Competition was stiff at this year’s Cochon555, a celebration of heritage pigs. Walter Manzke of Republique had to go head to head with Tony DiSalvo of CAST at the Viceroy Santa Monica (who had home court advantage), Ricardo Zarate of Chef Zarate Catering, Kris Morningstar of Terrine, and Steven Fretz of The Church Key before emerging victorious. The five chefs each prepared a maximum of six dishes, with every chef using a different heritage pig. Guests were able to vote on their favorite chef, along with a serious panel of judges including Ray Garcia, the 2014 King of Porc, Michael Voltaggio of Ink, and the LA Times’ Jonathan Gold. Chef Manzke will go on to represent LA at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic this June, competing against the winners from nine other cities for the coveted title of “King of Porc.”
Using a Cook Ranch Large Black Heritage pig, Chef Manzke served up a perfect bite of pork belly with Black River caviar and polenta. A number of people declared it the best bite of the day. He also prepared a pork ceviche that made me hesitate a little. We have all been brought up with a near-hysterical fear of undercooked pork. But most problems arise from factory farming; these heritage pigs are raised humanely in a perfect environment. I know everything about the pig except for its zodiac sign. And I figured, these are the best chefs in LA, if not here, where? On a less adventurous note, one of my favorite dishes was Chef Manzke’s simple ham sandwich, proving that with quality ingredients you can let them speak for themselves. There was nothing to take away from the delicate and pure ham essence. The sandwiches were made with freshly baked pain de mie, ham, and rodolph le meunier Normandy butter (A current foodie fetish).
While Republique may have brought home the trophy, Church Key gets an “A” for effort. Wearing old west gear (think Doc Holliday), they handed out toy guns, badges, and moustaches. They even had a piggie mascot in a pink furry suit. I put on a sheriff’s badge and noticed every time I tried to photograph the mascot he would run away from me. Only later did I realize that I had been deputized and he was a wanted pig. As usual, Church Key’s presentation was innovative and fun. From their Rainbow Ranch Farms Hampshire, they served pork and beans in little bean cans with foie gras espuma (a fancy word for foam). Their brown-butter brioche donuts with chiccharones were also a big hit.
Mr. Congeniality goes to Kris Morningstar of Terrine, who also came up with a twist on pork and beans using pork belly, blood sausage and butter beans. He prepared an elaborate charcuterie plate and built a towering sandwich called The McDowell, which featured duck-and-pork cotechino (a salami-like charcuterie), egg, trotter, foie gras torchon, and duck ham on an English muffin. He definitely took full advantage of his Old Reminisce Farms Kune Kune.
Ricardo Zarate set his booth up like a little Peruvian market. Everything was priced at $5.55. He drew inspiration from thousands of years of cooking, going all of the way back to the Incas to prepare his Walnut Creek Red Wattle. Paper-thin Tiradito Cabeza (Peruvian ceviche or sashimi) literally melted in your mouth. The sauce on the “Head Ceviche” was complex and multilayered. Chinese-influenced Peruvian fried rice with smoked cecina, baby scallops, and popped quinoa was served in Chinese take-out containers, and burst with flavor. West African-influenced blood sausage was served on toast with a quail egg and green sauce.
Home court pros CAST got serious with their DG-Langley Farm Old Spot. Chef DiSalvo created a green chorizo biscuit and gravy with a quail egg for dipping. One bite and it stopped me in my tracks. The biscuit was so light it would put your grandmother to shame. It was truly inspired. Their Pig Trotter and Duck Confit Terrine had a lovely crisp exterior and was served with Strawberry Mostarda, Foie Torchon, Pickled Green Strawberries and Wild Sorrel.
Over at the Punch Kings’ cocktail competition, top mixologists were making big bowls of punch with Breckenridge Bourbon. “The Southern Gentleman” with Bourbon, Oleo Saccharum, and peach shrub, was one of my favorites. In spite of catchy names like “Creme de Peche Mode” and “The Tim Allen,” it was Devon Espinosa of the Church Key who was declared the LA Punch King and will continue to the finals at Aspen Food and Wine. He won over the judges with his “I’m Your Huckleberry,” a punch that included Bourbon, huckleberries, clove, cinnamon, black peppercorns, orange blossoms, lemon, and Angostura bitters. One of the best things about this cocktail is that in this age of handcrafted bitters and obscure tinctures, every one of these ingredients is either in my cupboard or backyard.
Man cannot live on pork and bourbon alone, try as you may, so there were some fun little pop-ups to mix things up. David Cordua of Cordua Tapas Bar presented a lovely tuna canape for the Wines of Rioja Tapas Bar. Prosciutto de Parma ran a deli slicer throughout the day.
In the VIP tent, Michael Kahikina of Barrel and Ashes served beef tartare featuring Creekstone Farms at the TarTar Bar. The intense spoonful was made up of finely chopped beef heart, smoked brisket, burnt ends, tendon, and sirloin. The taste of organ and raw meat intensified with the smoked meats combined to create something sinister and primal.
VIPs also enjoyed The Artisan Cheese Bar featuring DTLA Cheese and Beecher’s Handmade Cheese from Seattle. The Water Grill changed things up with Rappahannock River Oysters, which taste much cleaner because they get rinsed by the river’s freshwater. Creminelli Fine Meats had a gorgeous charcuterie bar, with what one guest dubbed “the best mortadella I ever ate.”
Twice the Vice Spirited Chocolates wooed us with dark chocolate truffles blended with Eagle Rare Bourbon and topped with Jamon Iberico.
Buffalo Trace Bourbon Whiskey supplied punchbowls of cocktails — in case you hadn’t had enough Bourbon yet. Beachwood Brewing broke up the monotony with a Cream Ale and IPA. Back outside at the event, Guests also enjoyed the Wines of Germany, Maggy Hawk Wine, Fidencio Mezcal, and Koch el Mezcal.
Williams-Sonoma sponsored a pop-up butcher shop. The butchering demo was not for the faint of heart. A huge Cook Big Ranch Mulefoot was broken down skillfully by the Cook’s Family Butcher Shop with the various cuts offered for sale. It doesn’t get any fresher than that. The Butcher Shop alone raised $1200 for the supporting culinary students from Le Cordon Bleu.