Friday, May 29, 2009

Cochon 555--Strange But Tasty

The hit of the party--Bluprint's maple sugar-dusted bacon cotton candy on a crispy bacon "stick"

I've been somewhat reluctant to write this post because I didn't want to write what some will see as a negative review of Cochon 555, which was held at the Drake Hotel here in Chicago last Sunday night. The event was a benefit, of sorts, for an organization called Farms for City Kids, but it's also (I gather) a money-making endeavor for Atlanta's Taste Network, which organizes these events, and an advertising/marketing opportunity for the winemakers and restaurants that participate.

Nothing wrong with any of that, of course, and it's more or less standard operating procedure for these type of events.

But even though I got in for free, courtesy of Foodbuzz and the event's organizers, I went into it with the mindset of someone who might've paid the $125/person ticket price. Frankly, if I'd paid full price to get in, I'd have been pretty disappointed. The fairly steep ticket price, coupled with the fact that this event was held smack dab in the middle of a holiday weekend, probably accounted for the fact that it didn't sell out.

Not to say that I didn't enjoy myself; I did, actually. As a part of the VIP reception, I arrived around 4pm, saw a couple familiar faces, introduced myself to a few bloggers/writers who I know from their reading their stuff, but had never met in person, and worked the wine tasting tables. Which, honestly, was far more difficult than it should have been. The wineries insisted on enforcing a strict "tasting pour" policy which made the typical cocktail reception revelry somewhat challenging, to the point where I just ditched my glass and gave up.

This is part of the reason that the event had a strange feel to it, overall. Alcohol should never be hard to come by at these sort of things, but I was far from the only person who could be seen darting back into the VIP reception room fishing bottles of Three Floyds beer out of the ice bins that were left behind in there after the main event began. In fact, I was pulled aside by a number of people who saw me with my Alpha King bottle and wanted to swap their underfilled wine glass for one as well.

The 5pm Sunday night start time meant that most of the eating and drinking was over by about 6:30, and the group of 200 or so pork-lovers found themselves kind of milling around with nothing, really, to do or pay attention to, for quite a while while we all waited for the "winner" to be announced.

There was a pig-butchering demo happening during that kind of in-between time, and that was interesting. The strange juxtaposition of watching a pig carcass being broken down amidst the gilded columns and crystal chandeliers of the Drake's Gold Coast Room led to some interesting discussion among the event's attendees. I spoke to people from quite a few different walks of life and most commented that they found the demo to be compelling, but also very strange. This is a common reaction to being confronted with the reality of whole-animal eating, which I've touched on in other posts, but I don't think it's ever been laid bare in quite the same way before. You haven't really pondered this attraction/revulsion issue until you've spent a half an hour talking hog butchery with a wide-eyed Gold Coast socialite while watching a guy take a hacksaw to a pig's spine.
This was a good thing, overall, I think, and something that I believe would probably not have taken place a mere three or five years ago. Suddenly, awareness that bacon, pulled pork, and cracklin's come from the same animal that is laying there, splayed out, brutally dead in it's whole form, is not only acceptable within the more refined context of this sort of's actually hip.

(Do people even say "hip" anymore? You know what I mean. I'm 40, what can I say?)

I tend to forget that not everyone who goes to events like these knows about food. Despite just about every restaurant doing some preparation of head cheese, but most of the folks I chatted with while we watched the pig-butchery demo had no idea that anyone would actually use the pig's head to make food. When I explained the process the chefs employed to produce the little Cabernet mustard-topped disk they just finished nibbling on, more than a few of them blanched. One even proclaimed it to be "gross". (That's the Signature Room's head cheese pictured at right).

Along those lines, the food at the event was largely underwhelming. Part of this, I blame on the venue and the format. The chefs had little to no heating apparatus at their disposal, since the event was held in a ballroom, and this resulted in many of the dishes being served cold or at room temperature. While this was fine for some things, many just didn't hold up well.

