Pig-centric food fight Cochon 555 is no stranger to controversy. Last year, the nose-to-tail cooking competition received flak for a racially-insensitive incident at an Asian speakeasy-themed event in Atlanta. This year, some were perturbed that all five of the chefs competing at the District event were exclusively white men.
On August 6, as Cochon 555 made its thirteenth stop of the year at the Watergate Hotel, the controversy continued when dozens of animal rights activists crashed the festivities with protest signs and bullhorn-assisted slogans (some particularly irreverent attendees posed for selfies with the protesters). Unlike at the Denver edition, security didn’t bring out handcuffs when the protesters were soon escorted from the ballroom, and the evening went on as planned.
That meant crowning a “Prince of Porc” from the five competing chefs: Ben Pflaumer of Osteria Morini, Jon Sybert of Tail Up Goat, BJ Lieberman of Rose's Luxury, Kosta Kontogiannis of the Watergate's Kingbird, and Zachary Mills of Wit and Wisdom in Baltimore; Each chef composed a menu from one heritage breed pig.
Here’s other highlights Eater encountered throughout the night:
Start small: Before heading into the ballroom, attendees whetted their appetites with cheese and charcuterie from vendors like Alexandria’s Ripe Specialty Foods and Brooklyn’s Les Trois Petits Cochons, with a trio of punches assembled from Buffalo Trace bourbon, Angostura bitters, Perfect Purée products, and DRY Sparkling sodas. When the trade show-like atmosphere of the main room became overwhelming, the hallway hawkers were a welcome reprieve.
Booze for days: Along with wines by winemakers Nico Cueva (Kosta Browne), Pax Mahle (Pax Wine Cellars), Abe Schoener (Scholium Project), Nate Weis (Silver Oak), Michael Browne (Cirq), Christopher Bates (Element Winery), attendees could sip Breckenridge and Buffalo Trace bourbons or Angostura and Rhum Clément rums, either on ice or as Old Fashioneds. Tiki was represented with a tri-color Queens Park Swizzle, and the event’s punch competition, Punch Kings, was won by Rachel Sergi of The Next Whisky Bar at the Watergate with "A King's Ransom,” a syrupy concoction made of bourbon, fruit puree, a pineapple-white pepper cordial, black tea, bitters and — true to its name — edible gold.
A kiss from a Rose: Rose’s Luxury delivered one of the night’s best dishes, riffing on its signature pork lychee salad, which a representative called “the star of the restaurant.” The same rep said that its latest sibling, Little Pearl, will open around the corner from the restaurant (in the former Bayou Bakery space) in about two months.
Something offal: Chef Mills and the team at Wit and Wisdom best embraced the nitty-gritty of nose-to-tail cuisine, impregnating a gougére with blood for a black pudding ham and cheese sandwich (which could have used a dab of mustard or a cornichon to cut the fat), pairing smoked ham hock with head cheese in a soup, and repping Maryland with a classed-up scrapple. That low-meets-high approach is on display at the restaurant, as well, where Mills has turned the patio into a high-end crab deck with steamed crabs and peeled shrimp this summer.
The Longest Line: This unofficial award goes to the Tartare Bar, hosted by Zack Smith of The Hamilton, which served a smoked beef tartare with egg yolk emulsion and summer black truffles. Perhaps guests needed a break from the pig-centric dishes everywhere else.
Lipstick on a Pig: With its sunflowers, checkered tablecloths, and innovative menus that showcased which pig parts became which dishes, Tail Up Goat had the most put-together station. But it wasn’t all superficial: chef Sybert assembled the most expansive menu, nailing five dishes, including a seaweed sourdough topped with ciccioli and pickled fennel stem. Sybert said that every dish was on the menu or could be — especially since he works with his pig purveyor for the night, Autumn Olive Farms, every week.
Missed connections: Chef Pflaumer of Osteria Morini prepared perhaps the night’s best single bite with his tortelacci all’ Amatriciana, ravioli filled with braised pork shoulder, cheese- and pepper-fonduta, scallion and anchovy. Unfortunately, the menu also advertised a cocktail — featuring fat-washed Old Overholt, gran classico bitters, zucca and an espresso bean tincture — that never materialized. Perhaps it will show up at the restaurant’s 4th annual pig roast scheduled for Sunday, September 24.
Breaking the bank: Master butcher Marc Pauvert of the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore made a show of butchering a large black pig at the event, helping to raise over $4,000 for Piggy Bank, a charity that describes itself as a “Noah’s Ark for heritage breed pigs.” Along with a silent auction for booze-filled gift packages, attendees could buy any part of the pig for a reasonable price (this reporter snagged the head for $40).
Whose dish is it anyway: Kosta Kontogiannis of Kingbird was spotted giving some of his piggly ice cream to the team at Rose’s Luxury to pair with their pork fat loukoumades, a dessert with which the Greek chef is very familiar.
And the winner is: Kontogiannis was crowned as the winner and will represent D.C. at the Grand Cochon finale in Chicago on Sunday, October 1. The Kingbird chef went global, giving baby back ribs a Moroccan treatment, filling baos with crispy pig head and preparing belly in the Cantonese siu yuk-style, but paid tribute to his roots by using a gyro machine — for the first time ever.
Watergate-gate? Cynical attendees couldn’t help but notice that both the winning punch and winning menu were presented by talents who work at the host venue.
But what would Cochon 555 — or the Watergate, for that matter — be without a little controversy?