Star Chefs Prep Their Pigs for Cochon 555
While the skills of the chefs create the winning combination of flavors, a good solid win starts with the choice of the pig.
The pork-tastic Cochon 555 is coming back to Minneapolis soon with some new additions.
For those unfamiliar, Cochon 555 is a cooking competition that connects star chefs with heritage pig farmers, culminating in a veritable “baconalia” with a little taste of everything snout to tail. The contest brings awareness (and dollars) to Piggy Bank, a non-profit dedicated to helping farmers raise heritage pork and even start their own pig farms via scholarships.
This year expands with a couple of new events, including two tasting and education events: the Whiskey Extravaganza on Friday, May 3, and the Wine Riot on May 4. But the star attraction comes Sunday, May 5, the smörgåsbord that pits five Minnesota chefs and their farming partners against each other to be named the Prince or Princess of Porc. The local winner will go on to the regional and national competitions. Minneapolis has fared well in past years, with Corner Table chef Karyn Tomlinson winning the title of Queen of Porc, the first woman to win the national award, last year. And before her, Thomas Boemer—also of Corner Table and Revival—was named King of Porc back in 2015.
We checked in with this year’s contestants from across Minnesota about their strategy to become this year’s Porc royalty and what they’re pondering for their heritage pig.
1. Timothy Fischer of Cosmos, Duroc Yorkshire pig from Hidden Stream Farm
How did you prepare for the competition?
I have my own pigs, so we raise pigs and over the course of the year I’ve butchered three.
That’s some immersive preparation! You’re all over this farm-to-table continuum, how does that inspire your menu?
I’ve spent 30 years in the kitchen and 40 years on the farm; that’s where I find everything. You have a little epiphany and think about how that will be put on the plate. For me, the pig is front and center, but you don’t want to go and do a pulled pork sandwich. You implement it in highly imaginative ways, it gets people talking. But you have to finalize your menu before you break down the pig. What if you want a chicharrones off the back. You can’t just go in and start grinding it up.
2. Scott Pampuch of 4 Bells, Gloucester Old Spot pig from Spring Wolf Farms
How did you prepare?
There is much more planning that goes into it than most people understand.
For me, it’s about a sense of place. Here in the Midwest we don’t do a lot with abalone, or a lot of exotic ingredients—we live in this world of the classics. That’s kind of where my head goes when it comes to the competition. That’s where the planning starts, at the end of the day you want to really (showcase) your abilities, but at the same time, you need to pull on someone’s heartstrings, because food is really emotional.
You’ve been the butcher for past events, did you ever think crowds would gather to watch you cut up a pig?
Nobody wants to see how the sausage gets made, that’s always been the joke about butchering. What’s very different nowadays is everybody does want to know the process. Everybody wants to understand every step of the way the thought process.
3. Jose Alarcon of Popol Vuh, Tamworth pig from Deutz Heritage Farm
What’s most exciting about this competition for you?
The whole idea is using as much as you can from the animal. It’s exciting for me, absolutely, I feel comfortable with animals. I’m very lucky that I grew up eating a lot of foods at home, and a lot of foods you can find on the streets of Mexico are related to pork. I feel like it’s comfortable for me.
What would a win mean to you?
If I look at it from the business side, obviously it’s great. But I think competition is great fun; I look at it like I’m sharing a little bit with the public, sharing my food and memories—that’s more important to me.
4. Yia Vang of Union Kitchen , Large Black pig from Lucky George Farm
How have you been preparing?
The other day was the big process of going down to Iowa—a three-hour drive to get the practice pig and it’s 223 pounds. I brought it to my friend’s house. My day started at 7 a.m. and I wasn’t done until 8 p.m., it was a whole day of picking it up and breaking it down.
How are you building your menu?
I’m talking menu with my mom and dad. I really want to represent Hmong people and how we eat. So listening to my mom who is more old-school traditional cook, and my dad has been butchering pigs his whole life, so I’m listening to him about how cuts should be done. I’m taking these old school recipes and asking how we modernize it without losing the tradition or stories behind it. Every dish has a narrative; if you follow it long enough you can see the people behind it. The process for us is all about telling the story of our people. I want to go a step further and tell the story of my parents, my father fought a war to get here. So there’s a whole generation of sacrifice of Hmong people, we get to tell that story through our food. I think Cochon is a great platform that we can talk about that, it’s not just a bunch of bros saying, ‘Here’s this pig, lets eat it.’
5. Mateo Mackbee of Model Citizen , Large Black pig from Yker Acres
How are you preparing the menu?
There’s some things I had in mind. I want to try to utilized as much of the pig as possible, but we will also let the pig tell us a little about what we should do depending on what it’s been fed, how it’s been raised. Once we open it up we’ll see how much fat content, marbling even color of the flesh will tell us what the pig ate. And then we’ll taste it raw to see what that exposes for us.
That’s some serious and a little gruesome pig prep. Why are these heritage pigs so important?
We’re all about our small producers. We probably have seasonally 15 to 25 local producers that we use that are growing everything humanely and responsibly. So we try to do as good a job as we can to help those folks stay in business and feature them in the restaurant to help them grow their business.
It was more of a reason that I wanted to participate than my name in the mix. The movement is just as important to us as the event itself.