Behind the Scenes at the World's Most Metal Cassoulet Party
The five-day, trans-Atlantic feast hosted at Chicago's Publican Quality Meats has been going annually for six years now.
Composite image; right photo by Chris Costoso
The invitation for “Five Nights of Cassoulet at Publican Quality Meats & Anker,” makes absolutely no sense at first glance. There’s a skeleton chef rocking a spiked mohawk and an apron, throwing metal horns with a studded bracelet on one arm, and holding a pot with an oven mitt with the other. But it makes perfect sense if you’re talking about a now-multiyear event bringing international chefs together over their joint loves of cassoulet and punk rock.
Mike Miller owns Delilah’s, the classic Chicago dive bar known for its loud music and vast selection of whiskeys. In 1996, Miller visited Europe for the first time and fell in love with cassoulet, the meaty dish made of beans, pork sausage, and duck.
The history of cassoulet dates back to the 100 Years’ War; one theory suggests that it was invented while the city of Castelnaudary, France was under siege, using only the ingredients found within its walls. As a result, Castelnaudary is credited as the birthplace of cassoulet, but the nearby cities of Toulouse and Carcassonne have their own origin stories, too. The three make up the cassoulet trail, a trail of 64 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
On Miller’s next trip to Europe, he and his wife went on a mission to unearth the best cassoulet they could find, which led them to Chez David in Castelnaudary. When they got there, Miller heard punk music playing softly in the background.
“I remember thinking, ‘What’s going on with this weirdo?’” says Miller of Chez David’s proprietor, David Campigotto. “You’re playing Gun Club in this French restaurant in this small town,” he says, laughing with Campigotto as they recall the memory of their first meeting. “Before cassoulet, there was music,” Miller adds.
The two bonded over their mutual love for post-punk, and Miller extended an invite for Campigotto to visit him in Chicago. Most stories might have ended there, but not for these two. A few months later, Campigotto was posted up at Miller’s bar enjoying the punk rock scene in the Windy City, which is right about when Miller decided it was time to bring Campigotto’s cassoulet to the Midwest.
“I’d known him for an hour,” says Miller. “I knew he made the best [cassoulet]. And I also knew if he was going to pull it off and do this in Chicago, it wasn’t going to be with me. It had to be at the right place and it had to be the best place. It was going to be with Paul [Kahan].”
It took Kahan—the multiple-award-winning Chicago chef and restaurateur—a bit more convincing. Six phone calls from Miller finally led to a meeting between Kahan and Campigotto, where the two bonded over food and punk rock. The two made a deal that Campigotto would return to the U.S. and cook cassoulet at Kahan’s Chicago restaurant—but only if Kahan was willing to ship both the correct terrine dishes and freshly harvested white beans from Castelnaudary.
The first shipment of terrines from France to the U.S. cost $1000, and every single one arrived broken. The second round fared better, and now, six years later, the clay pots remain housed under lock and key at PQM, Kahan’s butcher shop/cafe, waiting for Campigotto’s return.
When he does, the group gathers at Delilah’s for what they compare to a summer camp reunion. They spend the days before the first meal service mapping out what dinner will look like. Two days before, Campigotto and Kahan break down four entire pigs and start soaking the beans. Once the beans are cooked, they start assembling terrines. Each vessel is filed with alternating layers of duck legs, stock, beans, sausage, and pork rib bones, plus a final layer of beans. Once assembled, they’re baked for hours, getting topped off with stock every half hour, till the beans are dark brown, crunchy, and look like pecan pie.
Each night kicks off with a variation on the origin story, then Campigotto and Kahan go to work in the kitchen. When they resurface, it’s to begin serving all guests tableside. The lights are turned up in order to ensure each guest receives an equal blend of sausage, duck, and beans on each flat plate. It’s not an attractive dish, but there’s no denying the beauty in its complexity. A few simple ingredients transform into a savory meal, and as a result, a community has grown around this international event.
But, like the cassoulet, Campigotto remains modest.
“I don’t know if I do the best, but I do it properly,” he says. And all to the tune of punk rock.