There are a million things to say about the experience. It was the creative outlet I’ve wanted and needed for a long time. It was a cheap and relatively painless way to create my own foodie heaven here on earth. It was my own small contribution to advancing the Cochon mission. It was a chance to meet some amazing, passionate people. It was all of these things. But still I’m looking for the right way to put the series to bed.
Some appreciation is due. Chef Scott Drewno of The Source by Wolfgang Puck won the prize against tough competition: Bryan Voltaggio (VOLT), Jamie Leeds (Hank’s Oyster Bar), Adam Sobel (Bourbon Steak DC), and Tarver King (Ashby Inn), with Ed Witt (701 Restaurant) batting clean-up. The chefs, their teams, and Cochon founder Brady Lowe gave me precious time to go a level deeper on this competition and what it means. And I certainly had some fun along the way.
—Sunday, March 13, 3:40am: In my dream, I sit at the Cochon 555 judge’s table with only a plastic spork, and nothing I stab with it will stick. Tom Waits’ “Looks Like I’m Up Sh*t Creek Again” plays in the background. My screams are not heard.
—9:30am: I go for a three mile run and take my red yeast rice pill, knowing full well that both actions are more about my emotional well being at this point.
—10:30am: After telling myself that fasting is the best approach on Cochon day, I prepare banh mi benedict with homemade corned beef and pate de campagne. As John Daly, one of the quiet inspirations for today, would say: “Grip it and rip it.”
—2:00pm: The pacing begins. Sweatpants, check. Elastic extender for sweatpants, check. Health insurance card, check. Neebop Steerable Knee Walker, check. Dignity, check check check.
—3:30pm: Arrive at Cochon. Notice immediately that famed heritage purveyor Bev Eggleston (Eco Friendly Foods) is wearing a piece of caul fat on his head. Can’t help but think that many traditional cannibal recipes –- like “Polynesian Pirate Nose Stew” –- start this way. Will research intensively for a future column.
For a pork focused event, Cochon is quite the cattle call. Lines are a defining feature. At the Choptank Oyster Company station, which she zeroed in on the moment we arrived. At the Belmont Butchery table, which was one of my favorite stops of the night (pork mousse terrine with porcini mushrooms and headcheese were the highlights). In the Woodlands Pork corner, where Nic Heckett was lovingly carving an aged ham leg. At the Cowgirl Creamery cheese wall, where foraging was rife. At the Butternuts Beer and Ale bar. At the wine pours. And I haven’t even gotten to the competition floor yet.
—4:15pm: Start to see the chefs poke their heads in to the pre-event reception. Pleased to know that they remember my name (Saul Hirschfeldner) from our interviews.
—4:45pm: Take Blanton’s bourbon shots with David Varley, the King of Pork 2010 who won both the DC event and the national competition. Chase shots with Heckett’s aged ham. Chase aged ham with smoked sausage.
—5:00pm: Smuggle myself into the judges room in Scott Drewno’s hot box, the same way I got to interview him in the first place. Wide girth of experience at the judge’s table.
—5:05pm: Witness Drewno present to the judges. Wonder why he hasn’t prepared a stinky tofu dish. Seems like a huge, huge oversight.
—5:10pm: Pop into the oxygen station, decline the optional stomach pumping and/or colonic, before hitting the competition floor.
Even though I love putting food words to paper, I’m finding it almost impossible to explain Cochon day. There are so many things for people to consider and for judges to consider, and the twain shall meet only at the taste buds. Most of the chefs I talked to, including Varley and RJ Cooper of DC’s anticipated Rogue 24, said that it was important to nail 1-2 dishes for the public and display your technique and utilization chops for the judges. There is so much to taste that going into the event thinking you’re going to be a journeyman judge is a fool’s errand.
All that said, I did have some favorite dishes. Tarver King’s “offaly good gougere,” a dense pastry with nasty bits, was really nice (Black Pig). Jamie Leeds’ cumin braised pork shoulder and blood pudding were both spicy and full of depth (Gloucestershire Old Spots). Bryan Voltaggio’s headcheese presse was so perfectly done that I heard some people asking whether it was bacon (Farmer’s Cross). Adam Sobel’s tonkatsu ramen with homemade, bouncy alkaline noodles was great (Tamworth). Scott Drewno’s potstickers were expertly done (Berkshire). You could’ve put the cheese sauce from Ed Witt’s tasty “ham and cheese” whole hog on an old wooden shoe and it would’ve been edible.
