Jared Rouben helms the brewing operation in the gritty cellars of Goose Island Brewpub; Emiliano Morado is a line cook in L2O’s pristine kitchen. Old friends from The Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, New York), Rouben and Morado obviously went in different directions after graduation—but now they’ve figured out a way to work together: the Odd Pairs food competition.
Started in March 2009, Odd Pairs is a seasonal event in which Chicago-based food industry folks pair off in a high-stakes culinary throwdown for the most unconventional food combination. The team that creates the best dish using familiar flavors in unexpected ways wins the coveted Taste-Maker Award. “An odd pair is the incongruity between expectation and presentation,” explains Jacob Elster of Crop to Cup Chicago, one of two companies that host the event. “When you hear ‘peanut butter,’ you immediately expect ‘jelly.’ But an odd pair plays off those expectations.”
It’s hard to pinpoint how this all started, but unusual culinary pairings have become a big trend. More than just a novelty, intriguing curve balls like bacon and chocolate, fried chicken and waffles, and foie gras and Pop Rocks—all on Chicago menus—have generated enough buzz to warrant more than 15 minutes of fame in the local food culture. Perhaps that’s why the Odd Pairs competition has grabbed our attention—it’s a preview of the dishes that might someday be on boutique grocery store shelves or trendy menus. The last winner was a black bean and banana empanada with blood-orange-infused olive oil from Simone’s and Sonoma Farm, a version of which is currently on the menu at Simone’s in Pilsen.
For this year’s competition, Rouben and Morado decided to pair beer and fine dining and agreed to let us sit in on their early-morning experiments in L2O’s kitchen. “First, we started thinking about what would be local,” Morado says. “Italian ice is really traditional in Chicago, especially in the spring and summer, so why not Italian ice made from beer?”
And so, into L2O’s powerful blast freezer went several varieties of Goose Island beer for 30 minutes. Then Rouben and Morado ran the frozen slabs through a Hawaiian ice shaver and sampled them, one by one. The definitive favorite? An unfermented India Pale Ale that tasted like malty sweet tea and smelled of fresh-cut grass. Imagine the flavorful qualities of a refreshing ale—but without the hops.
Satisfied with the ale granita, the two turned to the garnish. A search of L2O’s walk-in refrigerator and wall-to-wall spice gallery uncovered all kinds of possibilities. Rouben and Morado eliminated pink peppercorns, sliced ginger, ground coriander, and strawberries from the list, finally settling on black lime, salt, citrus emulsion, and edible flowers—which added brightness and depth. “Our goal is to show beer in an entirely different way,” Rouben says.
Will the Goose Island granita with shaved black lime and edible flowers take home the Taste-Maker Award on March 26th? It will be up against some serious contenders, including an organic carrot soup with savory salted marshmallow croutons from the FIG Catering and Beyond the Shaker team, and samba-spiced vada (South India–style lentil doughnuts) served with green-tea beer from the Glazed Donuts Chicago and Ineeka Tea team. Rouben and Morado’s idea may be ingenious, but, as with any odd pairing, its fate depends on whether the public can approach it with an open mind.
Odd Pairs is hosted by Crop to Cup Chicago, an international coffee importer, and Chicago-based Bean & Body, which specializes in health and wellness coffees. This invitation-only event will be held March 26th. Visit oddpairs.wordpress.com for more information.
Illustration: Tonwen Jones/colagene.com