Last night was all about pork, whiskey and wine as the Cochon 555 tour made its stand at the JW Marriott downtown. Five chefs competed to see who could make the best use out of a locally-raised heritage breed pig. The competitors were host chef Erin Smith of Main Kitchen at the JW Marriott; Brandi Key of Punk's Simple Southern Food and Coppa Osteria; Ronnie Killen of Killen's Steakhouse and Killen's Barbecue; Mark Decker of Down House and Marcelo Garcia of Coltivare.
Randy Evans of Southern Son consulting (who recently was working on H.E.B.'s first-ever restaurant inside the new market at San Felipe and Fountainview), served porchetta from the Barbecue Traditions table, while Justin Yu of Oxheart manned the Tartare Bar.
At the end, when both the crowd's and the official judges' votes-- ranging from chefs to members of the media--were tabulated, Decker of Down House was declared the winner. He served dishes made from a Red Wattle pig from The Barry Farm and the menu included "Barry Farm F'In PB&J," a chicharron spread with mousse made from pork, duck and butter and topped with Valencia orange jelly made at the farm. It was indeed one of the best bites of the evening. Rounding out the menu was Vietnamese-style Blood Sausage Egg Rolls and Pork Belly; Smoky "Porkstrami" Reuben; Goan Style Pork Curry and Biryani; Sticky, Seedy Fermented Pork Skewers, Lil Mara's Gas Station Pork Pinwheels and Red Wattle Ricky, a cocktail made with pork-washed Old Forester Bourbon.
Decker now has an opportunity to go compete in Aspen in June against chefs who have won in other cities.
Amid all the revelry, Brady Lowe, the founder of Cochon 555, is trying to make a serious point. He says, "I'd love to be generous and says the small family pig farmers represent one percent of the whole pork population, but the hard reality is that it's less than half a percent."
Why such a small percentage of heritage breed pigs? The buck stops with consumers who don't know how most animals slated for grocery store meat are raised or treated. It's cheaper meat than that from animals raised on family farms, but it's not the best product. "We're trying to put forth this idea that sometimes it costs a little more to get the products that you want. For example, I know a barbecue restaurant in Atlanta. [The owners say] "We know what we want to do, but there's no way our guests are going to support it, so we're stuck doing the thing we need to do because that's what they want."
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Local heritage breed pig farmer Felix Flores of Black Hill Ranch agrees. "Some people just don't focus on anything other than price, and sometimes heritage breed pork is only 30 or 40 cents more per pound. To put it into perspective, that's only about three cents per ounce."
What's the cost of not being choosier about what kind of meat is consumed? Lowe believes that the price is paid later in life. "Your long-term health is in what you're eating today. You better start spending more money on good food if you want to be healthy. Make better choices. There's no fear in cheating or having naughty foods, but make sure you're on the good side of things more than you are on the bad side. Otherwise, you are going to get so many doctor bills that your entire older life is going to suck. "
Lowe is expanding the Cochon 555 brand as well. The Houston stop marked the first time a "Large Format Feast" preceded the competition. (It was held at Killen's Steakhouse.) There's a cookbook coming out, too, called Epic Pork: The Ultimate Pig Cookbook.
The Cochon 555 tour's next appearance will be in Boston on February 20. Will it ever come back to Houston? Well, last night, Lowe said it will return next year. Let's hope so, as it sure looked like a good time was had by all.