The Pork Olympics
Cochon 555 is the most important yearly food tour and competition that celebrates heritage pig breeds, sustainable food sourcing, and local farmers and winemakers in all their glorious togetherness. Here is the story of how this culinary phenomenon was born – and how it is changing the way the food world thinks and works.
You can’t fault Brady Lowe for overusing the term “blew my mind.” The man who founded Cochon 555 throws around the term freely when he talks about the chefs, winemakers, farmers, and other links in the farm-to-table chain that bring the “Pork Olympics,” as it has become known, to life. Interestingly for an impresario, though, he does not tend to say much about the “average people” (read: foodie freak jobs like me) who go to Cochon.
So I’ll do it for him. Cochon 555, which I attended in DC last year, blew my mind right out the top of my head.
It started when I stumbled on a website posting that nearly made me choke on the rib bone I was probably gnawing on at the time. Five heritage breed pigs. Five of DC’s best chefs. Five winemakers. I didn’t have to be asked twice. I quickly dropped three figures and started a vigil outside the Ritz-Carlton DC. When the doors finally opened, I was physically assaulted by the smell of roasting pork. I’m not talking a mixed bag of restaurant kitchen smells with a faint trace of bacon. I’m talking the type of pure essence that is hard to find unless you’re standing next to a pit-roasting hog. It was like the best punch in the face I’ve ever had.
The next couple of hours were blurry. Did I just eat pig’s head torchon? Was that a pistachio truffle lollipop draped with lardo? Posole with slow-roasted pork… bacon ice cream sundae… Pork Slap beer…seven kinds of pate? Is that Ryan Farr of 4505Meats, and did he just butcher a whole pig in an hour? Is he business card raffling all the best cuts, including the pig’s face stuffed with its own shoulder? Did my girlfriend just break up with me out of disgust? Am I in the emergency room? Yes on almost all fronts, although I survived and her adventurous performance was yet more proof that proposing was the best decision I ever made.
But the over-stimulation made me lose sight of what this is all about, and I slept on it for about a year. With Cochon 555 approaching again in DC, I decided to try to follow the story all the way from source to store. Given that I couldn’t find a good written history of the event’s origins, I harassed Brady Lowe mercilessly until I got him on the phone. What he told me, well, it blew what was left of my mind.
Cochon 555 is of humble-but-high-end origins. Lowe founded Taste Network, which quickly became the premier wine and cheese tasting event in Atlanta, in the early 2000s. As he describes it, “I was one of the first people in the country to do dedicated events around wine and cheese pairings, and over four or five years, we did lots of work with corporations, we partnered with Whole Foods, we hosted people at art galleries. All high price point stuff.”
And then things progressed. “After a while, people started asking me to do pairing dinners,” said Lowe. “I had to know where all the food came from for those dinners, and I was just amazed that the chefs I hired were showing up with your average grocery bags. I didn’t like that at all, so we started sourcing better and focusing on sustainability.”
The evolution came around the time the meat craze was sweeping the country in the early-to-mid 2000s, when bellies were becoming increasingly full of pork (belly). “Meat was what really took hold,” said Lowe. “When I pitched my programming calendar to chefs to see if they wanted to be involved, every one of them chose ‘pig party,’ and there was no way I was going to be able to do 5-6 roasts a month.”
But the idea stuck, and a name was born in an unlikely place. A friend of Lowe’s had a habit of leaving him voice messages with a callback number beginning “555,” which as a prefix is usually reserved for romantic comedy films and post-drunken rendezvous fake outs. Five pigs. Five chefs. Five wineries. With the numbers ringing in his head, Lowe moved forward aggressively.
Cochon 555 kicked off in September 2008, when Lowe partnered with Slow Food for Amuse Cochon in Atlanta. I couldn’t find any reviews of the event, but I assume it went well, because just over a month later, Lowe held a second Amuse Cochon in Napa. His lineup there – Chris Cosentino of Incanto, Farr of 4505Meats, Allan Benton of Benton Hams, Taylor Boetticher of the Fatted Calf, and Peter Pahk of the Silverado Resort – showed that serious chefs with serious game were seriously interested. Cosentino won the overall prize, perhaps in part because he was the only chef to utilize pig uterus, and the momentum began to build after that.
Cochon 555 wove its way through Portland, Des Moines, San Francisco, New York City, Napa, and Atlanta in 2009. The tour expanded, both geographically and in terms of my stomach, in 2010, adding DC, Boston, Seattle, and Aspen, where the annual Food and Wine Festival became the venue for winners of each local event to compete for the tour’s national championship: Grand Cochon.
The first two years can be characterized as slow growth. Most of the media coverage came from local blogs and news websites, and the folks who wrote those stories were more interested in the novelty of the event than the mission and the empire-building going on behind the scenes. Like me, they got too full, too fast to pay attention to what was really happening.
Cochon 555 is a one-of-a-kind traveling culinary competition and tasting event–five chefs, five pigs, five wine makers–to promote sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs. Each stop along the ten-city tour offers hard-working local farmers the opportunity to connect with like-minded agriculturalists, renowned chefs and the pork-loving public. Our goal is to help family farms sustain and expand their businesses and to encourage breed diversity. Cochon 555 is the only heritage breed pig culinary competition in the country.
