It’s an unapologetic annual carnivore’s bacchanal. Some consider it the Pacific Northwest’s best food festival. Chefs love it. Welcome to Burning Beast.
Take a dozen or so of Seattle’s best chefs. Add a small herd of locally raised whole beasts, a school of our finest fishes, a whole lot of firewood, innumerable cans of ice-cold beer, an idyllic 300-acre property in the middle of nowhere, an immense quantity of ingenuity, an equal amount of sweat, and a giant wooden animal effigy.
Add fire and 500 hungry people.
This is the strange, marvelous recipe for Burning Beast — the unabashed annual celebration of meat-eating that some consider the Pacific Northwest’s best food festival. Organized by Terra Plata chef Tamara Murphy starting in 2008, the event benefits the land upon which it is held, a nonprofit called Smoke Farm near Arlington that hosts arts events, a carpentry program for kids called Sawhorse Revolution, educational programs and more.
Chefs get asked to cook for a lot of good causes for free. They love this one because it’s a reunion of sorts; in an industry that leaves little time for community, it’s a chance to rough it together in a gorgeous outdoor setting. It’s also a chance to outdo each other, with each chef’s crew vying to make their wood-fired, whole-beast barbecue setup the fiercest, then put out the greatest dish for the 500 attendees. This year, tickets cost $129 each and sold out almost instantaneously; each ticket holder gets a ballot to vote for Best of Beast.
Most of the chefs arrived at Smoke Farm last Saturday afternoon for the Sunday event, in order to rig up their grilling systems, light their fires if need be, and get the party started. For that evening’s family meal, as it’s called in the business, Tamara Murphy cooked a vat of pig’s head posole, served with handmade tortillas. She welcomed everyone to “the best barbecue of the year” with extra heart; last year’s Burning Beast was canceled because of severe fire danger. “It feels like coming home, chef!” someone shouted. Jason Stoneburner, of Stoneburner in Ballard, said that late-night “roasty bone bourbon shots” followed, drunk from the horns of the goats he was assigned to cook.
The chefs and beasts of Burning Beast 2016
• Mike Easton, Il Corvo and Il Corvo Pasta Studio, pig
• Dylan Giordan, Piatti, octopus
• Adam Hoffman, Adam’s Northwest Bistro & Brewery, rabbit
• Miles James, Dot’s Butcher & Deli, beef tongue
• Matthew Lewis, Restaurant Roux and Where Ya At Matt, arctic char
• Aaron Matson, The Copper Hog, duck
• Tamara Murphy, Terra Plata, deer
• Zephyr Paquette, Lecosho, ram
• Charlie Pasquier and Jesse Smith, Goat Mountain Pizza, duck
• Tom Stocks, Taylor Shellfish Farms, oysters
• Jason Stoneburner, Stoneburner, goat
• Dave Storm and Rodolfo “Rody” Chan, Huxley Wallace Collective, cow
• Daniel Stramm, Munchery, vegetables
• Charles Walpole, Blind Pig Bistro and Babirusa, salmon
• Sarah Wong, Seattle Culinary Academy, lamb
The next day, Stoneburner’s setup was the most self-consciously outré: He bound the goats’ meat to a custom-welded rebar pentagram attached to stakes around his fire, mounting the skulls as well. “I think it has kind of a pagan feel,” he ventured. Nearby, Zephyr Paquette of Lecosho went “rodeo style,” hog-tying her ram to sizable metal bars found at Second Use to suspend it over her fire. She was basting prodigiously with a spray bottle of red wine, citrus juice and oregano, with the excess and the ram’s fat dripping down onto an intermediary grillful of Japanese eggplant, bound for a baba ganoush accompaniment.
A group of students from the Seattle Culinary Academy, led by chef instructor Sarah Wong, made a memorable contribution: They butterflied their lamb, then secured each leg to a big steel-bar “X” fixed upright over their fire (someone admiringly called it “a Ramsay Bolton homage”). Mike Easton of Il Corvo and its new retail Pasta Studio boldly converted a 173-pound pig into porchetta, stuffing it with garlic, herbs and “all the trimmings of itself,” then roasting it slowly in one giant roll. Miles James, of newly reopened Dot’s Butcher & Deli in Pike Place Market, braised beef tongue, then smoked it two ways: Some dangled over the fire for banh mi, and the rest, seasoned for mini-Reubens, was nestled in a galvanized garbage can with smoke from the fire flowing to it through dryer-vent tubing.
Plumes of smoke wafted across the field in a welcome breeze as the day heated up and the paying customers arrived, deploying bottles of cold rosé from coolers, touring the pits, and Instagramming like mad. T-shirts with vegan-unfriendly sentiments abounded in the crowd: “I LIKE PIG BUTTS AND I CANNOT LIE,” “OMNIVORE,” “PETA: People for the Eating of Tasty Animals.” (Paquette’s crew had shirts made reading “team RAMbunctious: mutton ventured, mutton gained.”) Visiting dignitaries included DJ Riz Rollins and the Seattle Storm’s Alysha Clark (who tweeted “I took so many amazing pictures! I can’t wait to share some of them with you guys #FoodWasBomb”).
Around 6 p.m., the dinner bell rang and the meat bacchanal commenced. The crowd swarmed the chefs’ stations, some eating each dish while waiting in the next chef’s line. People asked each other what they’d had that they loved so far, and: “Is this your first Burning Beast?”
For more information on next summer’s Burning Beast, check Facebook.
Miles James’ tongue mini-sandwiches were much lauded; he ended up running out early. Dylan Giordian of Piatti made sought-out, silky-tender octopus with spicy couscous, crunchy lardo and a squid-ink vinaigrette. Three kinds of salmon, cooked Northwest native-style on cedar frames, won accolades for The Blind Pig’s Charles Walpole and his crew, including chef Tarik Abdullah. The Culinary Academy students acquitted themselves with aplomb, earning lots of admiration for their tender lamb and the paella they made to go with it.
In the end, the crowd-favorite prize went to chef Matthew Lewis of Restaurant Roux and Where Ya At Matt. He’d cooked 20 arctic char by stuffing them with lemon and fresh herbs, wrapping them in parchment paper, then encasing each one in clay from Vashon Island; as they cooked on the hot coals, the clay changed color, and when hairline cracks appeared, they were done. He served the resulting lush fish with a bright charred lemon sauce atop crunchy homemade kettle chips. Lewis’ trophy: a plaque with a bear’s skull mounted on it.
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Then as dusk fell, it was time for the ritual burning of the beast, a 24-foot-tall wooden unicorn engineered by poet and carpenter Arne Pihl. He’d recently re-watched “The Neverending Story,” and was taken by the “super-traumatic” scene in which a horse drowns in a swamp. But “People would be sad if I burned a horse,” he said. It takes a poet’s mind to go from there to unicorn, but he did note that he made the beast look angry to offset sympathy: “He’s not going to go gently into that good night.” The unicorn’s life ended in fire and cheering, and the meat-stuffed crowd slowly dispersed under starry skies.