Houston's Cochon 555 Competition Was About Swine, Wine and So Much More

At the Cochon 555 events, there’s so much to see, eat and drink that it’s like being at a culinary carnival. In addition to a chef competition featuring heritage breed pork, there was a sommelier battle, a punch throwdown (that had a nearly disastrous problem, but more on that later), a ramen pop-up, a dessert pop-up, mezcal, bourbon, Spanish vermouth, cocktails and more than one spirits professional toting around unexpected bottles of this and that.

In other words, it was even more fun than Cochon 555's Houston debut last year. 

Multiple-time James Beard semifinalist Justin Yu of Oxheart won the chef competition. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that Oxheart’s alter ego, Money Cat, won the competition. “There is no Oxheart! Only Money Cat!” declared the chef, who seemed to be having a whole lot of fun refusing to take his seriously good food seriously. Many attendees walked around with bowls of dan dan noodles in their hands declaring the dish one of the best at the event. As the winner, Yu has the opportunity to compete at the Grand Cochon event in Aspen on June 18. 

That is not to say that Yu did not have very tough competition. Every competing chef earned “oohs” and “ahhs” from the judges. Chef David Cordúa’s dishes were the first to be evaluated and got the competition off to an exceptionally strong start. Last year, the Treadsack group’s Mark Decker (who was at Down House at the time) took home the win, and the group very nearly could have had another one this year. Judges openly admired chef Richard Knight’s use of a whole heritage breed pig in his delectable dishes. The concept of utilization, or not wasting any part of the pig, was an extremely important aspect of the competition.

Up-and-coming chef William Wright of Helen Greek Food & Wine had one of the most creative takes on the challenge, and his dishes definitely reflected the seasonal Greek fare he cooks on a day-to-day basis at the restaurant. Chef Jean Phillipe-Gaston’s lighthearted snacks also mirrored his restaurant, Izakaya.

The farms and heritage breed pigs each supplied for the competing chefs were: 
  • Jean Philippe-Gaston: Swabian Hall from Black Hill Ranch
  • Justin Yu: Texas-raised Iberico from Acorn Seekers
  • Richard Knight: Black Spot from All We Need Farms
  • William Wright: Large Black from Shiner Pork
  • David Cordúa: Hereford from Black Hill Ranch
New for this year was a sommelier competition tied to the food judging. Salesmanship seemed as important as the suitability of the wine pairings. As the group of judges moved from one chef’s table to the next, the sommeliers sailed around them like wine-bearing butterflies, jockeying to see which judge’s glass they could fill first.

Dale Ellington of Kata Robata won the sommelier throwdown, with judges deeming his selection of the 2012 Terlano Nova Domus from Alto Adige Italy to be the best match for the food. It's a blend of 60 percent Pinot Bianco, 30 percent Chardonnay and 10 percent Sauvignon Blanc. His worthy competitors were Marc Borel of Rainbow Lodge, master sommelier Craig Collins of ELM Restaurant Group, Natalie Vaclavik of Victory distributors and Lexey Davis Johnson, who is now at B&B Butchers after having helped open Brick & Mortar.

The one really big problem of the evening was the punch table disaster. Bartenders Ornella Ashcraft of Helen Greek Food & Wine, Chelsy Magee of State of Grace, Morgan Weber of Coltivare, Leslie Ross of Treadsack’s forthcoming Canard and Noah Edger of Izakaya were preparing their libations for the Punch Kings competition on a long, wide board propped on sawhorses.

Someone knocked the table over, sending to the floor glass punch bowls and antique glassware carefully selected for the judges. After the broken glass, ice and other mess were cleaned up and the table reset, the competitors gamely went back to work making new batches of punch. Weber ended up being the winner.

Once the punch competition was over, the table was reset as a ramen bar helmed by chef Manabu Horiuchi and his team from Kata Robata. The ramen was expertly paired with German wines. Throughout the night, Bobby Matos of State of Grace hosted a table of excellent, Thai-inspired beef tartare with basil and chopped green garlic. In another corner, chef Jelle Vandenbroucke of Main Kitchen manned a raw bar of fresh seafood.

Judging by the long line that immediately formed at Fluff Bake Bar’s table, many attendees somehow still managed to save room for dessert. Pastry chef Rebecca Masson’s small bites of cake, macaroons and other goodies did not disappoint.

Andrew Vaserfirer of Revival Market returned to Cochon 555 as the master butcher this year. This time, instead of his artful cuts of pork being auctioned, they were simply marked with good prices and sold very quickly. A few very large cuts were held back for a “fire sale” auction — and those went very quickly, too. The proceeds benefited Piggy Bank, a non-profit organization that helps independent farmers, and Alvin Community College’s culinary program.

The only remaining question is: Will Cochon 555 return to Houston next year? We sure hope so.