Cochon 555, a multi-city, national event celebrating the cultivation of heritage breed hogs, rolled into Atlanta, GA this past Sunday. It was my second pork-themed event in less than a month. You may have already read my write up of the Southern Foods Pig Out in the Park. What can I say? I'm a lucky guy. The basic premise of Cochon 555 is to assemble five of the best regional chefs, give them each a 175 lb. heritage breed pig to cook, and let the assembled masses enjoy the fruits of their labors. Joining these five chefs are five wineries showcasing their wines. So, the 555 equals 5 hogs, 5 wines, and 5 chefs. Simple enough. Atlanta's Cochon 555 took place at the downtown W hotel. Several hundred foodies, food critics, and bloggers turned out to indulge in everything fine about swine (did I really just make that horrible rhyme?). I've assembled a simple photo essay with minimal commentary to describe the event for you. Enjoy.
When I arrived a little late to the VIP reception at the 16th floor pool, things were well underway. Spotting a group of people assembled outside surrounding a table full of pork cuts, I found Craig Deihl doing a pretty respectable job of breaking down a Guinea Hog. Yeah, what you see below is where pork cheeks come from. Maybe not pretty, but tasty for sure.
I'm a sucker for a good butcher (one of my grandfathers happened to practice the trade), so I hung out and enjoyed the knife work. Inside, Cochon 555 was offering up an oyster bar from BLT Atlanta and a cheese table.
After a little mingling, the VIP reception concluded and everyone was ushered down to the fourth floor for the main event. Entering Cochon 555 proper, I was a little thrown off. The space for the event was...raw. Industrial. Cement. Open ceilings and construction grade lighting. A photographer's nightmare. I tried to figure out the logic. Maybe they were shooting for hip and urban? But we are celebrating heritage pigs, right? The food and the space were ,at best, incongruous. If the event were mine to arrange, it would have been held somewhere like Ashland or Riverview Farms to really hammer home the link between what was on the plate and what it took to get it there. Check out this picture and see if it says heritage breed pig to you.
The food was another matter entirely. Great stuff. It was interesting to take in the different approaches that each restaurant took for presenting their hog. Some chefs went for one dish. Others trotted out as many as ten dishes. Personalities showed up on the plate.
Here is Kelly English's plate from Restaurant Iris - A Banh Mi pork tostada with pork cracklin' and coleslaw. It had texture and heat. For my first bite, it was a great start. This is a quick shot of Kelly plating his dishes.
Since there wasn't an evident flow to the room, I grabbed a taste of wine and headed for Kevin Rathbun ,of Rathbun's, table. I had judged Kevin only a few weeks prior in a similar competition, so I was very interested to see if he would be bringing new flavors or going with what had worked recently. Kevin was offering two dishes - steamed pork over a pork flan with Asian flavors as well as a pork dumpling with five spice consomme. I had trouble shooting Kevin's flan dish because of the choice of presentation, so I opted for a photo of the assembly line.
I loved Kevin's pork flan, but I was ultimately disappointed because he was working the same flavor profile I had sampled only a few weeks prior. I'm certain that Kevin owns a big-ass smoker, and I'm a little confused as to why he keeps running to these Asian spices. Hell yes, they are tasty combinations. But is there really any better compliment to a heritage breed hog than barbecue spice and smoke? And Kevin, you live in Georgia. We smoke hogs here. I know you know that.
Kevin's second bite was a perfect example of why he is regarded as one of the best chefs in ATL. A simple steamed pork dumpling with five spice consomme. Two little bites of perfection. Nice work.
My next stop was Todd Mussman's table of Muss and Turner's in Vining's, GA. Muss and Turner's is one of my absolute favorite restaurants in all of Atlanta. They are absolutely unique and have managed to create a restaurant that offers fantastic plates while also selling high quality provisions from local farmers and purveyors. I think they've done a great job of bringing the farm-to-table ethos into the mainstream without being obnoxious about it. Muss offers the highest quality ingredients on the plate, or you can take it home with you and do it yourself.
I was probably ten feet away from Mussman's table when the smoke hit me. Yes. Smoked pork. Now you are speaking my language. The dish for the day was a smoke roasted porchetta served with bitter greens and a pork consomme. Muss and Turner's regularly has a Big Green Egg parked in front of their restaurant chugging out smoke. As well, there are a couple of Eggs on the line at the restuarant. Todd was the only chef to bring a stinky, smokey, delicious bite of pork to the table that day. And here it is.
I finished up my Cochon 555 experience by visiting a couple of the chefs I didn't know. No expectations and no worries. Let's just see what turns up, I thought. First, I visited Fig restaurant from Charleston, SC. Fig is headed by Mike Lata. As you can see by the menu board below, Fig had an extremely ambitious menu that day. I only wish I had the time to sample it all.
Yeah. That's a lot of dishes. I only got to sample a couple before the line for Fig's plates became more than my patience could bear. My favorite bite was a pork lard flavored caramel. If you've got the stones to make pig candy, I'm on your side.
I've been hearing about McCrady's restaurant in Charleston, SC for some time now. Sean Brock is the current chef at McCrady's and I was interested to see what he was serving that day. Sean seems to like to blend a few modern molecular gastronomy techniques with traditional Southern food flavor profiles. It seemed like an exciting combination to me. Sean had apparently taken the same approach of more-is better that Mike Lata of Fig restaurant had taken. There had to have been eight or ten dishes offered at his station, and sadly I didn't get to taste them all. What follows is what I was lucky enough to score.
Here's my favorite bite of the entire event. What you've got here is a johnny cake on the bottom (barely visible), topped with braised bacon, a quail egg, and some whipped sorghum. It's an entire breakfast in one bite. Hands down, the winner for me.
And then when you thought things couldn't get better, Sean presents FUNNEL CAKE! Not only is it funnel cake, but it's pork fried funnel cake topped with pork lard sugar AND pork lard caramel. I was meant to hang out with this dude.
I've already shown Sean's pork liver plate at the top of this post. Confession time - I ate five plates of liver. And I don't even feel bad about it.
The last dish from McCrady's that I tried was the noodle bowl. Truth be told, the only reason that I tried it was that I heard Sean explaining to another attendee that the noodles were actually pork skin that had been cut thin and made to resemble noodles. The dish was far too salty, but I applauded Sean for his creativity.
In the end, Cochon 555 was a great time. I had some great food. I really liked the ethos that they were promoting. The room (and a few of the people) were really creepy. But, if Cochon 555 is coming to your town I suggest you attend. I've reviewed the list of participating chefs, and it's pretty impressive. Go get you some hog. And just hope one of the chefs has the common sense to apply some hickory smoke.