Omnivore - A report from Cochon 555

Sunday's event had Charleston whooping the competition.

On Sunday I judged the pig-cooking competition Cochon 555, which took place at the W hotel downtown and is part of a national tour. At each event, 5 chefs are asked to cook a whole pig, using it in whatever way they decide. A butcher demonstration, wine, cheese and revelry are also involved.

The chefs at the Atlanta event were Kevin Rathbun, Todd Mussman (of Muss & Turner's), Kelly English from Restaurant Iris in Memphis, Sean Brock from McCrady's in Charleston, and Mike Lata from Fig in Charleston. I'm not going to go into detail about what each chef made, but I will say that the Charleston chefs were so far ahead of the rest that it mortified me a little. Sean Brock, who was ultimately named the winner, turned out close to 15 dishes, including one of the more inspired things I've seen all year: Korean "noodle" soup, with the clear noodles made from the pig. Brock was positively delerious, having worked service in Charleston the previous night, then driven without sleep to Atlanta to do the cooking and work the event.

Mike Lata also had a huge assortment of dishes (11 if my count was correct), including an adorable pig-shaped cracker that tasted of sharp cheese straws (and was made with lard from the pig), and an outrageously good banh mi sandwich, made with head cheese, liver pate and pickled ramps. Lata's food was my favorite of the event - I thought he had a cohesiveness Brock lacked - but it was mighty hard to choose between them. They both got perfect scores from me.

The other chefs each turned out one, or in Rathbun's case, two dishes. I wondered what happened to the rest of the pig. True, these dishes each had some components from different parts of the animal, but so much of it must have gone unused. Part of the beauty of Brock and Lata's presentations was that you could tell they used everything they were given. I can't say that any of the other contestant's dishes stood out as much as most of what Lata and Brock brought. It wasn't simply a question of quantity, but of inventiveness and  passion on the plate.

There are some great photos from the event over at Savory Exposure.