It's a Monday afternoon, Catalan restaurant is closed, but inside the small kitchen a pig-a-thon is happening. Before them on the worktables, chef/partner Chris Shepherd and friends intently butcher out one fine Mangalitsa in preparation for Cochon 555, a competition featuring five pigs, five chefs and five winemakers.
Shepherd is thrilled to be invited to the heritage pork-cooking competition.
“I would like to think they invited me because I am becoming nationally known for my whole pork cooking, but I think they found me because I am friends with her boss," Shepherd says self-effacingly. "Dave Miner of Miner Family Vineyards talked me up." He refers to his wife, Rocio Gonzales, who reps for Miner, one of the featured family-owned wineries at the regional competition.
Cochon 555 is a 10-city national tour and competition promoting heritage pigs and their farmers, chefs and family wineries. The regional cook-off that Shepherd is competing in is taking place in Stillwater, Okla., tomorrow in the ConocoPhillips Alumni Center of Oklahoma State University. Winners of each of the 10 competitions are crowned Prince or Princess of Porc and invited to compete against each other at the big Food & Wine Classic in Aspen in June, where the winner there will be crowned King or Queen of Porc.
Today, Shepherd is intent on the first step of the competition, breaking down and boning out the whole pig. Ultimately, he is determined to win.
The room fluctuates between intense labor and chatter.
The razor-edge sharp knives stop working when the mouths open. A good thing, as just two weeks ago Shepherd slit open his left arm while butching a pig. Now he is wearing a professional protective metal glove and a soccer shin guard over his healing injury. He hopes to get the stitches out before he leaves for competition.
Occasionally, Shepherds steps over to his laptop and clicks onto videos to refresh his memory. A few months back he traveled with Jason Basye (of Stella Sola), Ryan Pera (exec chef at The Grove) and pig grower Morgan Weber of Revival Meats to a three-day Austrian Seam Butchering class in New Jersey. Shepherd recorded many of the critical steps.
In the room assisting Shepherd is the pig grower Weber of Revival Meats. “How cool is this? You don’t see many pig farmers butchering out their own pigs,” remarks Shepherd.
And Pera, who also has been asked to try for the pork crown, declined after he heard Shepherd was competing.
“Yeah, how cool is that?," Shepherd says. "After being asked, Ryan saying no, but instead helping me bring it home to Houston."
When asked if he was attending the event as Shepherd’s sous chef, Pera says, "No, I am helping a friend.”
“Yeah, baby,” Shepherd says. “Together we are bringing it home to Houston. Together we will show the nation that Houston rocks. That we are more than steakhouses — they are OK, but the artisans get overlooked. Here we got a farmer pitching in, a friend and even Justin asked if he could come. But I said, "Thanks, man, you got Easter brunch to cook.' ”
Shepherd picks up a tool with a blue handle and a loop of what looks like thick, clear plastic fishing tackle and runs it under a rib bone, freeing it from the carcass in one easy pull. “This is the coolest tool ever,” he says of the appropriately named rib puller.
And then he takes a deep breath. “This is what freaks me out, taking out the spine,” he says as he attempts to remove the backbone, the same action responsible for his injury. The room freezes. He completes the task unharmed this time.
Teaming up on pork
The competition menu evolves over the banter.
“I think we will give the judges a shot of posole to kick things off," Shepherd says. "Then a plate of blood sausage, headcheese and andouille sausage with some sauerkraut (from locally resourced cabbage and house cured.) Dessert will be a pound cake, with pork lard used in place of butter, and garnished with Mike Atkinson’s strawberries.”
At this point, Shepherd holds up the just-butchered loin with Mangalista’s characteristically thick, dense white fat cap.
“Now we are talking,” Shepherd says.
Pera chimes in, “Kings of Lardo.”
The room cracks up, and with general consensus the name of the team has just been decided.
Mangaista, native to Hungry, Austria, and the general Balkan region, is a heritage pig known for its marbled red-colored meat and excessive dense fat caps that enhance the meat’s flavor. Weber, who dedicates his life to preserving heritage breeds and traditional free range growing, is one of the few United States sources for the succulent pork. He and Shepherd hooked up via Weber’s blog.
Weber has high hopes for the future of heritage breeds. While it is now legally prohibited to slaughter at the farm, Weber believes that mobile slaughter units will soon get the FDA nod, thus giving him total control of his animals from start to finish.
He asks Pera, “How are the joints? Any signs of stress?”
Pera says there is a bit of fluid, but not much.
Weber explains that when an animal is stressed prior to slaughter, body fluids collect in the joints and can affect the meat quality.
By the end of April, Weber believes he will have quarter, half or whole pigs to sell to the general public at about $6.25 a pound, more if there is custom butchering involved. He plans on expanding Revival Meats’ product line to include heritage sheep and chickens.
A Happy Place
With Jimmy Buffet wailing in the background and the heritage pig in front of him, Shepherd announces to no one in particular, “This puts me in a happy spot.”
Pera counters that he, too, is happiest when he finds the time for butchering in his own kitchen. It takes him away from all the questions. “My whole day work is one question after another," Pera says.
Pera peels off the skin of his quarter. “Know what I am thinking? Skin tortillas."
First the chefs talk about rendering the fat out of the skin to make the masa. Then they switch gears to simply grilling the skin into tortillas.
Shepherd reacts,” I have always wanted to make pig skin tortillas forever.” The tortillas are tentatively placed on the menu.
Shepherd worries that the 125-pound pig (the size specified by the competition rules) won't be enough to feed the 20 judges and the 200 ticket-holding members of the general public, each equally important. The winner is determined by a formula based on 49 percent judges and 51 percent general public opinion. Pera worries headcheese will be all over the place at the competition.
Shepherd’s right-hand man Antoine Ware shows up and starts grinding pork for the andouille sausage.
Two-and- a-half hours in, Shepherd is down to working on the head. Weber has to go back to the farm. Pera needs to get back to his restaurant. Shepherd’s healing arm is aching but he retains his sense of humor. Placing the set of ears atop Ware’s head he says, "Look, I got you some Mickey Mouse ears.”
Today, the pig, the entourage and Shepherd’s macabre sense of humor headed to Stillwater. Judging is Saturday and with any luck, the results will be posted here.
Fingers crossed until then.