Going whole hog: A luscious do-over at the Cochon555 tour in Denver
June 28, 2018
The crowd hoots and hollers as the blackberry-lipped strawberry blonde hoists the pink, swollen pig's head high in the air — perhaps one of the most savagely theatrical moments the Renaissance Denver Stapleton Hotel ballroom has ever seen.
Setting it down, Kate Kavanaugh returns to work alongside demonstration partner and fellow Western Daughters butcher Josh Curtiss. She slashes into a section of meat so purposefully with a long knife that her bosom jiggles, on display in a black lace bra wrapped tightly beneath a black mesh shirt that frames elaborate arm and shoulder tattoos. Curtiss, meanwhile, rips the pig's torso with a hacksaw. Overseeing the butchery show of this Duroc beauty and live auction of cuts — cleverly dubbed a "meat valet" — Cochon555 founder Brady Lowe calls out to us. "Who wants it? We usually get a hundred bucks for the head!"
It's a stunning spectacle, all in the pursuit of safe, honest and sustainable food. Over 10 years, the Cochon555 Tour has invested almost $7 million into heritage breeds and the family farmers who raise them, hooked on a fierce competition among top chefs, sommeliers and barkeeps. Denver is the final stop on 2018's 11-city North American circuit, and each chef here has the same goal that only one will achieve: be crowned Prince or Princess of Pork and progress to the championship Grand Cochon, held in Chicago on Sept. 30, along with 10 other finalists.
Safe food is on my brain lately; I missed most of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen after suffering anaphylactic shock Wednesday before the bacchanal. While the timing sucked, the experience and its lasting effects made me ponder the dramatic rise in food allergies — no doubt linked to our decimated food system. Cochon555 (and sister event Heritage Fire in Snowmass, Boston and Napa Valley) spreads the gospel of voting for change by urging consumers to support small producers who follow sustainable practices. Our foodshed, and our health, is at stake.
These are "farmers who put every single bit of energy into these animals; chefs who put every single bit of extra attention and detail into their food," Lowe says. "When you talk about heritage breed pigs, you talk about saving family farms."
It's becoming difficult to maintain balance among the assorted compostable dishes, wine glass and plastic cocktail cup in my hands, so I dump my prizes on a table. A quenelle of gelato di sanguinaccio dolce is melting, so I scoop up a bite with a puffed chicharrón dipped in Guittard dark chocolate. The bite is crunchy, creamy, salty, smoky, sweet, decadent and scented with orange zest. Pork skin and pig's blood: damn divine.
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"We've been having so much fun with different flavor combinations," says Spuntino chef Cindhura Reddy, when I return for a second helping of the most succulent pork-fennel sausage I've ever tasted. Oozing out-of-this-world flavor and ample pork juice — thanks to both shoulder and fat back ground and stuffed into pig-intestine casing — the sausage slices nestle on fennel purée beneath feathery fennel fronds as fresh contrast.
"We've been talking to our farmers all week," Reddy adds, meaning Terry and Linda Dietz of Carter Creek Ranch, who supplied the Spuntino team with a 200-plus-pound Berkshire hog. All of Reddy's dishes — including "Piggy 65," crimson chunks of rib and belly marinated in yogurt and Indian spices similar to tandoori — hail from this one main ingredient.
All dishes at the other four stations are pure pork goodness. "Top Chef" Season 15 finalist Brother Luck puts the finishing touch on a refreshing salad of watermelon chunks folded with salty bits of diced Canadian bacon: dollops of snow-white, whipped lardo. I take a forkful. It explodes, literally, in my mouth.
"I got one!" I exclaim, prompting Luck to show off his secret ingredient: neutral-flavored carbonated crystals, the pro version of Pop Rocks candy, in a 1 pound pouch. A purple pig's head, printed on a dress tie worn over a white button-down, peeks out from beneath the chef's crisp dark apron.
Luck's score: A 272-pound Mangalitsa from Rocky Mountain Organic Farms in the Black Forest near Colorado Springs. A placard indicates that expert palates consider the rare breed to be the "wagyu of pork" for its double percentage of fat marbling. I taste the difference!
Luck also offers pork-fat shortbread sandwich cookies with salted chocolate and marshmallow cream and coated in "pork dust," but first I sample a most-discussed dish by chef Adam Branz of Ultreia in Union Station. Known for signature Spanish tapas, Branz makes morcilla sausage in squid-ink brioche buns with smoked aioli and fermented cabbage slaw. Swoon.
In addition to pork en croute, wrapped impressively in pastry dough to resemble fat loaves of bread adorned with decorative leaves, chef Nate Singer of Blackbelly Butcher quells munchies with snacks carved from a 203-pound Berkshire pig from Boulder Lamb & Meats. Among them: caramelized "Old Fashioned Belly Candy," cups of fragrant "Alpine Broth" infused with pine needles and crackers topped with "Spreadable Debris" pork hash. I ask if the pale, vinegary topping is kimchi. "Close: fermented pig skin," Singer's teammate quips.
Over the course of three hours, I meet a slew of the event's 600 attendees, many curious first-timers to a food festival. Surprisingly, they all relish the uber-adventurous eats with gusto. And our conversations focus on food. Like Heritage Fire, Cochon555 in Denver is warm and educational. And it seems to serve a neophyte audience, which is crucial.
In the end, none of the aforementioned dishes are enough to wrest top honors from chef Kyle Foster and team at Julep, the Southern-infused RiNo hotspot and sister to Colt & Gray and Rebel Restaurant. Using a 212-pound Berkshire hog raised on Carter Creek Ranch, Foster and his crew create a six-dish feast that includes: "Pig Head Double Down" with bacon, Colby Jack cheese and "brain mayo"; an empanada filled with tasso, trotter, tail, and okra gumbo; pork mojo with sweet plantain mash; and bite-size pork-rind rice crispy treats to dunk into a liquid-chocolate fountain.
A line stands at Foster's station all night. In fact, Denver's Prince of Pork proves that the Cochon555 mission works here in the Mile High City. One guest near Foster's table waves a whiskey-smoked ham biscuit wildly and exclaims, "That's a ten-dollar biscuit!"
Yep, it's sure worth that.
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