Hungry and in need of salvation, we strode in to Cochon 555 in Chicago this Sunday in the chandelier-lit Drake Hotel. Cochon 555 is a traveling national venue featuring five local gourmet chefs, five (unfortunate) hogs, and five vineyards, all thrown together in support of local farms, heritage pigs, and porkin’ out. The chefs cooked frantically the entire time, feeding not only the judges but about 200 guests as well in a Top Chef-style competition. After the last bit of pork fat had been cleared off the tables, it was graham elliot that emerged victorious with its well-executed cornadas and a barbecue pulled pork sandwich on a bacon-fat biscuit.
Considering the pressure to compete for the title of “Prince of Pork,” the chefs and sous-chefs were in a jolly, talkative mood the entire time (the gung-ho graham elliot team brought their own Pabst Blue Ribbon). In fact, everyone was smiling and toe tapping to The Flaming Lips and Depeche Mode songs blasting from the PA system, which led us from table to inviting table of porcine delicacies as if we were in some sort of gastronomic rock-waltz in Heaven. People were smiling, talking, and mingling, and the bright, crowded ballroom overlooking the lakefront was permeated with the smell of wine and cooking meat.
Which brings us to the real deal – the food. Each restaurant team had its classics and innovations. Sam Burman from bluprint whipped up some especially intriguing concoctions, such as “bacon shots” of whiskey, vermouth, and bacon fat, which was quite a flavor mix, as well as the fun-looking, fun-to-eat cotton candy with powdered pork rinds on a stick of bacon with brown sugar. (Sadly, bluprint was the only table to offer even slightly normal-looking bacon strips, and for that we gave them kudos.) Also worth mentioning was their hot “brain pudding,” consisting of brain polenta drizzled with smoked pig ear au jus, topped with wild leeks and pancetta, which had an intensely rich meaty aroma and a complex but scrumptious taste. The team finished with a simple chopped liver, mustard, and pickled red onion dish that reminded me of my own family’s traditional Eastern European cooking.
Moving over to The Bristol table, Chris Pandel was cooking up a storm, or at least frying up one. The only thing at the event we went back for seconds (and thirds) for was his “Mortadella Munchkins,” hazelnut and sugar powdered donuts stuffed with mortadella mousse which should be outlawed for being too yummy. His offerings veered towards the more Germanic, bar food style of cooking, which frankly won over my stomach easily. Notable favorites included the tenderloin and crème fraîche-wrapped pickle slices, as well as sauerkraut, beer mustard, and tenderloin sandwiches.
Stephen Dunne from the Paramount Room/Volo showed off with a dish composed of head cheese, bacon-stuffed tenderloin with chimichurri sauce, and apple slices over strips of smoked leg. The bacon-stuffed tenderloin was pretty delicious, though his pulled-pork tamale was disappointingly bland. Patrick Sheeran of the Signature Room brought out a couple tasty dishes, like miso-cured pork belly with roasted porcini dashi, tat soi, and kimchee, and a simple but splendid mole head cheese with coriander and lime (definitely the best head cheese of the evening).
The graham elliot table was perhaps the busiest, churning out plate after complicated plate for our consumption (though Mr. G. E. Bowles himself was conspicuously absent from the competition). The notable dishes included two cornadas – one was Mexican-style, with shoulder cooked in fat served on a corn chip with chili sauce, crème freche, and avocado, and the other was an “Indian/Italian hybrid” consisting of pork loin topped with some sort of Indian korma chutney, risotto, on top of mozzarella and a corn chip. Our favorite dish from G.E.: the “Southern heart attack,” as we called it – BBQ pulled pork on a bacon-fat biscuit with coleslaw. Simple, greasy, and fantastic.
The night ended with graham elliot being proclaimed the winner, as Italian dessert wine and dark chocolate bacon bars were passed around to the crowd, by then tired from gorging and chugging for nearly three straight hours. We would have been happier to see experimental bluprint or the down-to-earth Bristol take the crown – especially Sam Burman and his bluprint team who took flavor risks and ran with them to what can only have been called great success. To be fair, though, graham elliot did combine innovation with fine pork flavor execution, and in the words of our friend Andrew, their tenderloin slices were “just really, really good ham.”
The stuffed tenderloin from bluprint
Ham-wrapped pickles with crème fraîche at The Bristol
Mortadella munchkins from The Bristol
Dunne’s trio: head cheese, bacon-stuffed tenderloin, and pork leg with apple