But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Says Lowe, “If you’re a farmer and you participate, you get to put your hog breeds in front of high-level chefs that you might not have a chance to meet otherwise. We’re looking for farms that are off the grid, and we are building links between them. Farmers are even able to find other farms that have hogs, so they can do some cross breeding. People now drive pigs from Seattle to Maryland just to breed.”
When you take into account crosses, there are a dizzying number of breeds involved. The rich Red Wattle, the juicy Duroc, the trendy Mangalitsa, the wily Ossabaw, the long belly Tamworth, the nutty Gloucestershire Old Spots, the smoky Berkshire, the lean Hampshire, the heavy-hoofed Mulefoot, the fatty Guinea. And of course the new king of hogs: the Berker-Wattle-Baw (Berkshire + Red Wattle + Ossabaw) from Bev Eggleston of Eco Friendly Foods in Maryland. At each event, Lowe hands out pamphlets that explain the characteristics of the breeds.
Lowe and the chefs go on and on about the farmers. Like Eggleston, the world renowned pork purveyor who breeds dynamic mixes that bring together the best aspects of each animal. He’s a fixture in the food world, and on most Sunday mornings, you’ll find him hawking his goods at DC’s Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market. The last time I was there, he had the largest piece of pork belly I have seen or will ever see. And he was letting people know about it.
There are others. “Mark Newman of Newman Farms in Missouri is one of the hardest working farmers in America,” said Lowe. “He spends 150 hours a week on the road. He hand delivers to every chef, and makes the dream real for a lot of folks who want to work with heritage products and do things right.”
Lowe also saves special praise for Carl Blake of Rustic Rooster Farms in Iowa: “Carl really saw the niche for heritage breeds. He is probably the person most responsible for bringing the Swabian-Hall breed back from extinction. He saves animals from the Iowa State University Agriculture Department, and he’s trying to create an entire heritage gene pool in the middle of Iowa to outfit chefs in the Midwest. He drove 90 miles in an ice storm to give me a heritage breed Turkey for Thanksgiving.”
With these farmers, who work on low margins and compete against mammoth industrial farms, Lowe is fighting a Sisyphean battle, but he’s trying to do it in a way that provides as much opportunity as possible. “I’m always thinking about how I can make this more worthwhile for the farmers,” he said. “We’re not just going to buy a pig from them and have them come to the event and wander around. They’ll meet the competing chefs. They’ll meet the other chefs and food writers who are judging. We’re giving them as many tools for engagement as we can.”
The competing chefs are a heritage breeds unto themselves. The average person might recognize some of the names of the restaurants involved – Telepan, Lark, The French Laundry, Bourbon Steak, Sepia, Cochon – but that same person might not know the chef’s names. Lowe likes it that way. “These are chefs who don’t necessarily want the notoriety or the TV shows,” he said. “They are the ones who work in the kitchens on Saturday night, do the ordering, handle inventory, write menus. They are the ones who are in the system, and they are gaining respect.”
Perhaps no one gained more respect last year than David Varley, the King of Pork who won at Grand Cochon. When I asked the former executive chef at Bourbon Steak DC about the importance of the tour, he said, “This is really all about fun.” I pressed him on that answer, given that most of the chefs I talked to about the tour mentioned fun only after they told me how serious and competitive things are. I couldn’t tell where there was a wan smile on the other end of the phone when he said, “Well, I dominated the competition last year. I get to stay above the fray.” Those are confident-going-on-cocky words, particularly because Varley is competing again this year in San Francisco, where he is now the corporate chef for Michael Mina.
The confidence may be well-placed. If there are true underdog stories in the food world, David Varley 2010 is one of the best. He won the DC event against better-knowns including R.J. Cooper, the former Vidalia chef who will soon open Rogue 24, one of the most anticipated new restaurants in DC in years. In talking about that experience, Varley gave a window into how challenging the competition is.
“You are judged by two very different sets of people,” he said. “There are the judges, including celebrities, renowned chefs, and good industry people that account for 49% of the vote. They look for execution, utilization, flavor, and presentation. The other 51% of the vote comes from the people. They are looking for that one thing that sticks in their mind as the best thing they tasted.” Not to mention, the chefs are given only electricity to work with; no smokers, no grills, no spits.
Taking this into account, Varley’s “porkeo cookies” may have been the single best dish on tour last year. “For me, the porkeo cookies were big,” he said. “I went back 50 years and did Oreos the way they were originally done, with chocolate lard biscuits and lard frosting. I did 11 things for the judges and went crazy putting them all together, but the people remembered the cookie. That was the key.”
What Varley did next was the stuff of legend. He traveled to Grand Cochon, the gathering of winners from all the local and regional competitions, and took the King of Pork crown, besting a roster of up-and-comers including Sean Brock, the 2010 Southeast James Beard Award winner from Husk in Charleston, South Carolina. Brock’s name came up in almost every interview I did on Cochon.
