We had the good fortune (and great connections) to attend the Second Annual Cochon 555, held at Silverado Resort yesterday. Big props and many thanks to Jeff Blaum and Beth Pryor of Chase Family Winery for our VIP tix. We loved every minute of this event.
Cochon 555 is the brainchild of Brady Lowe of Taste Network in Atlanta. It has morphed from a twice a year, bi-coastal event, alternating between Atlanta and Napa Valley, into a traveling Pork Road Show with stops this year in Napa, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Des Moines, Washington D.C., Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco, ending with The Grand Cochon at the Aspen Food and Wine Festival in June, that will pit all the winners from the different cities against each other. Brady presumably will find time in there somewhere to also present a couple more “Primal” events, another food fest extolling the virtues of wood-fired, whole-animal cookery and sustainably raised livestock. Primal was held last October at the above-mentioned Chase Family Winery’s Hayne Vineyard in St. Helena (click here for my post about that hedonistic little get-together).
The five Chefs (six, if you want to get technical) were Christopher Kostow of Meadowood (recently awarded 4-star status by His Holiness, MB in the Chronicle for his efforts there), John Stewart and Duskie Estes of Zazu Restaurant and Farm in Santa Rosa, Dennis Lee of Namu on Balboa St. in SF, Devin Knell of The French Laundry, and Peter Pahk, Executive Chef of the hosting Silverado Resort.
After an hour of warm-ups eating some great cheeses, oysters from the appropriately included Hog Island, some great wines from Chase, Larkin, Miner, and others, as well as some “stiffs” from Alembic, the doors were swung open to Silverado’s convention center facility and a-porking we did go.
As expected, the first and longest lines formed immediately at The French Laundry’s tables, so we by-passed them for the time being, and started with Peter Pahk’s renderings from the Yorkshire hog he was allocated. Chef Pahk wowed us with his Mandoo, a Siu Mai-style dumpling with a Pork Consomme, and his “Bacon and Eggs”: tonkatsu, a fried mini Pork cutlet, with soft scrambled eggs and ko choo jung, a Korean hot sauce. An excellent start, and two of my favorite dishes of the day.
Carole and I, along with Mike from Vallejo (A.K.A. Mr. Delicious), moved on over to the Namu table, glancing over to the corner briefly to see Ryan Farr of 4505 Meats start in on dressing down a full hog from start to bloody finish. More on that a bit later. We also looked over in the direction of the Meadowood table, and it was empty still. H-m-m-m. More on that a bit later, too.
Dennis Lee of Namu had shredded, braised pork Korean-style tacos that are all the rage at the taco trucks in LA these days. They were topped with a Kimchee “powder” the Chef had made by pulverizing the shit out of the fermented cabbage in a Robot Coupé; plus an array of items served together on small, crisp cups of Romaine lettuce : some spicy Kimchee, a tiny slice of a gelatinous prosciutto “terrine”, a just-shucked Sweetwater Oyster, a pork sausage, and a little hot sauce. This was my absolute favorite dish of the day: spicy, salty, crunchy, with the creamy oyster and lettuce cup adding a clean, refreshing factor to the equation.
By this time a bit of a line was forming at Meadowood’s table, but not enough to draw our interest yet. So on to Zazu.
John and Duskie tried to keep up with the crowd, but being in a corner spot and having fried-to-order Pork Corn Dogs was enough to draw a line that snaked almost all the way across the sizable room, and they were deep in the weeds all day. As we finally worked our way up to the first corner of their table, we got a sample of some Kettle-style popcorn seasoned with Bacon Salt. Whoah-ho!! Then a slice of summer sausage topped with some tiny French green lentils, followed by a very good Pork Slider, and some of their spicy, house-made salumi; but when we finally reached the Holiest of Holies, the Corn Dog station, we were informed they were doing their “Judges Plates” that were soon to be whisked off to be critiqued in another room. So we dutifully stood aside, sacrificing our chance at the Corn Dogs for the sake of the spirit of competition, and moved on. We’ll be bah-h-k…
Meadowood was next. Where Zazu had pots and pans atop several propane burners, a deep fryer, the popcorn machine, and half a dozen people putting out five different items; and Namu had similarly hectic tables full of Mis En Place, Meadowood had only two long, skinny wooden “boats” with some decidedly non-spectacular Pork Belly pieces on them. Meh. Their tables were absolutely barren in comparison to the others. I heard that they had some other, different items out a bit later; but, for us, the damage was done. We were so unintigued by our first go-round, and there was so much good stuff elsewhere, we didn’t waste any of our time returning. Somewhat in their defense, I talked to Steffan Terje of Perbacco SF, who was one of the twenty judges this year. He told me that Chef Kostow’s stuff was his favorite at the Judges’ Table, and included a Pork “Tea” brewed inside a tiny bag of cheesecloth, and other similarly detailed items. But Meadowood’s table was severely under-supplied and under-staffed all day, so we didn’t get a chance to try any of them. The event’s scoring was 49% judges opinion, 51% on the attendees’ votes. So, like Bush in 2000, Meadowood might have won the College, but they lost the Popular.
So, that left only TFL’s table to try. On one end of their rectangular station, they were plating a Pork Terrine with Black Truffles, topped with Pork Geleè (Fresh black truffles at an event like this? Are you effing kidding me?!!), a quenelle of Tomato Concassè (done ala minùte by the Fastest Quenelle Makers in the West), and half of a perfectly hard-boiled quail egg. Across the middle section they were serving toasted baguette slices topped with Glibenschmalz (we got a good bit of joke-mileage out of that name), a rillete-type spread; and “Skin and Bones”, pork tenderloin with a crispy Pork Skin wrapping, served with a Bone Marrow Foam; and at the other end of the rectangle, a fried Pork cutlet with a savory gravy.
Devin and his French Laundry team were like that beautiful blonde Cheerleader back in High School that got Straight-A ‘s, volunteered with retarded kids after school, was just so fucking hot looking and so unbelievably nice that it just all had to be fake, right? You really wanted to hate her, but you just couldn’t. Not only were their plates beautiful and delicious, but their station was pristine; they were all cheerful, friendly, and so damn cute; and Devin took the time to happily answer any and all questions (probably the same ones, asked over and over and over, a million times). They did the best job of any of the five competitors with their crowd management: lines moved quickly and efficiently. And, much to their credit, they didn’t do a “Cut and Run” either, like they have been known to at similar events in the past, where they showed up with about one-third enough food, gave it all out in the first half-hour, then put up a “Sorry You Missed Us” sign and split (“Wow! It must have been great stuff, it’s all gone already!!”). They continued serving the same great looking plates, right up until the final bell.
So when all was said and done my favorite, despite TFL’s over-the-top effort, was Chef Lee from Namu. He got my vote, my wife’s vote, and Mr. Delicious’ vote. But the People and the Judges had already spoken, and they were speaking French…Laundry, that is; and Chef Devin and his crew took home the day’s top honor. Honorable mention goes to the Chiccharrones from 4505 Meats. They were not included in the vote, but shoudl’ve been. They were like Pork Cotton Candy, light as air, and absolutely fabulous.
We, on the other hand, took home some Top Round and some un-cured bacon/belly that we won in a Business Card raffle that gave away all the different cuts broken down by Ryan over the course of the three-hour event. Winner, winner, Eat a Pig Dinner!!
Many thanks to Chef Pahk for the photos…you can see more on his Facebook Page