—6:00pm: Meat Sweat Steve, the apparition that usually only follows me around when I do my annual BBQ tour of Kansas City, just arrived. I bury my face in a bourbon iced tea, trying not to make eye contact.
—6:10pm: Back in the judges room, Brady Lowe gives each person around the table a spoonful of Black River Caviar as a palette cleanser. After I am passed over, I sob greasy tears into my sleeve.
—6:30pm: My trusty friend Dan seems to have reached the overconsumption point and left the building. Also can’t find my knee walker. Somewhere, a slow motion car chase is underway.
—6:32pm: Watch Pam the Butcher from Wagshal’s hack a hog to pieces (while wearing a Star of David around her neck).
Because I didn’t get to try all of the food on the floor, I got in touch with one of the judges, RJ Cooper, to get some insight into how the chefs rated against each other. The first thing he said was, “Ugh. I’m getting through my pork hangover. I couldn’t even sleep last night.” I joked with him about the fact that he was heading out again that night to judge another cook-off, the banh mi throwdown at Ba Bay. Full disclosure: I also went to the event, after which she said, “I can’t believe you just ate seven sandwiches.”
Cooper is a veteran of the last two Cochon events in DC, so he knows what he is talking about when it comes to the challenges involved and what it takes to win. “Everyone showed really well and had some memorable stuff,” he said. “Drewno’s Asian twist was good. Bryan Voltaggio’s plates had the best finesse. The most flavorful porkiness was from Tarver King, who I had winning on my ballot.”
He went on. “Each person had a dish that I really liked. Sobel’s corned pig’s heart reuben. Jamie’s blood pudding brulee. Voltaggio’s headcheese was perfect, and I loved the riff he went on with his yeast foam. I also loved Tarver’s hay ice cream, gougere, and pork belly with waffle. Scott’s dumpling with heart and kidney was really good.”
Cooper and I chatted about what makes for a winning combination at Cochon. Because the public vote is what really matters, food is only part of the equation. Drewno’s approach was illuminating. He was the only chef on the floor who was out in front of his table handing out plates and talking about them to each reveler. She noticed it before I even thought about it: “He’s so friendly!” Drewno also hand wrote fortune cookies for each judge, including Cooper: “Can’t believe you’re doing 24, because I had trouble coming up with 12.”
Cooper’s new restaurant is one of the most anticipated new ventures in a long time in DC, and it will be based on this premise of proximity: “Rogue 24 is going to have a kitchen in the middle of the restaurant, because interaction between chefs and restaurant goers is so important in this age. The media has really taken the chef out of the kitchen.”
As for Drewno, Cooper has some guidance for his trip to Grand Cochon. “What makes Scott’s food special is that it isn’t really Asian fusion, it is traditional, but then he twists it in his own way,” he said. “For Grand Cochon, Scott really needs to think about progression. He needs to sit down and eat the food for the flow and put himself in the judge’s state of mind. You can’t start with something that will blow the palette, like the chili squid did for us.”
—7:10pm: She holds me up as I sip water and labor to breathe. I wonder if Dan has gone out in a blaze of glory with my kneewalker. Scan the crowd for Meat Sweat Steve.
As things were drawing to a close, I had two experiences that crystallized what the event was about for me. I walked past the butchering demo table and glanced at a strange looking tally chart with names on it. The results of the business card raffle, which I was so sad to lose last year. Upon closer inspection, I saw my name at the bottom of the list, and before I knew it, I had a beautiful, expertly-cut rack of Yorkshire pork in my hands.
And then I walked by Heckett of Woodlands Pork, purveyor of what David Varley called “the best artisanal food product in America.” He hadn’t left his table all night, the aged ham leg – rich and complex and better than anything I’ve tasted, including in various trips to Spain (Heckett’s “biggest competitor”) – having dwindled to dust on his plate. I saw a monster slab of his hickory smoked bacon on the ground, and asked him what he was going to do with it. “I was planning on giving it to you,” he said. It was honor enough to even get to try his ham, but this was beyond generous. It was like having your favorite baseball player toss you a ball between innings. I already have about 10 pieces of my own applewood-smoked Ossabaw bacon in the freezer, but you can bet I found room for Heckett’s.
