A Preview of the Denver Cochon 555

Five chefs from the porky cook-off dish on cooking tips and butchery trends
March 6, 2015
by Lori Midson

On Sunday afternoon, five Colorado chefs, including Kelly Whitaker (Basta and Cart-Driver), Matt Vawter (Mercantile Dining & Provision), John Chad Little (Harman’s Eat & Drink), Christopher Thompson (The Nickel) and Rich Byers (The Corner Office), will compete in the Denver stop of Cochon 555, a traveling pig party that challenges each chef to prepare up to six dishes from a single Heritage breed hog. The smackdown kicks off at 5 PM at The Ritz-Carlton (tickets are still available here), and by the end of the epic pork spree, one chef — the one with the highest number of votes from the public and a school of judges — will be crowned the "Prince of Porc" and move on to battle it out at the June Grand Cochon event in Aspen for the title of "King or Queen of Porc." We chatted with the Colorado chefs about their strategies for winning the Denver pig showdown, butchery trends and the one pork plate they can't live without. Check out the slide show below for all the dish.

Kelly Whitaker, Cart-Driver and Basta

Zagat: What's your strategy for winning Cochon 555?
Whitaker: The pig will be the star, but we love sweet, sour, bitter and salty umami flavors, not to mention the flavors of the sea, so we'll also introduce Hama Hama oysters, dried sardines, bonito and other seafood into our menu. At both of our restaurants, the wood-fired oven is our only cooking instrument, and it touches every part of our menu. That will hold true for our Cochon menu, too, and since other chefs can’t recreate the same flavors without the wood fire, we think we have an advantage.

Pro tip for butchering a pig: The temperature of the animal is extremely important. If the meat is too cold or too warm, it can be difficult to work with, plus you risk harming the end product. The hog should be between 33-40 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 24 hours before sectioning and freezing or curing it since trying to preserve meat that hasn't had the chance to gradually reach the proper internal temperature can result in souring. The best way to determine whether the carcass has been properly chilled is to insert a meat thermometer into the center of the ham (the thickest, slowest-to-cool portion of the body). Tip: You can use iced brine to lower the temperature of the carcass.

If you had to pick just one pork dish to survive on for the rest of your life, what would it be? Ramen. Great pork broth and noodles just do it for me.

Next big butchery trend: The comeback of classic butcher shops. My grandfather was a butcher, so I’ve been especially aware of the decline of traditional butcher shops over the last 20 years, but that's changing. We work with Denver butcher shops Western Daughters as well as Il Porcellino Salumi, who helps us with specific cuts and seasonings so that we can focus our energy on cooking and serving perfect food to our guests. The resurgence of the craft butcher is something I'm very excited about.
If you win, what's the celebration plan? We’ll head to The Nickel or Cart-Driver for the after party with all of the fellow competitors. All of us who are competing are good friends, and win or lose, we'll all hang out and celebrate together. And if we win, I'm buying.

Cart-Driver: 2500 Larimer St.; 303-292-3553
Basta: 3601 Arapahoe Ave.; 303-997-8775

Rich Byers, The Corner Office

Zagat: What's your strategy for winning Cochon 555?
Byers: Create six globally-inspired dishes representing food cultures that stretch across multiple continents. Here in the States, our restaurant culture is very meat-obsessed, and my dishes will use every part of the pig, prepared in styles that truly showcase global street food.

Pro tip for butchering a pig: Use multiple, varying knives to butcher the animal. For example, the jowls are a beautifully flavorful part of the beast. A flexible boning knife contours to the structure of the face allowing for precise cuts that ultimately add the flavors that make each dish unique.

If you had to pick just one pork dish to survive on for the rest of your life, what would it be? Carnitas. They make for delicious tacos.

Next big butchery trend: The continued acquisition of local animals. Besides sustaining local farms and businesses, it keeps my costs low, because I can use the whole animal to create countless plates. Mass-produced meat is low quality and less flavorful, and people are realizing, too, that buying only certain cuts really limits your options as a chef. It's about creating a relationship between chefs and local farmers and giving chefs a better understanding of the products that they're working with.

If you win, what's the celebration plan? Scotch and cigars. We’ll save the big blowout for Aspen.

