The challenge: prepare six courses using as many parts of a whole heritage breed pig for 24 judges. Consider how hard it would be to pull that off for private guests, much less be judged on it! That, however, is exactly what each chef had to pull off last Sunday for the Cochon 555 barbeque competition. This was in addition to preparing small plates throughout the night for a crowd that filled a ballroom of the W Hotel in Austin.
(The "555" stands for five cities that the tour goes to each year, five chefs that compete in each and five beverage pairings.)
The point of the event was to bring awareness about heritage breed pigs, like Duroc, Ossabaw and Yorkshire, which are far different from "commodity pigs" raised by farms that deal in big volume production. The meat is richer and fuller in flavor. Even the fat is tasty. As more farmers turn to commodity pigs to help them make ends meet, some heritage breeds are in danger of becoming extinct. They are harder to raise, not as profitable and require more attention.
The hundreds of attendees were in pig heaven. Not only was there tons of porky goodness to eat, but there were pig races (using battery operated stuffed pigs in bright colors), pig T-shirts for sale and also a pig butchery demonstration by Bryan Butler of Austin butcher shop and restaurant Salt And Time. Best of all, the meat that they carved was auctioned off afterward at fire sale prices.
Despite the competition being in Austin, there was plenty of Houston representation on hand. Chef Justin Yu of Oxheart was a competitor. Chefs Ronnie Killen (Killen's BBQ), Jean-Philippe Gaston (Kata Robata and their upcoming yet-to-be-named izakaya), Patrick Feges (Feges BBQ) and Jordan Asher (Dosi) all served the crowd. It would be inaccurate to call what was served "small bites." Just as an example, Killen was serving big hunks of beef ribs.
He wasn't the only one serving ribs. Guests were greeted upon arrival with a "welcome rib" from Austin's Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew and several different spiked punches to sample. Who needs Champagne when you're welcomed with a barbequed pork rib, anyway?
The competitors, in addition to Yu, were Ned Elliott of Foreign & Domestic, Dustin Harvey of East Side King, Daniel Olivella of Barlata and Mat Clouser & Zack Northcutt of Swift's Attic. Yu did not bring home a Houston win, despite an outstanding, meat-centric menu that included pork loin, a seared, sauce rib and barbeque pork jowl. Instead, the award of a set of Breville equipment, 18 bottles of Four Roses Bourbon and 3 bottles of Eagle Rare Magnums went to Harvey of East Side King.
The East Side King menu focused on the Kune Kune heritage breed of pig and included a variety of charcuterie; chicharron with fried bone marrow and brain aioli (don't knock it until you try it); smoked tonkotsu shoyu with hearts of palm "noodles"; pork blood pudding and crispy innards and grilled pork confit. Considering their menu, it is safe to say they handily met the criteria of utilizing as many parts of the pig as they could.
There was no shortage of booze either. There were several bourbons on hand, A bartender preparing shaken Manhattans in jelly jars (yes, we know they are normally stirred), several different kinds of Goose Island beer and a few different types of Crispin Cider.
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Even though they didn't win, more than one attendee named Swift's Attic as having the best bite of the evening thanks to their their amazing soup dumpling. It was a hearty mouthful that burst with brothy goodness.
Cochon 555 hits five cities a year, and although Houston's not on the list this time, it's a good bet that the traveling competition could come through town in 2015.