Pig & Fire chef Roel Estanilla
Pig & Fire chef Roel Estanilla and roasted porchetta-like rolled pork belly Credit: Jeff Marini for Chicago Reader

A lion’s purr revving to a roar. The sound of a crack racing across the bald face of a mountain. Thunder ripping across the sky. All arresting sounds for sure, but the phenomenon of Roel Estanilla breaking into the crispy, copper skin of a roasted cochinillo lechón could drown them all out. 

That sound is a Pavlovian promise of lip-sticky pigskin armoring a lush, lemongrass-perfumed anatomy of milk-fed pork flesh. The instrument is a whole suckling pig that Estanilla roasts for six hours and then splays across banana leaves bedecked with edible flowers.

The chef caters traditional and modern Filipino food and mounts pop-ups out of the Hatchery under the name Pig & Fire. He understands the aural and visual gravitas of a whole roasted pig, and the specs he asks of his regular purveyor, Slagel Family Farm, are exacting.

“We’re like, ‘Please don’t cut off any part of the pig,’” says Jen Estanilla, Roel’s wife, who handles marketing when she’s not working as a physician at Rush University’s Neonatal-Perinatal Fellowship Program. “We want the whole thing. We want a very, very presentable pig.”

Roel, who’s 43, was born in Dagupan in the northwestern Ilocos region of the Philippines. That’s a fishing town, but the primacy of the pig in the Filipino diet was impressed upon him at an early age, with each visit to his grandfather’s farm, when his Lolo would select a choice suckling from his stock, skewer, and slowly turn it over coals until its skin would bronze and shatter like glass. “It was so fatty and juicy,” he says. “It was the drip in the charcoal. You could see the smoke and smell the aromatics that he used inside the pig. You could smell it around the neighborhood. The skin was so crisp you just wanted to peel and eat it while it was turning on the bamboo.”

When Estanilla was ten his family settled in San Francisco, where his mother supplemented her regular income with a home catering operation cooking traditional foods like lumpia, pancit, menudo, and Filipino spaghetti for baptisms, birthdays, weddings, and other parties. Roel got his hands into the business too, which was good preparation for when he moved to Las Vegas in his early 20s and worked his way through the varied kitchens of the Mandalay Bay and ARIA resort casinos.

Still, he hadn’t cooked Filipino food professionally until after Jen accepted a residency at Loyola’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and the couple settled in Oak Park in 2017. With Jen clocking 80 hours in the hospital each week he needed something flexible so he could help care for their young son. It started out small, bringing lumpia or pancit to block parties, which led to invitations to cater events like the one his mother used to cook for. Requests piled up until the couple started seeing it as a viable business.

Among the heaping aluminum pans of bistek, noodles, and purple ube chocolate chip cookies, Roel’s output began to lean heavily toward the porcine, which inspired the name of the business.

Pig & Fire lechón
You’ll be able to get your own helping of delectable lechón when Pig & Fire visits Monday Night Foodball on April 25 at the Kedzie Inn. Credit: Jeff Marini for Chicago Reader

Roasted, stewed, cured, or fried pig parts vary widely across the Philippines, from blistered, deep-fried belly lechón kawali and crispy pata; to shoulder stuffed into sweet longanisa sausages or cured into tocino; along with all the foods that arise as byproducts of the whole pig, like the sizzling minced pig face sisig, and thick, sweet lechón sauce boosted with liver.

In the months before the pandemic the Estanillas were supplementing catering lulls with increasingly performative pop-ups at Oak Park bars, featuring the elaborate banana leaf smorgasbords known as kamayan, along with modern takes on Filipinos classics such as sisig tacos and longanisa sliders.

“We have two kinds of customers,” says Jen. “The ones that are like, ‘Don’t mess with my Filipino food. I want it the way my grandma makes it,’ and then the ones that want to see new things. Some dishes we don’t touch. Pancit, lumpia you don’t mess with. But then we have fun with things like the longa burger.”

In 2019 they debuted braised and roasted porchetta-like rolled pork bellies, as if anticipating the smaller gatherings COVID would soon force. Then last July they got a request to roast a whole suckling pig for a wedding. In an Instagram video, Roel demonstrates its tenderness in the Castilian style by breaking down the finished piglet into its bronzed primal parts with a dinner plate (though he refrains from smashing it against the wall). Cochinillo is the Spanish term for suckling pig. Jen says these smaller pigs, along with the European name, came into demand during the pandemic, not just here but in the Philippines.

Estanilla brines and then marinates whole pigs with green onions, lemongrass, garlic, salt, pepper, cayenne, smoked paprika, and more for 24 hours, followed by six to seven hours roasting in a Blodgett pizza oven at the Hatchery. They’ve prepared close to 30 whole lechón since that first wedding. And they’ll frequently offer whole pigs to order by the piece. That’s how I ended up with a whole suckling pig head for New Year’s Eve, loaded with more silky check and shoulder meat than my small gathering could ingest before the New Year. In the days to come, the leftovers found their way into fried rice and ramen, which just goes to show how far leftover lechón can go. Jen says customers have reported leftover lechón making its way into the sauteed mixed vegetable and shrimp paste dish pinakbet, or more commonly, simmered in vinegar a la paksiw.

Right now, the Estanillas are working on a line of packaged precooked and frozen things like lumpia and barbecue skewers—easy to prepare before barbecue season comes around again. And they’re experimenting with novel ways to serve lechón—say, in sliders, bao, or tacos. Right now they’re taking orders for delivery or curbside pickup for a lechon rice bowl pop-up on Saturday, January 29.

It’s too soon to say what’s on the menu on April 25, when Pig & Fire appears at Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up series at the Kedzie Inn. But it’s safe to say there will be a very presentable pig. “We’ll break down a whole lechón and have some fun with it,” says Jen.

Pig & Fire
at the Hatchery
135 N. Kedzie