It’s difficult to fully appreciate the virtues that our fine, four legged snouted friends have to offer until you make your way out to New York City’s Pier Sixty on one faithful Sunday each February. On the weekend that precedes Fat Tuesday, the LocalBozo.com crew headed to Chelsea Piers for the mind blowing pig eating experience called Cochon 555. There, we would join hundreds of our fellow pork lovers in reaping the culinary fruits created by five well known and distinctive female chefs from some of Manhattan’s most notable establishments.
Their restaurants are undeniably intertwined with New York City’s rapidly changing food culture and as such Missy Robbins (A Voce), Alex Guarnaschelli (Butter), Leah Cohen (Pig and Khao), Elizabeth Falkner (Krescendo) and Shanna Pacifico (Back Forty West) were ideal candidates to participate in a cookoff of nose-to-tail proportion. The winner, as selected by a pool of judges and hundreds of guests, would be crowned the “Princess of Porc” and would go on to compete in Aspen, Colorado’s Food & Wine Classic held in June called the ‘Grand Cochon.’ At 4pm, we made our way into the huge space reserved for the late Sunday afternoon festivities with gigantic grins donning our faces. The first hour would be set aside for VIP tastings, giving us the chance to indulge in a small sampling of flavors before the general admission crowd would join the party. With glasses in hand, we made our way toward the corner table housing San Francisco’s own Anchor Steam Brewery. Having tried their signature brew several times, we opted for alternating pours of their Brown and Liberty Ales, both of which were extremely crisp and nutty with only a slightly bitter finish. With beers in hand we made our way over to Top Chef contestant Leah Cohen’s table representing her restaurant, “Pig & Khao.” Ms. Cohen had a variety of choice piggy snacks on hand. Tiny paper bags sat atop each nearby high top table, stuffed with her take on the much beloved “Spiced Chicharron” or pork rinds. Each crunch filled bite was pleasantly spiced and perfectly salted. Next up was some heartier fare- the “Fermented Sausage” paired with ginger and Thai basil, and the “Dinuguan” or blood stew mixing steamed puto and crispy pig ears in a warm broth, were both particularly excellent. Cohen worked some serious magic here and we returned for repeat tastings.
With the first major pig sampling completed, it was time to slightly reign it in with glasses of earthy red wine imported from Robert Kacher and briny Rappahannock River Oysters. Cocktail sauce was available but seriously wasn’t needed, as the succulent oysters were essentially flawless on their own. During this fun little bit of downtime we walked over to the staging area to witness The Meat Hook’s own Sara Bigelow butcher an entire Berkshire pig from Percy Thompson Meadows before a near salivating audience. Watching Bigelow thoroughly explain each masterful cut was incredibly informative, considering every piece of pig we would continue eating throughout the day. The hunks of freshly sliced swine would also be put to good use for a meaty raffle toward the end of the evening. Following the seminar, we regrouped to receive hearty pours of Brooklyn Brewery’s much talked about “Sorachi Ace.” This Saison style offers a great deal of flavor, while remaining refreshingly crisp and dry.
Fortunately the fine pours from Brooklyn Brewery sat adjacent to the table of Back Forty West, whose team was led by Chef Pacifico who let her Brazilian-American roots shine proud. Aside from the delicious “Empanadas” prepared with pork lard dough, the passed around deep fried “Pork Face Nuggets,” and an incredible “Glazed and Smoked Canadian Bacon,” the standout here was the “Feijoada,” combining robust black beans, thick chunks of fresh ribs, blood sausage, and smoked pork belly. Back Forty West may have boasted the day’s longest line, but the wait was certainly worthwhile.
Even before attending Cochon 555, it’s important to have a strategy for pacing yourself throughout the day. While lines can certainly build up because of the delicacies being served, there are more than enough beers, wines, and spirits here to keep your hands constantly full. And sipping on a tasty beverage certainly seemed to make the lines move faster. Cochon 555’s ‘Bourbon Bar’ was especially ideal as two mixologists hand prepared Manhattans for each guest using any of the ten different available bourbons and passed them out in mason jars. We quickly grabbed two concoctions using High West Whiskey while we waited to sample Kresendo’s Elizabeth Falkner’s Cochon entries- “Lard Biscuits with Pork Belly Confit” and “Black Tie Farfalle with Red Wattle Pork Sugo.” Both were inventive and delicious and again, a revelation for more traditional swine-centric eaters.We’d be remiss to not mention Chef Guarnaschelli’s dishes, celebrating Chinese New Year. Her team, rapidly plating samples with conveyor belt like precision was doling out “Pig’s Head and Foot Cakes,” “Pork Shoulder Soup Dumplings,” Red-Cooked Pork Belly” and “Pig Skin Noodles with Ground Leg Meat” to name a few of her delicious eats. The Chef herself could be seen front and center, hustling alongside the rest of her staff, each dedicated to a different job for serving the still hungry masses.
With four chefs down, we saved our favorite, and the eventual winner of 2013’s New York City Cochon 555, for last. A Voce’s Chef Robbins pulled out all the stops at her Italian inspired preparation of pig. From the delectable “Testa,” pig’s head terrine doused in chili, lemon, and topped with marjoram, the “Proscuitto Cotto” ham and eggs, with layers of black truffles and fontina cheese, the “Tortelli” stuffed pasta filled with bacon, with pork brood and Brussels sprouts, to the “Polpetti,” which at first glance resembled a traditional Italian meatball. Instead, it was filled with fresh, creamy ricotta and surrounded by a sea of San Marzano tomatoes and fennel pollen. Each and every course served by Chef Robbins was outstanding and unique, distinguishing her as the 2013 winner in a race that was entirely too close to call. While there would be just one champion crowned at Sunday evening’s Cochon 555, any of us that were fortunate enough to enjoy the final product of the hours spent prepping and subsequently serving up these incredible dishes were the day’s true winners. And as we clinked together our Champagne glasses with our fellow eaters at the end of the night, it was no surprise that the rest of the crowd surrounding us certainly felt the same way.
- Jane Van Arsdale & Jay Rubin