Lard, have mercy on my soul. To say that I pigged out this weekend is the understatement of the year, and if I was porky before, you should see me now. In fact, I'm fairly certain that I single-handedly took "hog wild" to a whole new level of oink.
And for that, I blame Cochon 555, the porkerific traveling pig stomp that hoofs its way through various cities in America, pitting five chefs in each metropolis against one another in a friendly battle for swine supremacy -- namely the Prince or Princess of Porc. Yesterday, the pig show stopped at the Ritz-Carlton, where five Denver chefs, paired with farmers who raise heritage breed pigs, vied for the portly prize -- and for me and 22 other people, all of whom were judges, that meant swelling our bellies with more pig than you can possibly even begin to imagine.
The chefs -- Jennifer Jasinski (Rioja, Euclid Hall and Bisto Vendome); Kelly Liken (Restaurant Kelly Liken); Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson (Frasca Food & Wine, Pizzeria Locale and Caffe); Alex Seidel (Fruition and Fruition Farms); and Frank Bonanno (Bones, Green Russell, Luca d'Italia, Lou's Food Bar, Mizuna and Osteria Marco) -- were each given a heritage breed pig in advance: Bonanno was handed a Berkshire pig, Seidel a Swabian Hall, Liken a Hereford, Jasinski a Red Wattle and MacKinnon-Patterson a Mulefoot.
And then the chefs went hog wild, turning out plate after plate, bite after bite of swoon-worthy swine, which they often paired with a pork-lubricated cocktail. We all sat, sequestered from the main floor, at a huge table draped with a white tablecloth and littered with bottles of wine from five excellent winemakers. Every fifteen minutes or so, a chef would walk through the doors, followed by an entourage of assistants rolling speed racks, to explain and serve their dishes. Some of the chefs were all business, while others, like Seidel, waltzed in with a glass of bourbon -- and bantered. Brady Lowe, the founder of Cochon 555, gave the judges a snort of sage advice: "Pace yourselves," he warned, "or else you'll break out in pork sweats tomorrow." He was right -- on both counts.
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When the feast came to a finale, Seidel was named the Prince of Porc, and after grasping the trophy for less than a second, he passed it off to the badass team that helped him win -- Matt Vawter and Blake Edmunds, both from Fruition; Jeff Osaka, the chef/owner of twelve and Lon Symensma, chef/owner of ChoLon. Talk about a class act. Seidel will be at the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen in June to compete in the Grand Cochon, where just one chef will waddle away with the final crown and the "King of Porc" title.
In the meantime, last night was an epic food event of piggish proportions, and we, of course, brought back the piggy food porn.
The official Cochon 555 ballot; chefs were judged on presentation, flavor and pig utilization. To start things off, the Cochon 555 VIP party hustled strips of meaty bacon from Tender Belly, makers of cherry-smoked, dry-cured maple bacon and purveyors of Berkshire, Mangalitsa, Red Wattle and Hampshire pork. Jennifer Jaskinski's porked out plate: bacon Lyonnaisse, constructed with seared pork belly, Dungeness crab and a quail egg; lemongrass-steamed ribs; achiote ham and chayote-cabbage slaw soft tacos; bacon dashi egg custard with char siu, kidneys and shitake mushrooms; and chicharróns. Jasinski's second pigtastic plate: Pork rillettes with kumquat mustard;, tête de cochon farci served with a lavender baguette; Korean blood sausage with housemade kimchi and pickled ginger; and braunschweiger, done two ways. Jasinski utilized just about everything she possibly could from her pig, including the brains, kidneys, heart, blood and liver, as well as the femur bone, which she turned into a "shot glass," easily one of the most clever uses of pig I've ever seen. Frank Bonanno's menu, shaped like a pig, pimped pork in seventeen different manifestations. Good lard almighty! Bonanno's pig platter hustled everything from a bánh mì surfaced with headcheese, barbecued pork and live mousse to steamed buns and porchetta and lardo polenta. But Bonanno didn't stop there: He also turned out pork ravioli floating in a Parmesan brodo. Fruition and Fruition Farms chef Alex Seidel, who won Cochon 555, delivered a sensational board of pork that started with lardo butter and maple-glazed bacon and ended with my favorite dish of the night: sugar-glazed guanciale, smoked almonds and crackling brittle puddled in a blood anglaise, which at least one judge licked dry. Seidel's raw sheep's milk-braised pork belly with Fruition Farms cavatelli, grilled ramps, roasted oyster mushrooms, Swabian-ramp broth and shaved truffles, served in petite white dishes, to which a spotted pink-and-white pig was attached. Frasca's Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson's pig plate. His chicharróns were superb. Top Chef contestant and chef Kelly Liken named her pig "Harold," and her plate, which included six different presentations, was dubbed "Harold's All-American Road Trip." I loved her "pork n' beans," a cassoulet-like dish with smoked pork's head, trotters and pig's skin and ears. Cochon 555 wasn't just about pig food; it was also about pig art, as evidenced by this papier-mâché pig's head, complete with his teeth intact. Alex Seidel and Kelly Liken take the stage before the award ceremony. Alex Seidel got a little help from a few friends, including Jeff Osaka of twelve and Lon Symensma from Cholon. Top Chef winner and Boulder-based chef Hosea Rosenberg with Max MacKissock, our 2011 Best of Denver Chef of the Year. Because man (and woman) can't live by swine alone, there was also cheese from Cured, a new Boulder cheese shop that will open in May.