Cochon 555, the porkeriffic national competition that trots into Denver on Sunday, April 3, recently announced the five Colorado chefs combating for the Prince of Porc title: Jennifer Jasinski (Rioja, Euclid Hall and Bisto Vendome); Kelly Liken (Restaurant Kelly Liken); Alex Seidel (Fruition and Fruition Farms); Frank Bonanno (Bones, Green Russell, Luca d'Italia, Lou's Food Bar, Mizuna and Osteria Marco); and Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson (exec chef of Frasca Food and Wine).
And late last week, Brady Lowe, the founder of Cochon 555, released the names of the judges who would be casting their own votes for the High Priest/Priestess of Pig. Among them: yours truly; Top Chef victor Hosea Rosenberg; Mark "Meathead" DeNittis (owner of Il Mondo Vechio); Jorge de la Torre (dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University), Jon Emanuel (exec chef of Project Angel Heart)...and Bobby Stuckey, co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine, the same restaurant where MacKinnon-Patterson cooks.
And that caused a brouhaha -- a big one. So big, in fact, that Lowe sent the following letter (shared with me by a source very closely connected to Cochon 555) to address the whines and squeals voiced by those opposed to Stuckey judging one of his own:
We have heard a little buzz about the judge's room. I just want to make a statement about the nature of this event. It's a friendly competition for a cause. For the last three years, we have been 100% about promoting the farms and artisans making heritage magic happen. In San Francisco, we have had Nancy Oakes (Boulevard, Prospect) and Bruce Aidells both serve on the judge's panel, while the Exec Chef of Boulevard -- "ravi kapur" -- cooked in the competition, and honestly, there was no conflict of interest. In the two years that Nancy and Bruce have judged, no one ever says anything because of the celebration of the cause. I do consider the situation when the question of a "conflict of interest" arises, and my reply has always been "no."
Let's face it: Everyone in the judge's room is friends with some of the chefs more than others. There is a conflict when a judge, who happens to be a friend / partner / past employee, decides before the event to carry a bias into the judge's room. If I assume a conflict may exist, I preface the situation with this: If you have already decided to vote for, or against, a chef, then don't judge. If you want to enjoy the food and be celebrated for making a difference in your community, then do judge. A public figure campaigning consumers and friends on the floor is much more powerful than sitting in the judge's room.
Basically, I invite 200 judges a year, and learning all the relationships in each market would be quite consuming, so my heart lies in the promotion of the cause inserted in as many communities as possible. The judge's room in each market is composed of chefs, farmers, somms, producers, media, butchers, processors, etc... In 26 events, I have never seen one vote in the judge's room be the deciding vote between a chef winning and losing. The competing chefs serve the consumers first, then the judges. A reminder that the vote process is 49% judge's room (22 votes total) and 51% consumers (300-400 votes total). The equation was created in fairness by chef friends and perfected by a MIT graduate. So the process is fair, and if you have any questions, please feel free to email me.
The buzz around the event should be positive, and anything I can do to make it so is my first priority. I am going to strike the conflict in this event, so we can all move on to eating some damn good pork. Thank you all for what you do and please, please don't forget to spread the word this weekend.
While it's not altogether clear, the line in Lowe's last paragraph -- "I am going to strike the conflict of this event..." -- is a reference to benching Stuckey, who won't be judging after all.
"I got an e-mail a few days ago from Brady just saying that a few of the chefs were complaining, and that it might be better if I didn't judge," says Stuckey, who notes that Lowe extended an open invitation to him to judge a Cochon 555 event in a different city. "I guess people were really upset about it, but it's neither here nor there. I'm still going to go down there and have a good time, and it means I can sleep in that morning and go for a jog."
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As for a replacement judge, Stuckey recommends Brett Zimmerman, one of only 105 Master Sommeliers in North America, and the owner of the Boulder Wine Merchant. "He would be fantastic," says Stuckey, who, despite the controversy, may very well be pouring his own wines at the Denver Cochon 555 VIP event.
So on with the pig!