon assured us ...