When the digestif of Benton's pig fat and Eagle Rare bourbon arrived at the judges' table on Sunday evening, it was not the first pork-based beverage we had been served. That distinction went to the "fat washed" cachaça and pineapple cocktail (replete with lavender bacon skewer) mixed up by the night's champion, chef Brad Farmerie of New York City's Public restaurant.
Farmerie went trotter to trotter against four similarly pork-obsessed chefs to win the New York City leg of Cochon 555 - and a space at the trough for the Aspen Grand Cochon finals. Atlanta-based Brady Lowe established the competition in 2009 to raise awareness of farmers who were going to extensive lengths to sustainably raise "heritage" breeds of pigs - like the Duroc, Red Wattle, Mangalitsa and Tamworth - that have fallen out of favor with U.S. purveyors and chefs.
Not only are the pigs harder to get - they also take longer to reach slaughter weight and are often smaller than those that are raised on factory farms. Farmers who opt for these rarefied breeds generally feed their precious herds on an open-pasture diet, free from hormones and growth agents, akin to how the pig would naturally forage. The process tends to hog a whole lot of time and cash. So why the bother?
As a judge at the New York competition and the 2010 Grand Cochon in Aspen, I couldn't possibly disagree. The fat is, for the most part, infinitely creamier and more abundant than that found in hogs commercially bred for leanness and the meat just tastes, well, piggier.
There are deep flavor distinctions between breeds, resulting from their muscle distribution, fat placement and foraging habits - and it's the job of the competing chefs to enhance or work around the characteristics of the breed they've been assigned. A Tamworth, for instance, has an ample, bacon-friendly belly and a Berkshire boasts intra-muscular marbling. A Mulefoot is known to make a fabulous ham and a Mangalitsa, well, a butcher has to shave the woolly, weather-resistant coat off it first.
Here's how it goes down. In each of ten cities across the U.S., five chefs - selected for his or her propensity toward serving heritage breed pork at their restaurant - receives a whole heritage pig and has one week to dream of ways to serve it. Judges and ticketholders convene on a Sunday afternoon to sample offerings from small wineries and watch a butchering competition. Judges are spirited away to a private room where chefs, one by one, present their creations to the judges.
It is, by all accounts, nerve-wracking. Seated to my left was reigning "King of Porc" David Varley of Washington D.C.'s Bourbon Steak. "Not in a million years," he responded repeatedly to queries as to his repeating his efforts.
It was easy to see why; this wasn't just a nice grilled chop and a bacon rasher. Chefs Bill Telepan, Sean Rembold, George Mendes, Peter Hoffman and Brad Farmerie plated rolled pig head, liver dumplings, potted rillettes, celery root and lardo salad, a pig's blood "popsicle", black and white boudin, slabs of pork belly and rolling pastures of charcuterie.
The judges sat. And gorged. And sweated - both literally (seriously, have you ever tried to eat fifty different pork dishes in a single sitting?) and spiritually - over crowning New York's new "Prince of Porc" to represent our city in Aspen. Past participants including chefs Sean Brock, Marco Canora and Corwin Kave, Adam Kaye and Mark Ladner sat shoulder to shoulder with meat mavens like Time Magazine's Josh Ozersky, Food & Wine senior editor Christine Quinlan, Edible Community editor Rachel Wharton and 'Pig Perfect' author Peter Kaminsky. Did Peter Hoffman's bold single-dish choucroute garnie trump the multi-bite artistry of Bill Telepan's stunning pulled pork lard biscuit, George Mendes' bacon ice cream with pork fat beignets or Sean Rembold's gorgeously cured "pig-strami"?
Each chef could receive five points in three categories: presentation, utilization and flavor, the ultimate accolade from each judge being the titular "555." In the end, Farmerie's eccentric, elaborate, playful plating of mini pork pies, pork and miso cinnamon pinwheel lollipops, pork creme caramel, a colorful terrine and the aforementioned pork and pineapple cocktail lofted him snout and tail above the rest.
Will he bring home the bacon in Aspen? The Cochon tour still has to trot on through Boston, Seattle, Napa, Washington D.C., Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New Orleans and San Francisco to gather up the rest of the herd but Brady Lowe and all his heritage farmers can be sure of one thing - the chefs are all going to go whole hog.