Despite the draw of Frontier's strange, varied cuisine (like turtle bolognese and fried alligator legs), 75 people aren’t gathered here in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood on a Tuesday night to eat something weird. They’re here to devour a whole roasted pig, from snout to tail.
Arguably the most unique thing about this particular restaurant is its menu’s entire section devoted to whole-animal service. Not just the whole roasted pig, either. Options include lamb, goat, and, yes, alligator. Chef Brian Jupiter told me the staff once did a whole llama. (Side note: people eat llama? Yes, yes, they do.)
But the farm-raised roasted pig is far and away the most popular—so much so that Frontier will often serve six to seven whole pigs in a single weekend night. These animals, depending on their size, can feed groups of 12, 15, or even 100 people. The kitchen will even carve up the pig’s head and feed you that, too. If you’re lucky.
Pulled from the smoker, the pig is wheeled out with a dramatic flourish. The sous chef, wearing a pair of latex gloves, coaxes the meat (albeit … roughly) from the bones, cutting the tough skin away and discarding it. The cutting part is long and unceremonious. People mill around anxiously—humans get primal in the presence of a whole animal, the smoky, fatty smell permeating the air—waiting to pile their plates with cuts of meat indiscriminately heaped onto platters.
A note here on skin: Chef Jupiter attested to the fact that the skin is inedible after it’s been smoked for 8–12 hours because all of its moisture and flavor has been sapped and absorbed by the meat. Sad news for pork-rind fans. He also confirmed that there is always at least one guest who asks about eating the skin or the ears, following their question with a quick assurance that they havepersonally cooked pigs themselves. Many pigs. At least two pigs.
Sure enough, while I meekly witnessed the gathering of 70-ish people in Frontier’s atrium, I was regaled by an expert whose first rhetorical statement was “I don’t see why they won’t let us eat the ears.” The man had cooked at least five whole hogs over the course of his life and assured me the skin is, indeed, edible—in fact, it’s the best part! I tried suggesting that he may have used a slightly different cooking method than they did at Frontier—cooking at a higher heat, for example. But he was incredulous. “I ate it,” he insisted.
Roasted pig skin is serious business.
When a whole animal is smoked, depending on the size, it goes into the smoker at a low, sustained temperature for up to 12 hours. This slow-and-low method renders a juicy and tender final result—the meat is literally falling off the bone as the chef tugs at it to cut the pieces apart.
On this night at Frontier, the head sat, teetering, on the cutting board. I worried it was going to topple to the floor—would it explode? Would it land with a sad thud? Would anyone care? One of the women in the party walked up, muttered something to the chef, and laughed. The chef nodded dismissively (this kind of thing must get old after a while, right?), and the woman pulled out a pair of bright red sunglasses and slid them onto the pig’s head.
The knife-wielding chef was utterly unphased, keeping her eyes downcast, focused on the task at hand. I’m going to guess this kind of thing happens a lot. To be fair, handling the carcasses, smoking the animals, and dealing with the chaos of a half-drunk and hungry crowd was nothing new to the staff at Frontier. There’s no element of ceremony left—no drama. It’s just something to eat.
Just before I left, I thanked one of the managers, shook his hand, and said goodbye. And then I just had to say it:
“No one even thanked the pig.”