Aspen Times Weekly: Going Whole Hog at Grand Cochon |

Aspen Times Weekly: Going Whole Hog at Grand Cochon

by Linda Hayes

Pig’s head curry. Pork liver parfait. Ham hock consommé. Bacon oyster shooters. Porked Alaska. Bite for bite, tasty dishes like these are a pork-lover’s dream.

But to the 10 valiant chefs competing for the title “King or Queen of Porc” in this Sunday’s Grand Cochon at Hotel Jerome, they’re fighting words. “It’s a notch on your belt to win, a real career-maker,” says last year’s “King of Porc,” Jason Vincent, executive chef of Nightwood in Chicago. “We were competing against really well-known chefs. My sous chef and I brainstormed and came up with 25 or 30 dishes. We put our heads down and won.” This year, Vincent was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s 10 Best New Chefs, an honor for which he credits, in part, the notoriety he received post-Cochon.

A Little Piggy Backstory

A pig-alicious event in its own right, Grand Cochon is the culmination of the fifth annual Cochon 555 culinary tour, a series of 10 competitions that took place over the past year, in cities from San Francisco to New York, with the goal of educating consumers about heritage breed pigs.

“People were seeing breed names and farm names on menus, but they were confused about what it meant and why (those dishes) were more expensive,” explains Brady Lowe, of Atlanta-based Taste Network, creator of the Cochon concept. “Cochon 555 provides the missing information by educating people about breeds and promoting both chefs and family farms.”

Each competition featured five top U.S. chefs, five pigs and five winemakers. (Cochon 555, get it?). Chefs, selected based on their support of local agriculture and heritage pigs, were challenged to create dishes utilizing an entire pig, from snout to tail. Pigs were sourced from ranches devoted to sustaining various heritage breeds.

In addition to earning the title of regional “Prince or Princess of Porc,” and invited to Aspen to compete in Grand Cochon, the winning chefs of each Cochon 555 event got a boost of recognition from their peers and for their restaurants. “The national chef community watches each year to follow the competition and winner,” relates Lowe. “Their credibility gets nudged up a notch.”

Since its inception, the Cochon 555 tour has donated more than $300,000 to charities and directly paid more than $520,000 to farmers across the country. “Cochon has played a large role in the national education of heritage breed pigs and the importance of supporting local food,” says Lowe. “One whole pig at a time.”

Pig and Circumstance

On Sunday, Hotel Jerome, which has recently been spiffed up in a major way, will become pig central. With the bulk of the prep being done back in the hotel’s kitchen, each of the 10 competing chefs will stage a themed presentation station in the ballroom, or on the terrace. Each will present three dishes, first to a group of 20 professional judges, and then to the several hundred festive pork fans clamoring for a taste. “The chefs bring an amazing level of energy to the event,” says Lowe. “Every single bite is the best bite they can produce.”

Judges this year will include “Bizarre Foods” chef Andrew Zimmern, celebrated chef Claudine Pepin, 2012 “King of Porc” Jason Vincent, 2011 “Queen of Porc” Duskie Estes, cheese expert Laura Werlin, sake sommelier Nancy Cushman and James Beard Award-winning chef Tim Cushman of o ya in Boston, regional manager Todd Clark of Matsuhisa Aspen/Vail, and executive chef Sheamus Feeley of The White House Tavern in Aspen.

Once everyone has, well, porked out is the only way to put it, judges and attendees will vote for a winner, basing their call on utilization of the pig, presentation of the dishes and overall best flavor. Votes will be tallied and the official 2013 “King or Queen of Porc” will be crowned with much to-do and toasted by all with glasses of newly bottled Cochon Rosé.

Two years ago, husband-wife team John Stewart and Duskie Estes, chefs and co-owners of Zazu Restaurant & Farm, and Black Pig Meat Co., in Santa Rosa, Calif., earned a pair of crowns. “It was a total shock,” recalls Estes, the only “Queen of Porc” to date. “It was a rockin’ event and a good cause. We were a small team that included our plumber and an 18-year-old high school kid we call our ‘bacon bitch.’ Everyone else was in chef coats and we were in our ‘Black Pig’ T-shirts. We thought no way we’d ever win. But we had a great Red Wattle pig, our food was good and people liked it. That’s what mattered.” Estes’ and Stewart’s new restaurant, Zazu Kitchen & Farm, will open this summer in Sebastopol, Calif.