Cochon 555 is a traveling series of food events featuring a competition of acclaimed local chefs cooking with heritage pigs. On Sunday night, the eighth in the 11-city tour was held in Chicago (the New York event was reviewed here on Serious Eats). Put on by Taste Network, an Atlanta-based company that does marketing and promotion for the artisan wine and cheese industries, the events serve three purposes. First, they increase awareness of heritage pigs and the food politics that go along with them. Second, they raise the profile of Taste Network. And third, the events serve as a fundraiser for charities related to the concept of eating locally produced, artisan-crafted foods. The Chicago event benefited Farms for City Kids, a Vermont-based organization active on the East Coast and hoping to get going in Chicago.
The participating chefs were Chris Pandel of The Bristol, Stephen Dunne of Volo, Patrick Sheehan of The Signature Room, Graham Elliott Bowles (in absentia) of graham elliott, and Sam Burman of bluprint. In addition to the pig, there were a few artisanal cheeses and wines for the eaters to peruse.
Tickets for the pork fest were $125, but having an event on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend proved to be difficult so there were a lot of last-minute deals available. People who took advantage got a bargain, as this was one excellent meal. Serious eaters in Washington, D.C., can go to Cochon 555 this Sunday night (May 31), and those in the Bay Area can check out the San Francisco event on June 14. The “Grand Cochon,” which will feature the winners of each of the 10 competitions, will be held at a place and time that has yet to be determined.
The team from graham elliott took the crown despite their leader’s nonpresence. Rumor has it they made about ten different dishes, but by the time I made it to their table, there were fewer items available. The best dish of theirs I tried was a pulled pork sandwich on a biscuit made with rendered pork fat. Graham elliott’s most labor-intensive dish featured presskopf, the German version of head cheese, which was served with, among other things, Bavarian rye, sauerkraut, pork liver, and aspic.
I also really enjoyed graham elliott’s pork shoulder with guacamole, red pearl onion, crème fraîche, and a guajillo pepper salsa, all served on a corn chip. An added bonus from the group, which did all of its food prep the night before while attending to the Saturday dinner rush, was a contribution from the dishwasher—chicharrón smothered in a second type of guajillo salsa.
Bluprint, a restaurant I had never heard of before attending this event, had the most creative and some of my favorite dishes of the night. The bacon cotton candy consisted of a piece of very crisp bacon wrapped with sweet cotton candy (with no flavor other than sugar) that was then dusted with dehydrated bacon. This was the ultimate in sweet and savory and was a treat I went back for a few times. Less exciting from bluprint was their version of a hot pocket, small squares of dough filled with ham, Swiss cheese, and egg yolk, which I found to be a little too doughy and too salty.
Bluprint also made an outstanding pork roast that had both shoulder and loin and was served with apple, fennel salad, and some pig skin. The pork itself was surprisingly light and when mixed with the apple and fennel was a perfectly balanced and refreshing snack. Filling out bluprint’s roster of dishes was an exceptionally creamy brain polenta with pieces of pancetta topped with smoked pig ear au jus and pulled local ramps. Bluprint’s bacon-infused whiskey tasted just like whiskey to me, but I appreciated the effort. While I agreed with the judges that graham elliott deserved the win, I think bluprint was a very close second.
The group from The Bristol also came through with some treats. The alder smoked ham wrapped around dill pickles was one of my favorite things of the night. I was also a big fan of the dish that took shoulder, loins and bellies, seasoned it with sage and thyme, and then served it with sauerkraut. I think there may have been bread with that dish, but by the time I got to try it, the bread was gone.
The Bristol was one of two contestants to make a dessert, in this case, bacon-filled donut holes that were cooked in lard and covered with hazelnut maple sugar. They could not make these sweet/savory treats fast enough for the crowd that gathered around whenever a new batch went into the fryer.
The team from the Signature Room put out five dishes including a porchetta that was served with a delicious salad. The group also served a lightly smoked pork shoulder (three hours using cherry and hickory) with cole slaw, and they made an outstanding charcuterie plate that consisted of rillettes, garlic sausage and pork liver, accompanied by very good pickled green tomatoes, croutons and a mustard vinaigrette. Of the three meats, the rillettes stood out the most.
Unfortunately, I did not get to try much made by the team from Volo/Paramount Room. They made five different dishes, but when I got to their table just half an hour after the event started, they only had one of those five left: Pulled shoulder and foreshank tamales. They were served chilled, which I did not understand, and they had little flavor other than the sea salt that was sprinkled on top. I am not exaggerating when I say that these tamales paled in comparison to the ones The Tamale Guy sells out of a cooler that he lugs from bar to bar on weekend nights. It’s really too bad the team ran out of its other offerings. I would have liked to have tried their bacon-stuffed loin with chimmichurri and the white balsamic-brined leg of pork with apple salad.
The night ended with students from a couple of local cooking schools passing out sweet Italian dessert wine and bacon-filled dark chocolates, a nice porcine finish on what was an outstanding night of eating.
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