Cochon555 is a national touring food festival that elevates the humble hog to celebrated status. While Cochon hits more than a dozen cities before culminating in the Grand Cochon (which will be held in Chicago this year), each event showcases the talents of local chefs who work with pigs raised in their own states. Denver's Cochon555 takes place this Sunday, March 19, bringing together five Colorado cooks who will compete under the theme "International Barbecue" for the chance to move on to the big national showdown in Chicago.
One of those chefs is Bill Miner, co-owner of Il Porcellino Salumi in the Berkeley neighborhood. Il Porcellino isn't a high-end bistro or white-tablecloth eatery that you'd expect at such a prestigious event. Instead, the little neighborhood shop comes across as a simple sandwich shop with a deli case full of tempting cured meats. The magic behind the glass is all the preparation and time that Miner, co-owner Brian Albano and the rest of the team put into creating both traditional and creative versions of salumi and charcuterie. The aging room behind the counter is proof of their efforts, with all manner of whole-muscle and ground products hanging for months before they're ready for sale. Every slice of meat on every sandwich and salumi board is made in-house — and it all begins with a pig.
Il Porcellino sources all of its meat from Colorado farms and ranches, which matches perfectly with the theme of Cochon555. Each of the five chefs are assigned a heritage-breed pig from a Colorado farmer, the pigs are delivered, and the chefs and their teams go to work, breaking down the carcasses into usable cuts and then creating delectable dishes to wow the Cochon judges.
Miner's pig was delivered on Thursday, March 9, making the short trip from Cone Ranch in Julesberg to Innovative Foods (a USDA-approved processing plant in Weld County) to Il Porcellino. Dave Ellicot of Innovative Foods explains that Cone Ranch sends him about eight to ten naturally raised Berkshire hogs each week, which are slaughtered and dressed for delivery to butcher shops and local eateries like Il Porcellino. Kelly and Trina Reichman, owners of Cone Ranch, raise Berkshires registered with the American Berkshire Association; the animals are brought up on vegetarian feed without hormones or antibiotics and have access to mud wallows and space for rooting during the warmer months in northeastern Colorado.
Ellicot notes that Berkshires are a great breed for chefs because of the rich, dark meat — more like steak than "the other white meat" associated with industrial hog farms — and excellent fat, both in the marbling and in thick outer layers. This is the fourth year that Innovative Meats has provided Cone Ranch hogs for Cochon, and Ellicot points out that chefs have won twice in that time with Berkshires he's delivered.
Miner was excited to learn that Il Porcellino had landed a Berkshire for the contest and agrees with Ellicot's assessment. "It looks more like beef and has great color and flavor and back fat," he notes.
Before the meat was delivered, the crew at Il Porcellino was busy devising recipes for the contest. While Miner and Albano previously worked as chefs in both restaurants and the catering business, the primary focus of Il Porcellino is cured meats, but that takes time, and time is in short supply in the days before the big event. But different types of traditional charcuterie — terrines, mousses and fresh sausage, for example — can be made without aging. Miner says they'll be utilizing some of those French techniques but will also get creative with some of the cuts.
So what will that Cone Ranch Berkshire hog become in the hands of Il Porcellino's team? While Miner didn't want to divulge every dish, he says to look for a kimchi headcheese soup dumpling and pork "ceviche" with smoked jalapeños, lime and chicharrones. And there might even be a pork dessert in the works. As a special bonus that won't be on the judges' scorecards, the salumeria will be handing out slices of dry-cured country ham aged for sixteen months, the longest Il Porcellino has aged any of its products.
The other chefs at this year's Cochon are Will Nolan of the Viceroy in Snowmass, Darrel Truett of Barolo Grill, Hosea Rosenberg of Blackbelly, and Burton Koelliker of Osteria Marco. Other chefs will also be on hand to serve up global barbecue that won't be part of the official judging; they include Joshua Pollack of Rosenberg's Bagels, Kyle Foster of the upcoming Julep, Jason Ganahl of GQue BBQ, Jae Lee of the Curtis Hotel, Bo Porytko and Dan Lasiy of Rebel Restaurant, and Jeff Osaka of Osaka Ramen and 12@Madison.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.