By Phil R. Photos by Sarah Gerrity.
Describing the premise of Cochon555 is easy enough.
It goes something like this: Five chefs, each utilizing a particular breed of pig and preparing a series of dishes with it, compete against each other for the votes of attendees. Whoever wins this popularity contest goes onto something called Grand Cochon in Aspen, Colorado, where he or she competes again – this time with winners from the other cities. There are ten stops on the road to Grand Cochon, and on Sunday, the tour arrived in DC.
The event series is wrapped in the greater mission of promoting education about heritage breed pigs. In order to meet the heritage certification, these pigs must come from a line of purebred hogs, and they must be raised according to a set of practices that include open-pasture grazing and an omnivorous diet. Naturally, pork from these pigs is more expensive at stores and restaurants, because the animals are more expensive to raise. But what makes it onto your plate is a more robust in flavor and blah blah blah.
Guys, I hoovered pork on Sunday.
It all sounds so civilized doesn’t it?
Cochon555 is like an episode of “Supermarket Sweep” but with your stomach and food and booze.
I’ve been to plenty of food events. I have never been to anything like Cochon555.
The scale of consumption, quality of food, and general raucousness are all unrivaled.
The venue wasn’t big enough to hold everything within one contained space, so stations were spread out across a series of rooms.
Upon entering, you were greeted by a room for cocktails, cheese, and the one beer purveyor (and godsend), Right Proper Brewing Company. This room fed into the wine room, where five winemakers manned their reserved stations. From there, you were siphoned into the Madison Ballroom, where the five chefs served their food, and a variety of forthcoming culinary attractions would eventually appear.
The Madison Ballroom is lovely. It’s decorated with antique chandeliers. Fancy silver mirrors adorn the walls. There are two levels for some reason. If I was getting married and wanted a swanky wedding reception, this would place would be at the top of the list. As the site for a pork, wine, and bourbon festival? It’s maybe a little stuffy.
And it was stuffed, too. Moving through the space with a drink in one hand and food in other required a good deal of awareness, dexterity, and forgiveness. Entering and exiting rooms was a hassle, as the doorways were often the point of bottlenecks. Additionally, there was also something perverse about leaving the most gorgeous spring afternoon of 2016 for a windowless room.
Once Cochon555 was flooded with people, it felt a bit like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange: A mass of people, grouped closely together, psychically reacting in unison to breaking news.
In this case, that wasn’t so bad because such news happened to be the sudden presentation of a pig-shaped cake. Or an Erik Bruner-Yang pop-up ramen bar. Or bacon Rice Krispies treats.
This year’s competing chefs were Jonah Kim (of Yona), Marjorie Meek-Bradley (of Ripple and Roofers Union), Jennifer Carroll (of the forthcoming Requin), Anthony Lombardo (of the Hamilton), and Louis Goral (of the host venue’s Rural Society Argentine Grill).
Each brought something to the table – obviously, in the literal sense, but also from a culinary and organizational standpoint.
After years and years of these sort of events, Meek-Bradley is an unassailable pro. Her station was executed with such efficiency that it was easy to take for granted how good – and varied – her food was. Utilizing the Saddleback breed from Leaping Waters Farm, she and her team turned out near constant stream of porsktrami sandwiches, bean and pig face cassoulet, pork belly beignets, pork vindalooa, and the star of the show, bowls of face trotter and shank ragu with gnocchi. As usual with Meek-Bradley, the fluffy gnocchi and braised meat were to die for.
The Hamilton’s Anthony Lombardo mounted the most polished presentation. His area boasted an impressive collection of separate stations: a hot dog cart to serve his version of Detroit “Coney Dogs,” an area for porchetta and white bean sticks, and a spread of Italian divorce soup (with a meatball and a quail egg), overflowing pig head sliders, and Shanghai braised pork belly. He even was savvy enough to send staff around with hor d’oeuvrs trays of those dishes for those waiting in line or idling elsewhere. You had to respect the range of his offerings and the effort put into branding.
The longest line of the night consistently belonged to Yona’s Jonah Kim. In an environment where every second spent not eating food meant the possibility of missing a new dish, patrons queued up and waited patiently to try his crab and pork dumpling, made from Spring House Farm’s Mulefoot. It was worth it. While Kim’s sour sausage tartare was delightfully tangy, too, the dumpling was the best dish in all of Cochon555.
