Jonathan Gold Judges Cochon 555's Traveling Pork and Wine Bacchanalia
If food is the new rock & roll, and we have every reason to believe that it is, Cochon 555 is the Porkapalooza of the medium, a traveling circus of sustainability and a locavore rodeo, a roadshow of wine, pig and minor debauchery. The DJ used to spin for Public Enemy, high-end alcohol is measured by the ocean, and flower vases are filled with crisp artisanal bacon. Hog farmers — hog farmers! — mount the stage to the kind of applause that you may associate with a Tom Morello guest spot at a System of a Down concert, and teenagers overdose on Iberico pork carpaccio and caviar canapés. A rare-breed kune kune pig, one of a hundred in the world, is cut up in the butcherin' tent, and gawkers crowd in 10 deep.
At the Los Angeles stop, at the deconsecrated St. Vibiana's this past May Day, there were organ paste on crackers and bricks of stinky cheese; wine from the likes of Failla and the Scholium Project; St-Germain in Champagne and jugs of Templeton Rye. If you weren't drunk, punchy and bulging toward the end of the afternoon, you weren't trying.
Even after three hours of solid pig consumption, plowing through samples in the old sanctuary, noshing on 4505 chicharrones imported from San Francisco, picking at the milk-fed piglets roasted by Grace chef Neal Fraser, the stalwarts grabbed at hotel tubs of La Quercia bacon heading back to the kitchen at the end of the show like kids on their fourth pound of Halloween candy.
This is the third year of the Cochon 555 tour, a production of Atlanta-based pig promoter Brady Lowe, which hit Los Angeles for the first time this year. The strip-club fracas after last year's Oregon event, which began when a renowned local chef objected to the trophy awarded to an Iowan pig and ended at 2 a.m. with tasers, contusions, arrests and Lowe's broken leg, could have been a sketch from Portlandia.
Taser-sizzled coppa? Rad!
Lowe — who likes to come off in the press as the Moses of ethical pig farmers, come to lead old-breed hogs to the promised land — seems in person more like the Don King of pork: praising his champions, sneering at his competitors and elevating the hype to beyond-evangelical levels of obsession. You're with him, or you eat Spam.
A roomful of local foodists rolled their eyes when he told them Los Angeles was finally worthy of his attentions, that its restaurants had finally become the equal of San Francisco or Seattle (his knowledge of the city clearly comes from old episodes of CHiPs), but we all listened politely. He, after all, was the guy who had brought the Hampshires, Red Wattles and Spotted Poland Chinas to town.
The heart of each Cochon 555 is a cooking contest, where five chefs are each given a whole pig before the event, and allowed a week or so to prepare them. There were 20 of us judges, and maybe 75 bottles of wine. (I sat between Michael McCarty, who owns Michael's, and Lefty Ayres, who raises Berkshire pigs at ReRide Ranch east of Gorman.) Whiskey was passed. Spit buckets were nonexistent. The old beams, which had absorbed more than a century of prayers, shuddered. We were essentially being asked to eat five full dinners and rate them between 3 and 15.
Octavio Becerra of Palate was up first, with Ayres' pig and what he called an exploration of five Los Angeles barrios: an offal-intensive xiao long bao representing the San Gabriel Valley; a hot dog on a stick from Dogtown; and a kind of deconstructed chile verde tamale in a jigger for the Mexican East Los, which may have been the best single bite of the afternoon. He tossed in a crisp pork shoulder bánh mì inspired by Little Saigon, and a gorgeous K-town riff on bossam, a combination plate of steamed pork belly, raw kumamoto oyster, special kimchi and a salty condiment made out of something like fermented Sea Monkeys, threaded onto a skewer instead of wrapped in a cabbage leaf. Becerra's plate looked and tasted like L.A.
Ben Ford, from Ford's Filling Station, punched back with a soft, gamy headcheese made from his Hereford; pig's ear salad, blood sausage, scrapple with candied bacon and egg yolk; and chile verde tacos with country ham crackling — a worthy riposte.
Tim Goodell and a Spotted Poland China represented the new Public Kitchen in the Roosevelt Hotel with something close to an echo of Becerra's effort, with a stodgy "dim sum" tasting that included a soup dumpling, a spring roll and a bánh mì; then a gooey, truffled pig's-head sausage; carnitas tacos; posole; and a maple-glazed pork-fat donut with rye whiskey and pork-fat ice cream.
I'm not universally a fan of Bazaar, whose technique-driven menus in its first year seemed almost antithetical to the kind of agrestic obsessions on display here, but Joshua Wigham's highly worked hog menu was stunning in its professionalism, essentially an entire Bazaar tapas menu translated into the key of Red Wattle pig: fragile pastry cones stuffed with a blend of liver and quince paste that became stronger the farther down you nibbled on the cone, and a bag of Cracker Jacks that happened to be made with chicharrones instead of popcorn; a weenie-size chorizo drizzled with aioli and thin slices of porchetta draped over herbed bulgar wheat; the bitter pith of oranges used to cut through the bland bite of sliced tenderloin; and a kind of McRib sandwich tilted toward Spain.
But Chad Colby, who teaches in Mozza's pizza school and does the Saturday night whole-pig dinners at Mozza2Go, brought another guest to the party: actual pleasure. A lot of the chefs experimented with quick charcuterie, but Colby was the one who managed to turn his Hampshire into a quick-cure cooked prosciutto, into mortadella dogs, into something he called nose-to-tail salami with oregano, and into a dreamy, lardo-like "pork butter''; into a sharply funky paté made with the animal's pluck and into a fermented finocchiona cotto that breathed the essence of fennel.
Was the 10-hour shoulder perhaps a bit stringy, and the puffy, crunchy, chicharrones-style skin on the porchetta a little incongruous? Perhaps. But the pillowy gigante beans were soft as dreams. And for dessert, there were crisp puerquitos, a lard-laced, Italian-influenced take on the popular breakfast pastry that in a just world would be in the case of every panaderia in Mexico.
Nobody was surprised when Colby won the competition. And even after the 40-odd dishes, most of the judges grabbed some bacon on their way out the door.
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