1401 Curtis St.; 303-825-6500

Matt Vawter, Mercantile Dining & Provision

Zagat: What's your strategy for winning Cochon 555?
Vawter: Utilize the whole animal, keep things simple, execute well and serve the best food there.

Pro tip for butchering a pig: Keep it clean and if you order whole pigs, you've really got to have a firm plan in place that ensures you have the space to break it down and store it. And make sure you have lots of ideas for making use of the whole pig - not just the bellies, loins and shoulder but the harder parts, like the heads, skin, fat and offal.

If you had to pick one pork dish to survive on for the rest of your life, what would it be? Pork tacos. With so many ways to cook pork, it's impossible to get bored.

Next big butchery trend: I think chefs will become more creative in the ways they utilize the forgotten and less expensive cuts of meat. As food costs increase, it challenges chefs to take less expensive items and increase the perceived value. Obviously a whole animal is much cheaper than just buying a few cuts, but creating ways to use the rest of the animal is the challenge. More nose-to tail-tastings, animal fat-roasted vegetables and the use of offal are all things I expect to see.

If you win, what's the celebration plan? Head back to Mercantile for a celebratory drink with my team...and maybe some pork tacos.

1701 Wynkoop St.; 720-460-3733

Chris Thompson, The Nickel

Zagat: What's your strategy for winning Cochon 555?
Thompson: We'll apply the same philosophy that we apply to all of our dishes at the Nickel: give people a familiar point of reference and then do something they're unfamiliar with and use it as an educational opportunity. That’s a big part of our responsibility as chefs in Denver. We have this burgeoning culinary scene, and it's our job and duty as chefs to educate our dining populace.

Pro tip for butchering a pig: Make sure you have sharp knives (and the proper ones at that), plenty of time for trial and error, a solid sense of anatomy and a broad understanding of butchery techniques. In short, do your homework and don’t try to figure out what to do with a 220-pound hog after it's arrived in your kitchen.

If you had to pick one pork dish to survive on for the rest of your life, what would it be? That's like asking a kid to chose one candy bar they'd want for the rest of their life. It might have to be a porchetta sandwich from the streets of Cortona in eastern Tuscany. Salty, crispy, chewy and succulent. Need I say more?

Next big butchery trend: Hard to say, but I'm going with the incorporation of goat on American menus. They're delicious, very easy to raise and they'll eat just about anything. If we could replace one meal a week in the American diet with goat instead of beef, the impact on over-grazed lands, methane output and global warming would be insurmountable. Food for thought.

If you win, what's the celebration plan? Probably do the same thing that we’ll do if we lose: pop a bottle of bourbon or bubbles with the crew and tie one on. Oh, and go to Spring Training in Phoenix to watch the Dodgers. I’m doing that either way.

1100 14th St.; 720-889-2128

John Chad Little, Harman's Eat & Drink

Zagat: What's your strategy fo winning Cochon 555?
Little: Don't mess it up! We're fortunate to cook a beautiful animal that's extremely tasty on its own, and our goal is to use every last bit of the pig in as many ways as possible and focus on highlighting the flavor of the pig while featuring different flavors and textures in each bite.

Pro tip for butchering a pig: Butchery isn't as scary as most people think. There are lots of natural lines on a pig that you can cut and follow to ensure a successful butchery session. And, hey, these days, people have even had mild success by searching YouTube. Just like anything, practice makes perfect, but there's no tastier way to learn than by butchering a pig yourself. It's kinda like a fatty, delicious Rubik's cube

If you had to pick one pork dish to survive on for the rest of your life, what would it be? Probably porchetta with all sorts of garlic and love rubbed on the inside and roasted till sexy. Leave the skin on so you get that super-thick chicharron on the outside.

Next big butchery trend: The realization of the part of the consumer that every last bit of a pig is important. It's hard for butcheries to sustain themselves when you go in just looking for pork chops and tenderloin. My advice: Open your mind and try something new.

If you win, what's the celebration plan? I'm just excited to share the stage with some seriously talented chefs who have years of experience on me, but if this underdog can pull out a win, I'm sure we will be cracking some awesome sour beers with all the awesome guys and gals I get the privilege to work with on a daily basis. 

2900 E. 2nd Ave.; 303-388-7428

pork dishes
cochon 555
kelly whitaker
christopher thompson
matt vawter
john chad little
rich byers
grand cochon