The line for the Requin station was often long, as well, but unlike with Yona, there didn’t appear to be much of a reason for it. Or rather, there was, but it wasn’t necessarily related to the preparation of food: Of all the restaurants, Requin seemed like the one whose staff was just there for a good time. Food was laid out for attendees to serve themselves. The queue grinded to a halt when chef Jennifer Carrol chatted with a friend or acquaintance. It’s hard to fault them – we were all there for a good time – but it was the one station generally not worth the headache. (It got big points for a delicious pig’s blood ice cream, though.)
In contrast, Rural Society’s Louis Goral was like a well-oiled politician, standing at the front of his table – and “I Like Pig Butts and I Cannot Lie” ice sculpture – to greet guests, quickly explain his dishes, and keep them moving along. His perfectly cooked empanadas hit the sweet, now doughy spot in my stomach.
Ultimately, when all the votes were counted, it was determined that Jonah Kim and his world-class dumplings would advance to Grand Cochon this June.
After eight years, you would expect Cochon555 to be a staid, almost establishment event. Year of success, one would assume, could sand the edges of industry event. After all, here we were, in a fancy ballroom.
The reality is quite the opposite. Founder Brady Lowe and emcee Billy Harris seem to relish whipping the crowd into a frenzy. Cochon555 is debauchery by design.
Here’s how it plays out.
First, you fill yourself with the main courses from the five chefs, the wine from the five vineyards, and cocktails from five stations. Or if you’re so inclined, you drink beer from Right Proper, who are pouring an exquisite rauchbier (the Lubitsch Touch) and a decadently smooth bierre de garde that’s been aged in a French oak foudre for six weeks (Baron Corvo).
As you sip your beverage of choice, the carcass of a entire pig is broken down by a butcher in the span of a mere 27 minutes. The resulting cuts of pork are auctioned off with other Cochon555 swag to raise money for its Piggy Bank foundation.
Attentions are captured. Stomachs are filled.
You hear that last year’s DC Cochon555 winner Danny Lee has set up a beef tartare bar, where he’s serving Creekstone Farms beef over a pear salad. Of course, you wander out to his vicinity and see what this is all about. It’s the perfect mix of sweet and savory. Across the room is a bowl of truffle butter, which people are dunking pieces of baguette in as if it were onion dip.
After over 90 minutes, you have exceeded the capacity of your internal organs. You wonder how you have not passed out. You are thinking of passing out.
Then, from the ether, Erik Bruner-Yang (of Toki Underground and Maketto) emerges with a pop-up ramen station. How are you not going to eat Erik Bruner-Yang ramen? The idea of turning it down is offensive.
And just as you found the courage to suck down the last noodle, Lowe and Harris take the microphone to announce that it is Bryan Voltaggio’s fortieth birthday. The chef is there, wearing a crisp oxford shirt. All of a sudden, five pastry carts with desserts prepared by Voltaggio’s sister – who works on such treats at Range – roll in.
You can’t even. But you can.
There are pecan pies, banana cream pies, a giant cake shaped like a pig, serving plate of individual pastries. Harris hands you one such plate and suggests you pass it back. No one behind you wants this plate, because it is heavy, so you walk around offering pastries to people. In the fog of war, this seems quite normal to everyone.
The floor of the room is now littered with fake ten dollar bills upon which the face of Alexander Hamilton has been replaced, naturally, with a pig’s head. Attendees repeatedly throw this counterfeit money into the air, because when surrounded with such gastronomical excess, why not make it rain for good measure?
You see a hotel manager enter the room, looking very serious, guided by a server. You decide to follow him to see what the emergency is. He leads you to an ice sculpture of a pig. It has been crafted with a tube from its back and out through its mouth. Earlier in the evening, this figure was being used as a classy ice luge, cooling cocktails as they traveled through the ice carcass.
Now, it has begun to melt. The cool water has formed an expanding pool on the carpet of the hotel. The sculpture is wearing cheap sunglasses from the Hamilton and has fake money stuck to it.
What once was composed has become a mess.
“Same,” you think.