Houston is no stranger to huge food fests, but Cochon 555 is different. A traveling food event that hits 10 U.S. cities each year, its focus is on farm-raised, heritage breed pigs, the farmers who raise them and providing a platform for the local chefs who are not only committed to promoting the cause, but working to change the way people eat.
But that said, the event is still all about the food, the wine and the booze. And the organizers do a fine job of making sure that you get plenty of it.
First, there are the five competing chefs, each tasked with using a whole pig to craft six dishes (for a total of 30 dishes), to be judged by group of judges made up of local media, chefs, sommeliers, farmers and other industry pros.
The Houston chefs competing this year were David Cordua of the Cordua Restaurant Group (Americas, Churrascos, Artista, Amazon Grill); Richard Knight of Hunky Dory; William Wright of Helen Greek Food & Wine; Justin Yu of Oxheart Restaurant representing his pop-up, The Moneycat Brunch; and Philippe Gaston of Izakaya.
On paper, there were five wines being served, but it was really more like five wines multiplied several times over. In all there were the five excellent ones chosen by local sommeliers for the Sommelier Smackdown competition, as well as five wines offered by Wines of Germany, seven Italian wines from the Azzurro Wine Company and five winery tables featuring wines from Ridge Lytton Springs, Pax syrah, Sandhi chardonnay, Scholium Project sauvignon blanc and Pisoni pinot noir.
And the alcoholic offerings didn't end there. Liquor also got its due with Buffalo Trace punches created by local sommeliers for the Punch Kings competition, a table of tiki-themed drinks, Mezcal tastings and with cocktail and tequila tastings by Don Julio Tequila.
Besides the heaps of competing dishes, attendees could also partake in an oyster bar and plentiful tasting of charcuterie and artisan cheeses presided over by host restaurant Main Kitchen at the JW Marriott, a tartare bar manned by chef Bobby Matos of State of Grace, a prosciutto bar from chef Jose Hernandez of Radio Milano, a pop-up ramen bar by chef Manabu Horiuchi of Kata Robata, and a pop-up dessert station by Rebecca Masson of Fluff Bake Bar.
As one of the many judges for the event, I had the difficult task of tasting every single dish that the chefs made before scoring their entire entry on a scale of 5—five for presentation, five for overall utilization of pig and five for taste. It goes without saying that each of the chefs and their teams put in countless hours towards creating the most memorable set of dishes, and they are to be commended for their immense efforts alone.
David Cordua, Philippe Gaston and Richard Knight’s teams all scored high for presentation. Cordua had what looked like elongated, custom-made trays that allowed him to beautifully display his offerings, sushi-style, to the judges. His table, too, was spectacularly laid out, and several attendees I spoke with easily proclaimed him their personal winner. His South American-themed tastings were bursting with layers of complex flavor, and standouts for me were the mini kolaches stuffed with pork belly, mushroom and Béarnaise and a push-pop-style dessert of sweet corn tamale layered with lard frosting and candied pig ears.
Gaston’s table was my personal favorite for presentation thanks to his colorful menus printed with a cartoon sketch of a hangry pig. It set the tone for his playful Asian-esque tastings of items such as a fantastic pork musubi (a play on spam musubi) and fun variation on Mexican menudo called “menoodles,” a pork-based noodle soup dish with Tex-Mex flavors.
Knights’ table was all prim-and-proper English. Ornate silver trays, vintage china and silver vases filled with roses channeled English country splendor as we bit into expertly constructed, wholly memorable bites such as his “Heaven and Earth,” which looked like a small fried dumpling, but was actually black pudding wrapped in crispy phyllo-like brick pastry, topped with Granny Smiths, caramelized onions and mustard vinaigrette. The “Strawberry Pork Love-R” bite made of hearth-smoked meringue filled with pork liver mousse and local strawberries also scored extremely high on flavor and texture. It was part English summer pudding, part French macaron, and I admit to indulging in several more as the night wore on.
William Wright of newly minted James Beard nominee Helen Greek Food & Wine filled dolmades with blood sausage and folded bacon into baklava. His other offerings included a croquette-like fried head cheese ball stuffed with feta and olive brought a Mediterranean flavor to the evening's proceedings.
But it was Justin Yu’s Asian-style Moneycat Brunch (his pop-up alter-ego totally distinct from the food that he does at Oxheart) that resonated most deeply with judges and attendees alike. His preparations combined Korean, Thai and Chinese flavors and everything just worked. To start, there was his Chinese-style monkey bread topped with whipped fat, fried pork sung (dried pork floss), which he’d made with fat, leaf lard, head and shanks of the pig. Then there were the unctuous and tasty dan-dan-style Chinese noodles in Triple Happiness broth made with picnic shoulder, shoulder butt, belly, bones and hocks. His version of red oil dumplings—stuffed with dirty-rice-style pork stuffing made with ham and offal, and topped with a chili oil—had a Tex-Mex tinge thanks to the addition of cumin. In the end, it was my favorite bite of the night. But there was more: a Thai-style sausage—essentially a hot dog topped with shrimp mayo, pickled bits and Thai chiles, had the crowd lined up well into the middle of the room for a taste. And a play on the Spanish tortilla espanola—omelette topped with pork sung and served over roasted pork tenderloin, was so homey and comforting it had me tasting not just seconds, but thirds.
Not surprisingly, when it came time for the final announcement, Yu had clinched the title of Houston Cochon 555 champ. He will be representing Houston at Grand Cochon in Aspen later this year. He wasn't the only big winner of the night; Dale Ellington of Kata Robata triumphed in the Sommelier Smackdown, while Morgan Weber of Revival Market, Coltivare and Eight Row Flint was named Punch King.