“Ladies and gentleman, tonight we will crown the prince or princess of pork!” yells Cochon 555 host Billy Harris into a microphone. Hundreds of onlookers scream and whistle. Most of this boisterous crowd is clutching a wine glass or sipping an elaborate cocktail. But mostly, everyone is drunk on swine.
It’s Cochon 555 at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica — part of a national competition to see which chef can cook most creatively with pig. A few hours earlier an entire pig carcass had been paraded through the crowded patio and placed on a stage for all to see. The carcass had been severed down the middle before making its grand entrance through a crowd nibbling on pork parts. Those who didn’t pay close attention might get a slight nudge from the dead porker moving toward the stage — a gentle reminder to eat mindfully.
This pig was one of six heritage breeds used for the yearly Los Angeles stop on the Cochon 555 tour. The other pigs went to each of the five local contestants. Chefs Bruce Kalman of Union, Walter Manzke of République, Brooke Williamson of Playa Provisions, Jason Neroni of Rose Cafe and Carlos Salgado of Taco Maria were tasked with creating up to six dishes using the entire animal.
The results ranged from Neroni's pleasant beurre de jamon sandwich on a mini baguette with blood butter, shaved prosciutto and spicy mustard to Manzke's refreshing Vietnamese salad with pig’s ear, belly and local citrus to Salgado’s “Cemita Croqueta,” a combination of pigs feet, skin, ears and snout, all neatly disguised in breading, fried and served with avocado and papalo herb on a pillow of black bean puree.
While guests took advantage of the myriad pork creations from the five pigs and chefs, along with wines from five different wineries, (get it, 555?), the aforementioned swine carcass got butchered in front of a large, cheering crowd. This seemingly savage display of carnivorous fervor was for a good cause. The crowd was competing to purchase the meat at auction; this "Pop-Up Butcher Shop" was designed to raise money for Piggy Bank, a foundation created to help support and encourage heritage breed farming. Cochon 555 even brought in specialty nose-to-tail butchers from San Diego's The Heart and Trotter Butchery. Sunday's auction raised over $3,000 dollars.
Chef Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish, who was crowned Cochon 555's national "King of Porc" in Aspen two years ago, had his own honorary tent, where he cooked not pork but duck hearts with torpedo onions, serrano chilis, Cara Cara oranges and fried shallots.
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As the sun set, the crowd gathered to hear who would win the coveted pork prize. The winner: Walter Manzke (who also won in 2015). He will go on compete at Aspen Snowmass on June 18 for the national competition.
Before announcing the winner, Cochon 555 founder Brady Lowe used the opportunity to rev up the crowd, explaining how important the farmers are to the future of food. “This is about real people cooking real food, farmers raising real animals with real passion," he said. "If you raise heritage breed pigs, put your hands in the air.”
A significant number of hands shot up in the crowd. Low continued: “They’re the ones who get up super early. They’re the ones who make it happen. They’re the ones who put the food on the table. Without them there is no safe food movement.”