If bacon is the new hipster food trend, then Cochon 555, a roving mega-food event featuring five chefs, five heritage breed pigs, and five wineries, is the Coachella of all food events. It’s the best of the best, the grandest and the most ridiculous pork fest to hit human civilization since the domestication of the hog and perhaps even the profligate feasts of the Ancient Roman Empire. (They do call themselves a bacchanalia). Imagine hundreds of people packed into a grand ballroom or former cathedral, all to pay homage to the glory of the most delicious beast that the Creator hath placed on earth.
I’m trying to be over the top because that is exactly what this event is. I was invited to this event after Cochon 555 founder Brady Lowe made a brief stop over to Scoops Westside and offered a set of tickets since I hadn’t been able to attend the recently completed Cochon 555 L.A., which was the first year that our city had hosted it.
San Francisco might be the ideal last stop for Cochon 555, as one of the epicenters of culinary activity in the country, as well as a major player in the farm-to-table movement. The San Francisco event is hosted in the Julia Morgan Ballroom, which occupies the Fifteenth floor of downtown building. Majestic ceilings and massive windows looking out to the skyline play the ideal backdrop.
The VIP section featured early entry to the landing area, which showcased a dozen winemakers, a large cheese section, freshly made cocktails, Fanny Bay oysters, caviar on potato chips, draft brew from local favorite Magnolia brewery (including Bacon Brown Ale), and precious slivers of raw Iberico pork from a new importer of Spain’s greatest pork export. I was sure to huddle over the last station, where lightly seared pork slivers in bright pink and gentle fat streaks came dressed lightly with olive oil and Maldon sea salt.
Waiting for the curtain to open into the Grand Ballroom was like waiting for a concert to start while the band warms up behind it. I could see chefs, cooks, and organizers scrambling to set up the area and make sure that the horde of participants (evidently only a few hundred though it felt closer to 400-500) could get their share.
Cochon 555 starts with the efforts of farmers who raise heritage breeds of pork: “Why We Do It – Our goal is to help responsible family farms sustain and expand their businesses while promoting the diversity of heritage breeds in communities nationwide.” A noble effort to help small(er) farmers compete with the nasty likes of corporate farms, whose horrors we might have seen on YouTube videos or documentaries like Food, Inc. Celebrating heritage breeds and promoting their consumption is a bit like featuring artisanal producers of food products.
Five local chefs are chosen to best exhibit the qualities innate in each heritage breed, or so we’re made to think and at the end. Both judges and participants are asked to vote on their favorite. I was overwhelmed by the mad rush to try all the food, though organizer Brady Lowe was quick to assure everyone that there was more than enough food for everyone in the room.
What I soon realized was that trying to grasp the immense number of dishes available to us was going to be nearly impossible. Each chef felt the need to create between five and nine dishes, resulting in a dizzying array of almost 40 bites of varying size, composition, and flavor. I was keen to make as many notes as my poor iPod touch could handle, but even then, noting all the ingredients would be cumbersome. Instead I’ll touch on a good dish (or two) from each chef.
Brandon Jew and Salvatore Cracco of Bar Agricole used a Wild Boar and Old Spot cross breed to make a terrine, rillettes, and aspic made with pig skin featuring a suspended quail egg. I found many of their charcuterie to be oversalted, but I did enjoy the pork shabu shabu, which had a delicious broth and chunks of tofu (since tofu was a major part of this pig’s sustainance) with a few slices of cured coppa.
Matt Accarrino of SPQR (and formerly of Craft Los Angeles) took an Italian approach to pork (using the Duroc or Berkshire breed) with a cross between a banh mi and Italian sub with fried heart mortadella, smoked ham, and cabbage/jalapeno slaw. The flavors melded well, making me wish I could have something for this regularly for lunch. Chef Accarrino’s Lard Fatty Toffee Pudding was a plump steamed cake with pork fat toffee and a cinnamon sugar crackling as garnish – it might have been the single best dessert of the day.
David Barzigan of Fifth Floor restaurant took a bit of a high-end approach with the Red Wattle Breed, with gourgeres filled with pork rilletes and cherry/kaffir lime preserves. I also enjoyed the pork leg tagine with cous cous and ras al hanout. The show stopper from Chef Barzigan was a flan made from pig brain, pig heart espuma, and crispy intestine pieces that resembled pig ears. It was definitely my favorite bite of the day. Rounding out the pork offerings was a pork belly and softshell crab slider with kimchi.
Ravi Kapur of Prospect (the second restaurant from the folks behind SF standard Boulevard) sported the longest line during the entire event. With a Yorkshire pig expressed in a nine different ways, I didn’t wait until the end to wait, but I still didn’t end up with all the dishes. While the chorizo michelada was a nice tough, I thought it was cloyingly sour (and I’ve had my share of Micheladas), so only the first sip was good. The sticky rice with lopchong was a decent bite, as was the nacho, chorizo cheese and tomatillo relish on a small tortilla, but I didn’t think Kapur’s dishes warranted the extra wait.
Finally, David Varley of Michael Mina (and the reigning “King of Porc” 2010) used a Gloucester Old Spot (my favorite looking pig with its dark spots). He provided a fionochiona and dumpling on a wooden spoon. He also made a tamale that I really enjoyed.
The butcher competition between Chris Arentz of Avedano’s and Tracy Smaciarz of Heritage Meats (pictured) might have been the coolest visual part of the Cochon. I can still remember the sweat dripping off Tracy’s brow whilst sawing through pork ribs while Chris was slickly cutting up various labeled parts with relative ease. With all the hubbub of Mark Zuckerberg’s newfound love of animal slaughter and butchery, I think this is a terrific way to showcase the lost craft of butchery front and center. I wish I could have seen my friends Amelia and Erika of Lindy & Grundy here in Los Angeles, but I crossing my fingers that I’ll be able to make Cochon All-Stars in July.
Lastly the five wines: even though this even is called a bacchanalia (and what’s a bacchanalia without wine), I felt as though as the wines were really lost in the mix of all the excellent pork dishes. I might have been cool to try and pair wines with some of the dishes, but in the heat of the moment, that would have been difficult.
The price is a bit steep, but if you’re going to indulge in one or two of these events a year, it’s hard to do much better than Cochon 555. You will eat more than your fill, drink more than you’re capable, and relish a feast of epic proportions.