Film fans around the world may have been watching the Oscars on Sunday, but Houston’s culinary community turned its attention to a place closer to home — the downtown JW Marriott.
Organizer Brady Lowe described the event as creating a “topsoil of education” about these pigs, which produce more flavorful, fattier meat than their conventionally-raised counterparts. Speaking to the judges, a collection of local media, chefs (including last year's winner, former Down House chef Mark Decker), and sommeliers, Lowe said he hoped for the day when diners would be as excited about paying $35 for a heritage pork chop as they are spending “two grand” for a really great bottle of wine.
Until that day comes, the five participating chefs — David Cordua (Americas), Philippe Gaston (Izakaya), Richard Knight (Hunky Dory), William Wright (Helen Greek Food and Wine), and Justin Yu (Oxheart) — spent Sunday night convincing the crowd of 450 attendees that whatever premium they might pay to consume these animals is offset by their deliciousness. They also competed for the title “Prince of Porc” and prizes that included cookware from Williams Sonoma, two giant bottles of bourbon, and a trip to the Cochon finals in Aspen.
At first glance, Yu would have appeared to be the favorite. After all, he is the most acclaimed of the participants: a former Food & Wine Best New Chef, a two-time James Beard Award Best Chef Southwest finalist, the chef/owner of the only Houston restaurant on Eater’s list of the 38 most essential restaurants in America, and recently cooked as part of the prestigious 12 Days fundraiser at three-star Michelin The Restaurant at Meadowood.
On the other hand, Yu is best known for his careful cooking of vegetables as part of Oxheart’s delicately assembled tasting menus. In order to compete in the full-flavored excess of Cochon 555, Yu reached back to his recent past and revived his Money Cat pop-up of self-described “grungy Asian dishes.” By turning his Iberico pig from Acorn Seekers farm into dishes like Dan-Dan noodles with poached pork belly, Mala Sichuan-style red oil dumplings stuffed with dirty rice, a homemade hot dog, and, in a collaboration with soon-to-open doughnut shop Morningstar, a donut hole filled with chocolate ganache and pig’s blood, Yu edged out his competitors to take the title.
Although the other chefs didn’t win, all of them turned in impressive efforts. Standout dishes included Cordua’s honey-glazed chicharron, Knight’s smoked meringue filled with pork liver mousse and strawberries, Wright’s fried headcheese olives, and Gaston’s pate de champagne.
In addition to all the eating and drinking, the night had a charitable component. By buying parts of a pig that was butchered during the event, attendees contributed over $3,500 to the Piggy Bank, which provides heritage-breed pigs to family farms that submit an approved business plan.
While those efforts are certainly praiseworthy, what makes Cochon 555 so successful is that it's a really good time. In addition to featuring some of Houston's top chefs among the five teams, the event features high-quality spirits and plenty of wine.
Pop-up stations like a beef tartare bar from State of Grace chef Bobby Matos, a ramen bar from Kata Robata chef Manabu Horiuchi, and desserts from Fluff Bake Bar chef Rebecca Masson help ensure that just when it seems like someone has sampled every possible bite, another eating opportunity presents itself.
Let's do it again next year.