Cochon 555: the Disney World of Heritage Pork

April 29, 2013 at 11:38 am

Victory to Cosmo Goss from Publican Quality Meats and his team of Blackbird Restaurant Group alums, but no losers in the showcase of pork

Cochon is the Epcot of pork events. I have a habit of comparing pretty much everything to Disney World in one way or another, but in the case of Cochon, the roving heritage pig tour, the comparison is apt. In lieu of Epcot’s around-the-world dining program, Cochon is the epicenter of snout-to-tail dining, featuring multiple chef-driven pork stations showcasing different breeds of locally sourced heritage pork. And instead of Walt Disney, there’s Brady Lowe, founder of Cochon. Yesterday’s Cochon 555 event held at the Four Seasons was a grandiose affair, a massive and gluttonous celebration of pork, displaying the versatility of these animals and how each breed offers unique flavors and textures. The sheer mass of the operation, with hundreds of guests and hundreds of plates of pork to feed them, definitely makes Cochon a veritable pork theme park.

Tavernita’s jovial pig mascot, a little too excited that people are eating his brethren.

Each of the five chefs vying for the “Prince of Porc” title were given a different breed of heritage hog, to be made into up to six dishes. And chefs sure got crafty. Kevin Hickey, with home turf advantage as chef of the Four Seasons, worked with a Tamworth hog from Triple S Farm in Illinois. Known for its succulent belly, the Tamworth is called the best bacon hog, with a trim jowl and muscular hams. Hickey created an impressive cafeteria-style line for his dishes, complete with cafeteria trays. Going through the line was a bit of a nostalgia trip, bringing me right back to my awkward high school days. I’m just glad I didn’t get pantsed. His station represented the various incarnations of Chicago street food, from hot dogs and tamales to empanadas. There were also little porky snacks, such as pork jerky and fortune cookie-like tuiles dipped in chocolate and bacon.

Cafeteria tray, Hickey-style.

Cosmo Goss from Publican Quality Meats brought out the A-Team of Blackbird Restaurant Group alums for support. His sous chefs for the event included Erling Wu-Bower (avec), David Posey (Blackbird), and Justin Large (Big Star). Goss was cooking with a Hampshire hog from Faith’s Farm in Illinois. Hampshire is an English breed renowned for its excellent fat-to-meat ratio in the belly and loin. Overseeing the meaty operations at Publican Quality Meats surely boded well for Goss, who curated a lengthy menu that includes a bacon-studded pork pancake, poached pork loin tonnato, ‘Nduja pudding (aka spicy pork spread), boudin noir, glazed pork belly in Parmesan broth, and pork skin “churros” with pork jus chocolate caramel. I feel like I acquired mild gout just writing that. Publican’s station was lavishly decorated with sausages strung along woodwork like lights on a Christmas tree.

Slightly comical, slightly morbid table display at Publican Quality Meats.

Things got Japanese over at Yusho’s station, where Matthias Merges was crafting steam buns, ramen, rolled pig’s head, and stuffed legs out of his Crawford Sweet hog. Hailing from Wisconsin’s Crawford Family Farm, these hogs are free to roam the woods during warmer weather, eating an herbaceous diet along with acorns and hickory nuts in the fall. This lends a distinct nutty, herbal flavor to the pork, which meshed well with Merges’ Japanese flavors like ume boshi (Japanese plums), kanzuri (yuzu-infused chile paste), kimchi, and tamarind pickles.

Pork neck steam bun army from Team Yusho.

Perhaps the most eclectic station was Tavernita’s, which featured dishes inspired by China, Mexico, British pubs, and the French Quarter. Ryan Poli led a team of porcine superheroes, clad in pink capes and pig masks, and joined by a happy-go-lucky pig mascot, waving to and occasionally breathing on passersby. Terrifying visions of Animal Farmcame rushing back. Poli was tasked with cooking with a Large Black hog from Triple S Farm. This is a lean, micro-marbled hog that is sublimely tender due to its short muscle fibers. And what did Poli cook? Soup dumplings in pork consommé with confit ribs; braised shoulder sope with mole sauce; head-to-tail paella with tongue, tail, face chorizo, and smoked ham; beignets with whipped lardo; and my favorite, shepherd’s pie made with trotters, cheeks, and bacon.

Poli in full pork garb, serving shepherd’s pie with trotters, cheeks, bacon, cherries, peas, and potatoes.

The fifth competing chef was Josh Adams of June Restaurant in Peoria, Illinois. He was also given a Hampshire hog, but this one from LaPryor Farms in Illinois. Adams did an impressive job of incorporating all parts of the pig and creating exquisitely composed dishes for each small plate. Much of his food had an Asian influence, like the Thai sausage, the wood-grilled loin and pork skin noodles with nuoc cham (Vietnamese dipping sauce), and the pork belly with nam prik pao (Thai chile sauce). One of the coolest items at the event was Adams’ ham cotton candy, served with pineapple upside-down cake and coriander. While I was getting my food here, the lights went out, which at first I feared was a Jurassic Park-like mishap, but was actually intentional so that Lowe could show a slideshow.

Hard to tell, but this man is working the ham cotton candy machine at June’s station.

The event didn’t stop there, though. Cochon also included a butchering demo by The Butcher & Larder’s Rob Levitt, a cheese bar, various cocktail and drink bars, a chocolate station, a tartare bar, and lots more. One of my favorite touches was instead of flower arrangements on the tables, they had bacon arrangements. Stop and smell the bacon… As the event wound down and after Cochon judges made the rounds, Cosmo Goss was named the victor. He is set to move on to compete at Grand Cochon in Aspen this June. Coming from The Publican group, Goss basically went into this event with a bacon halo over his head. Best of luck to him in Aspen.

The sausage-adorned altar to the Prince of Porc, Cosmo Goss (he’s the chef behind the table).