Going Whole Hog

by Andrew Travers, Time Out Staff Writer
If there’s any excuse to save some room in your stomach this weekend, it’s the grand finale Grand Cochon party that takes over the Hotel Jerome on Sunday afternoon.

Now in its fifth year, Grand Cochon pits 10 chefs from 10 cities against one another — with 10 heritage breed pigs on the bill of fare — in a competition for the crown as King of Porc. Each of the chefs cooking up “the other white meat” at the Jerome won one of 10 regional Cochon competitions around the country over the last year.

The competitions invite chefs to prepare “snout-to-tail” menus from heritage breed pigs.

The big event is not a Food & Wine Classic sanctioned party, and requires purchase of a separate ticket. But it’s quickly become one of those must-do events of the weekend, offering creative and delectable pork offerings and shining a spotlight on some chefs and restaurants around the U.S. you may not have yet heard about.

Last year’s Grand Cochon winner was Jason Vincent, chef at Nightwood in Chicago, whose offerings included a bacon-butterscotch doughnut, egg in “hollandoink” sauce and a pork and vegetable stew. He beat out better-known competitors like “Iron Chef” Marc Forgione and “Top Chef” judge Michelle Bernstein, along with two of last year’s Food & Wine Best New Chefs.

There’s a ton of pork on the menu — literally, it’s more than half-a-ton of pork. The chefs prepare a total of about 1,2000 pounds of pork for Food & Wine revelers at the Jerome. This year, it falls on Father’s Day, arguably topping the grub at any other dad’s cookout in the country.

One tip to Grand Cochon newcomers — try to get there early, or pay the extra cost for VIP entrance. The event gets increasingly crowded as the hour of voting and tasting goes on, and last year by party’s end it had an uncomfortable shoulder-to-shoulder frat party vibe about it. So get in and get your tasting done, then sit back, grab a  cocktail and watch the stragglers pack the place and rush to get their fill. VIPs enter at 3 p.m., doors open for general admission an hour later when voting begins, and the awards ceremony is at 5:30 p.m.

Cochon’s mission is to raise awareness about heritage breed pigs. The nationwide competition  was created by Taste Network’s Brady Lowe in 2009, in response to what he saw as a lack of consumer education regarding heritage breeds. As a result of Cochon events, an estimated 35,000 people have tasted heritage pork, $300,000 has gone to farming charities, and more than $500,000 has gone from Cochon directly to farmers across the country.

“It’s not just farm-to-table that matters,” says Lowe. “It’s what happens in between, the how and where, the history of what we eat. More and more of us want to skip the processing and get our foods straight from the pasture but we don’t always know how to get it, where to look, or what to ask for.”

Thus year’s competitors are Missy Robbins of New York, Ryan Smith of Empire State South in Atlanta, James Harrison of Flame at the Four Seasons Resort Vail, Jason Franey of Canlis in Seattle, Michael Scelfo of Russell House Tavern in Boston, Mike Isabella of Graffiato in Washington D.C., Adam Sobel of RN74 in San Francisco, Aaron Brooks of Edge Steakhouse at the Four Seasons Miami, Cosmo Goss of Publican Quality Meats in Chicago and Ray Garcia of Fig in Los Angeles.

Along with the competing dishes, there will be a total of 30 different dishes on hand, a butcher demonstration by Miyabi/Zwilling USA, and bars providing tastings of wine, bourbon and mezcal and punch.

One more tip: save room in your belly for the cheese bar and the swine-infused desserts, which are not to be missed. Pace yourself over the big weekend, and you can truly enjoy Grand Cochon.