“I was confident with the food we were doing in the restaurant,” said Varley. “But I won because I had the best pig in the competition, a Berker-Wattle-Baw cross from Bev. It was such a high-quality animal with a perfect balance of fat and meat and an unbelievable flavor profile.”
Grand Cochon allows the 10 competitors to prepare only three dishes, so Varley used his pig to make porkeo cookies, a pate en croute with black truffle and pig foot demi glace, and a “jungle” thai curry. Classic American, French, and Thai techniques, harmonized to win over judges including Jacques Pepin. Varley said his team took the title in part because they put together a “tight mise en place,” which is a bit of an understatement considering they prepped and shipped more than 300 pounds of ingredients from Washington to Aspen ahead of the event.
Varley goes humble when he talks about other aspects of the experience, particularly the farmers. “Without those people providing diversity, something else to eat other than our factory food system, we’re at a loss as a country,” he said. “These are some of the most important, quality people I’ve ever met. The people who have brought the most joy to me throughout my career.” Brady Lowe puts a fine point on it, explaining that when he first met Varley, he brought a farmer with him to Bourbon Steak in DC. Varley proceeded to talk only to the farmer for the next hour.
The King of Pork also saves high praise for the other chefs that are participating in Cochon 555 and supporting its mission. “Matt Jennings [of La Laiterie in Providence, Rhode Island] is the guy to beat,” said Varley. “He’s won three regional events, he’s an unbelievable chef, and he’s a passionate advocate for farmers.”
He also mentions Nic Heckett, who is making what Varley calls “America’s best artisanal food product” with his aged hams out of DC. And there’s Adam Sobel, a friend since culinary school who succeeded him at Bourbon Steak. Varley calls Sobel the “frontrunner” in the DC competition, and presses one last point. “I hope Adam wins in DC,” he said. “Because I want to publicly embarrass him at Grand Cochon in Aspen.” With both the DC and San Francisco events on the horizon, we’ll just have to wait and see.
I asked Brady Lowe what’s next for Cochon, and he wrapped the whole enterprise in a tight package for me. First, he somewhat sheepishly took credit for the obvious surge of interest in heritage breed pigs among chefs, foodies, and farmers. He said that Cochon would soon be launching a national database of people in the heritage breed hog game, which will formalize the network he has created and allow it to grow even more. It is amazing that the national network has been created and solidified in just over two years.
He also talked about this year’s Aspen event. “The winner of 2011 Grand Cochon is going to get a guest residency at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains,” said Lowe. “It is like the French Laundry of the South. The animals are there, the farms are there, the biggest wine cellar in the region is there. It is like the most luxurious farm to table experience in the universe.”
As if this wasn’t luxurious enough, Lowe then went on a riff, which I’ve included in its entirety here:
The New York City event this year was amazing. We went through 1.5KG of caviar and oysters at the beginning. Then at the end, nobody knew what Bobby Hellen from Resto was going to do with the roast pig [each local event ends with a chef bringing out a whole roast hog]. I new he wanted to do some spin on chicken and waffles, and then he brings out stacks of Belgian waffles with a maple-brined and roasted, milk-fed pig from D’Artagnan. People were fighting each other for the skin, and on top of that he had whipped lard butter, chipotle-blackberry jam, hot sauces. It was insane. Then we headed over to his restaurant for the after party and he brought out another whole pig and champagne. Definitely one of my most memorable evenings in food.
It would make sense to say here that Lowe’s job “isn’t all travel and toil,” but I know from experience that attacking a spread like that is hard work. Still, the togetherness he’s getting at is a vein that runs deep in Cochon 555.
“We are all brothers,” said David Varley of the chefs who have bought in to the tour and the mission. “If these breeds aren’t raised in the heritage fashion, they’re no different than other things. You need good genetics and humane techniques. Chefs have know this for years, and now Brady is helping consumers catch on. At the end of the day, pork is just better when it’s responsibly raised.”
Mike Isabella, the popular cheftestant on Bravo’s Top Chef and a judge at the upcoming Cochon 555 event in DC, agreed. “This is the fastest growing competition in the country. It’s all about the chefs, the farmers, the pigs, the wines, and local food done the right way. That’s good for everybody, and I hope I’ll be able to compete in the future.”
I’ll be attending Cochon 555 in DC on March 13. Between now and then, watch out for a series of profiles on the chefs who are competing this year:
- The Man with the Momentum: Chef Scott Drewno, Source
- The New Guy: Chef Adam Sobel, Bourbon Steak
- The Leading Light: Chef Jaime Leeds, Hank’s Oyster Bar
- The Budding Superstar: Chef Bryan Voltaggio, VOLT
- The Outsider: Chef Tarver King, Ashby Inn
- The Pork Savant: Chef Ed Witt, 701 Restaurant
Sam Hiersteiner grew up in Kansas City, and the answer to your next question is “Arthur Bryant’s.” He lives in Washington, DC, where he consults for non-profits and foundations by day and entertains pipe dreams of becoming a butcher after dark. Read his full Sam’s Good Meats archive on HyperVocal.