Last night, the sixth annual Cochon 555 tour blazed its way into Denver, taking over a ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton downtown. The feast and pig carnage featured five local chefs - Jennifer Jasinski of Rioja; Steve Redzikowski of OAK at Fourteenth/Acorn; Bill Greenwood of Beano's Cabin; Justin Brunson of Old Major; Paul C. Reilly of Bottle + Beast. The five duked it out for the title of Prince or Princess of Porc. In between the thirty different bites - six from each competing chef, there was mezcal, cider, and bourbon tastings, a boozy Punch Kings competition, a pop-up Butcher Shop (benefitting Johnson & Wales University), oysters, cheese, and the "late-night" (if 6:30 p.m. can be called that!) Bar Tartare, and porky Asian Speakeasy. Guests, judges, and attendees mingled, scarfed, and expressed awe at the quality of the food, in between sipping offerings from event sponsor Goose Island Brewing Co. and participating wineries.
These are the hangover observations, following the victory by chef Jennifer Jasinski, last night's Princess of Porc.
Words to live by: "Welcome to one of the biggest pig rodeos West of the Mississippi," greeted founder Brady Lowe in his opening address. "Cochon is my baby. When we first started, things were pretty barren in Colorado and we had to bring in our pigs from other states. This whole thing started out as a way to get people talking about heritage breeds, but there was no sexiness to it. Now, we've got consumers understanding why they're paying more for heritage pork, which gives chefs an incentive to put it on their menus and farmers to keep producing it, in a humane manner."
"Holy posole" moment: Jen Jasinski's "Kickass Posole" was exactly that: a complex, earthy, spicy fusion of roasted pork-guajillo chile broth loaded up with hominy, pork bits, tortilla lime salt, and cabbage-radish slaw. "I was Mexican in another life," she laughed in between putting down plates."
Screams of joy: "Make more biscuits! See?! The biscuit tray is empty! Make more biscuits now!" chef Justin Brunson shouted at his line cook Johnny Formento as the queue of pork enthusiasts kept getting longer for the Old Major table.
The unexpected rolling of the sleeves: there are a couple of things you will not see often. One is PR guru John Imbergamo, armed with a plastic glove, plating for chef Jennifer Jasinski. The other is bartender Bryan Dayton garnishing pork liver pate with micro greens for the Acorn/Oak table. Related: when chef Frank Bonanno noticed that there was no knife to cut the foie gras dish that Rioja brought in the judges' room, he took matters into his own hands and fetched one from the Ritz ballroom.
Beyond the meat: Brunson makes a mean charcuterie platter, but the elegant peanut butter liver mousse and strawberry-blood jam macarons that pastry chef Nadine Donovan created for the Old Major table were a little bite of heaven.
Getting tipsy: Co-owner/mixology god Bryan Dayton upped the ante on the beverage pairing for chef Redzikowski's five-course tasting menu. Eater was digging the Burnt End Smoker - housemade pork belly and bacon-infused bitters, Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon, Germain-Robin Apple Brandy, served on the rocks with a hand-hewn sphere of ice.
Don't be such a baby!: Chef Daniel Asher of RootDown and Linger was spotted totting around his almost one year old son. Shannon Reilly, the wife of chef Paul Reilly of Beast + Bottle was handling the couple's three year old girl and nine-month old boy after a no-show from their babysitter. Chef Kelly Liken was mixing formula in the judges' room for three month old daughter Lucy who found herself at one point in the arms of Westword food editor Lori Midson. More baby news: Coral Frischkorn was dolling out cheese at the event yesterday, but the co-owner of Cured is only two weeks away (due date!) from having a baby.
Getting down and dirty: Props to chef Bill Greenwood, an experienced butcher and the son of a Georgia chef, for helping to slaughter his own hog, a Large Black from Basalt's Rock Bottom Ranch (which recently launched a heritage pig breeding program). Don't try this at home, kids, but he's done this before, and chef/farmer/RBR director Jason Smith was on-hand to assist. One of Greenwood's resulting dishes was the Bloodwick Stew, a thick, savory, intensely flavorful concoction of braised shoulder and head with marrow beans, blood, cornbread, and smoked tomato.
"Creating a handshake": Cochon tour manager/butcher Michael (the Reverend) Sullivan of Blackberry Farm explained how the evolved mission of Cochon, in addition to creating education about heritage-breed pigs, is connecting ranchers and chefs. "This is the first year we've been able to source all of the pigs from Colorado. The heart of Cochon is creating relationships, a handshake between the people involved." Pointing to two pig farmers (Rick Zimmerman's of Hotchkiss' Zimmerman Farms and Taylor McDonald of McDonald Family Farm in Brush) chatting amiably in a corner, he added, "They just met tonight; now they're talking about genetics and potentially partnering up on breeding programs."
Tasting notes: Chef Kelly Liken of Kelly Liken Restaurant in Vail declared the headcheese with pomegranate molasses and celery from Oak at Fourteenth/Acorn her favorite bite of the night. Food editor Amanda Faison of 5280 Magazine was swooning over Jennifer Jasinski's fat-poached pork loin and pork jelly dashi.
Working it: The best thing about Cochon? The camaraderie. It's friendly competition, despite the pressure, and watching chefs interact with one another and the crowd dispels any notions of pretension. Particularly endearing: Brunson's nervous, sweaty, geeky enthusiasm as he put set down charcuterie boards before the judges.
Sweet endings: Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream dispensed mini-cones of Moonshine Orchid Vanilla Ice Cream (studded with chunks of candied pork brittle) as well as two kinds of ice-cream sandwiches.
After-party: Chefs, volunteers, and beverage peddlers headed over to Euclid Hall to keep the party going.
Next stop: Chef Jennifer Jasinski will compete alongside nine other chefs (winners of Cochon 555 in their respective cities) in Grand Cochon on Sunday, June 22 following the sold-out Aspen FOOD & WINE Classic.
— By Laurel Miller