There was also a lot of redundancy. At least three of the five stations did a similar take on porchetta, which translates to a very large, stuffed, tied skin-on pork belly stuffed with loin and all manner of other stuff, roasted, and then sliced and served. Seems like this could've been coordinated a bit better by the event's organizers.

Some original dishes stood out; The Bristol's mortadella-filled, lard-fried donut holes were wonderful--fried and stuffed to order, each one (I had at least four) was served hot and delivered a perfectly sweet and savory pillow of pork-filled fried dough. Bacon cotton candy from Bluprint was probably the dish that most people talked about, but novelty aside, it was just a really nice little party snack--the spun sugar floss was wound around a bacon "stick" and then dusted with bacon powder and maple sugar. I was also impressed with the bacon Manhattan served up at Bluprint's station by bartender Chris Chickerneo, which combined Templeton Rye, sour cherries, and bacon fat.

Attendees got to cast a vote for the restaurant they thought did the best job at creating varied, tasty dishes from their pig, and I voted for Patrick Sheerin and his crew from The Signature Room at the 95th. They did what I thought was the best take on barbecue, with their smoked pork shoulder over cornbread pudding, their charcuterie (including the ubiquitous head cheese) was well executed and was also brightened up nicely by zippy pickled green tomatoes, and their miso-cured pork belly with porcini dashi and ramp kimchee really stood out as a fully-realized restaurant-caliber dish in a room mostly full of hors d'ouevres.

Team Signature Room also scored points by being smart enough to use their immersion circulator as a way of keeping everything hot until they were ready to serve it. While the others struggled with remote warming boxes and induction burners, the guys from the Signature Room simply opened up vacuum-sealed bags of their prepped product that had been gently held at the optimal temperature, and plated. I'd never seen an immersion circulator used for this application, and found it ingenious.

The graham elliot team took the title of "prince of porc" and will now advance to compete in the Grand Cochon, which will be held once this event completes its 10-city tour, despite the fact that the eponymous restaurant's chef was nowhere to be seen. The representative of Team g.e. that I spoke with, however, explained that the chef had allowed each cook to put together a dish that drew from their own background--in other words, preparing heritage pork in a way that reflected their own culinary heritage--and walked me through each dish with a bit of back story about the cook who'd conceptualized it.

This concept appealed to me and almost excused the absence of the chef himself, but I couldn't help but think that if Bowles had been there, I wouldn't have been served the lard-based biscuit or da yooper pork pasty that were both underwhelming due to the fact that they were served practically stone cold.

I hate to come off as curmudgeonly or unappreciative. Don't get me wrong, it was a good time.

To cap off the evening, the MC drew business cards out of a big bowl to determine who would get the honor of taking home parts of the pig that was butchered for the demo, and I found myself walking up to the front, the lucky recipient of one of his (or her) rear legs.

I'd never actually cooked a fresh ham before, so wasn't really sure what I would do with it. Fortunately, as I lugged it around the ballroom, I ran into Gary Wiviott, and promptly hit him up for advice. I was planning on smoking some ribs the following day for Memorial Day, so G Wiv advised me to just pop the ham right on the smoker as well, and treat it basically as I would a pork roast. Which is what I did and it turned out wonderfully--really tender, smokey, and juicy.

For my final trick of the evening, I bugged the Kendall College Culinary School volunteers for some ice and a plastic bag so my ham wouldn't spend too much time at room temp during my 'L' ride back home, and then I hit up the Drake's front desk guy for a shopping bag in which to haul the whole package around the city. Quite the spectacle, I was; drunk on Templeton rye, sugar-buzzing on bacon cotton candy and salumi donuts, and hauling an Abercrombie and Fitch bag stuffed full of heritage pig leg down into the Chicago Avenue Red Line stop, trying to look inconspicuous. I'm starting to think that I need to bring a cooler and ice paks everywhere I go.

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