The Belly of the Beast
A packed dining room at Catalan on Monday night
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
People swarmed the table full of pork and beans at last night's long-awaited Pork Belly Throwdown at Catalan like bees on a hive. Dishes such as Vermont maple-glazed Kurobuta pork belly shared space with whole suckling pig heads, their cheeks decimated and tongues greedily cut out by diners eager to devour the most tender parts of the flesh. Casserole dishes full of baked beans, various cole slaws and Hatch chile bean ragout flanked the pork dishes before giving way to a dessert spread of creme brulee bread pudding from Ronnie Killen, red velvet cupcakes topped with bacon from Jody Flood and homemade Fluffernutters. Church potlucks and family picnics everywhere wept in the face of such greatness.
The doors opened to the public at 4 p.m., as diners and industry personnel rubbed shoulders with one another over beers and beans, and food acolytes clamored shamelessly for the attention of their favorite chefs and restaurant owners. In one corner, the bartenders supplied a neverending line of thirsty patrons with Fireman's #4 and Southern Star Pine Belt Pale, while in another, David Buehrer of Tuscany Coffee kept peoples' attention with expertly crafted lattes and espressos. But the real star of the show was the pork.
Judging began at 7 p.m., and the table of assembled judges was more than up to the task. Organizer Jenny Wang shared the space with Teresa Byrne-Dodge, editor and publisher of My Table; our very own J.C. Reid; Chris Shepherd, executive chef at Catalan; Misha Govshteyn of Tasty Bits; and Justin Bayse, sous chef at Voice.
Unlike the Fried Chicken Throwdown and its two categories -- classic and creative -- there was only one category for the pork bellies. Judges rated the dishes in three areas: Creativity, plating and taste. Dishes like the pork belly torta from Randy Evans' team and the pork belly club with foie gras from John Sheely's team received high marks from the judges in all three areas.
But in the end, there could be only one winner. First place went to Cody Vasek, sous chef at Voice and winner of the second throwdown in a row. His quartet of pork belly included sweet and sour pork with smoked rice and sesame powder, pave of pork with pickled cherries and summer corn marmalade, and a fascinating "pork 'n' bean" ice cream sandwich. While very few people had heard of young Vasek prior to his participation in the Fried Chicken Throwdown, that win coupled with this victory all but ensure that he's one to watch on the food scene.
Second place went to Randy Evans's team for its pork belly torta, while third place went to dark horses Manubu "Hori" Horiuchi and Jean-Phillipe Gaston from Kata Robata for their pork belly threesome of sushi, crepes and kakuni with spinach.
Although the evening was all in good fun, a few egos were wounded in the process. Randy Rucker, executive chef at Rainbow Lodge, vented his frustrations on Twitter: "my first and last of this sort........another bs job from houston...congrats" but recanted later, saying "guess i should clear the air before it gets too deep...cody and i are close friends and we give each other a hard time...please dont assume." Which leaves one to wonder: Are chefs beginning to take these friendly competitions too seriously? Only time -- and another throwdown -- will tell.
For more pictures from the competition, head over to our slideshow of the evening's events.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.