Listening to Nic, I got a closer look at the passion that is the foundation for this heritage pursuit than I would’ve gotten anywhere else. He is so deeply committed to his craft that it is hard not to be entranced when he speaks about his pigs foraging on crisp fall days in Kentucky. And he talks about this in a slightly different way. The mission isn’t first for him, not in the same way as Brady Lowe and others with whom I spoke. The quality of the product is paramount. To get there, he said, you need a pig that is raised the right way. Period. You would likely hear a similar story, when you get right down to it, from the Choptanks, the Belmonts, the Cowgirls, and the other local artisans and farmers that help make up the backbone of Cochon. The product just tastes better when it is done by hand from farm to table.
It may sound ridiculous, given how much pork the readers of this column have witnessed me eat, but my real hunger is for telling the stories of the chefs and artisans. More than anything else, this whole Cochon escapade helped me to that revelation.
—8:10pm: Congratulate Scott Drewno and the other chefs and slink off into the night. After party is an option, but I’m more interested in just hanging – recovering – with her.
EXTRAS: The Final Menus and Photos
Scott Drewno, The Source by Wolfgang Puck
–Crystal Chive Dumplings, Spicy XO Sauce
–Red Braised Pork Heart & Belly, Pickled Mustard Greens, Bao Buns
–Guilin Chili Pork Loin Stir Fry, Chow Feung
–The Whole Pig, Kumquat Puree
–Crispy Pig Skin & Ear “Thai Style” Salad, Green Papaya, Crisp Rice
–Open Faced Banh Mi, Brioche, Pate de Campagne
–Pork Belly Potstickers, Chinese Black Vinegar
–Chinese BBQ Pulled Pork, Turnip & Sausage Cake
–Char Sui Pork Fortune Cookie
–Confit Bacon & Maracona Almond Brittle
Bryan Voltaggio, VOLT
–Green Apple Macaroon (pork liver, apple butter, apple wood smoked bacon dust)
–Headcheese Presse (crispy pig ears, confit tongue, face bacon, garlic aioli, pickling spice vinaigrette)
–Crepinette (loin and pistachio sausage, forest mushrooms, fresh yeast, beer)
–Pork and Beans (hazelnuts, bacon, sorrel, cornbread puree)
–Pig’s Trotters (smoked hen egg, truffle gribiche)
–Popped Pig (maple, old bay, malt vinegar)
–Smoked Ham Hock-Chestnut Cream Soda w/ Maker’s Mark
Adam Sobel, Bourbon Steak DC
–Tonkatsu Ramen Noodle (belly, braised ear, pork broth, alkaline noodles, quail egg, kim chi, scallions, woodear mushrooms)
–BBQ Pulled Pork Cupcakes (smoked and BBQ pork shoulders and ribs, cheddar and green onion drop biscuits)
–Charcuterie Duo (mortadella from the leg, studded with fat back and sicilian pistachios; headcheese with foie gras, herbs and mustard seeds, shaved artichokes, noble vinegar)
–Porchos (annato, citrus and ancho-rubbed loins, chicharrones, rancho gordo refried beans w/ lard, avocado salsa verde, queso fresco, pickled onions, cilantro)
–Pig and Truffle Martini (black truffle and lard washed vodka, olives stuffed with pig’s knuckle and black truffle cheese)
–Corned Pig’s Heart Reuben (1000 island dressing, cole slaw, sauerkraut, swiss, toasted Jewish rye)
–The Fat Elvis (bacon, peanut butter, milk chocolate, banana egg rolls w/ passion fruit duck sauce)
Jamie Leeds, Hank’s Oyster Bar
–Liver Parfait with Crispy Shallots
–Headcheese with Pickles
–Preserved Lemon Braised Pork Belly Mignonette with Dragon Creek Oysters
–Ricotta Pork Meatballs with Oregano, Basil and Tomatoes
–Cumin Braised Pork Shoulder with Creamy Grits and Lemon Fried Olive
–Pepper Roasted Loin with Toasted Pine Nuts, Currants and EVOO
–Blood Pudding Brulee
Tarver King, Ashby Inn and Restaurant
–Quail Egg with Pig Heart
–Belly & Waffle w/ Guanciale
–Offaly Good Gougere
–Trotter and Toast with Apple Mustard
–Caramelized Pork Rib
–Hay Ice Cream with Pig Ear Crust
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.
Also, make sure to follow Sam on Twitter @samsgoodmeats.