Going whole (heritage) hog at Cochon 555's EPIC No. 2 in Philly
THOUGH HIS deadpan expression barely betrays him, Nick Macri is feeling overstimulated.
The crush of pork fat-lubricated onlookers, filling the crooks of their arms with plates like banquet servers.
The beer, wine and mezcal, plus those Molotov cocktail-looking mason jar Manhattans everyone's sipping.
And the music - hip-hop and EDM blasting so loud the bass tremors could almost straighten the "O" in the LOVE Park sign a few blocks out.
Macri, the chef at Southwark, shrugs. "This is the foodie equivalent of a monster truck rally."
On July 28 - Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! - the grand ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton played host to an event almost farcically hell-bent on living up to its name. Cochon EPIC - all caps - is an offshoot of Cochon 555, a traveling culinary contest founded in 2008 by Brady Lowe.
In lieu of the merciless flattening of jalopies, EPIC focused on destruction of a more arterial nature. The vehicles? Enormous pigs, manipulated by teams of local chefs. The audience? Philly's food-fixated masses, counting out as much as $200 to down pork dishes prepared by the best.
Underneath the evening's scream-in-your-ear overcoat, there was a mission: to bring sustainable heritage-breed pig farming to the fore. It wasn't really something you could hear - you couldn't really hear anything - but it was definitely something you could taste.
A whisper to a scream
Lowe, an Iowan who now calls Atlanta home, is the founder of an epicurean-education business. Fixated on the storytelling aspects of brand awareness, the born pitchman became fascinated with alternatives to factory pork, leading him to organize the first 555 - five chefs, five pigs, five winemakers - in 2008.
Early on, heritage breeds were "just a whisper in the marketplace," said Lowe. But with lineages like show horses, and gorgeous meat that easily chumps grocery-store pork, niche pigs like Ossabaws, Tamworths and Mangalitsas still need recognition - from chefs and consumers, but especially farmers.
"My biggest goal is to diversify a market," said Lowe, who has hosted Cochon installments in multiple U.S. cities. "To diversify, I need to get the attention of farmers as much as I do the chefs."
What he means: If a pig breed not available in a particular area gets serious attention at a Cochon event, local farmers with the resources to raise them are more likely to start, moving toward the preservation and growth of heritage pork across the country.
Give 'em a snout out
While 555 is a competition with winners and losers, EPIC was presented as an everyone's-a-winner porcine celebration - chefs banding together to develop a menu based on a whole-hog starting point.
"I feel like it's the only animal where you can cook every single part, and the longer you cook it the better it tastes," said attendee Jeff Miller, the owner of Paoli's TJ's Restaurant and the proud bearer of a swine tattoo, complete with the Hebrew for "not kosher" on his left forearm.
Speaking of egregious kashrut violations: Macri made pastrami salami for "Katz's Non-Kosher Deli," a team organized by David Katz, of Creekstone Farms. The idea: Use an Ossabaw/Old Spot hybrid from Wyebrook Farm, in Chester County, to reimagine Jewish deli fare in the most unapologetic way possible.
While Katz served slivers of fresh ham roasted in "everything" bagel spices, Kevin Sbraga built mini corned pork-belly "specials" on marble rye. Jeremy Nolen, of Brauhaus Schmitz, cured pork loin like salmon for a cheeky "lox platter." Le Virtu's Joe Cicala ladled out pork-fat matzo balls in broth.
Rob Marzinsky and Eli Collins, of Fitler Dining Room and Pub & Kitchen, ran the "scrapple bar," cranking out two takes: a beet-ketchup-topped black pudding-style bite and whole-grain scrapple with whipped fat, crispy guanciale and pickled blueberries.
"I was expecting a pork orgy - and that's exactly what it is," said computer programmer Hahri Shin. Though blessed with an enthusiastic appetite, Shin admitted that he hit a serious wall amid sampling every dish along the periphery.
Alma de Cuba's Douglas Rodriguez, who also used the term "orgy" to describe his Starr Restaurants team's kitchen elation, put up pig's-head pate with guava jelly, and a pork-aspic snow cone(!) for dessert.
Jose Garces' guys tossed out fat-slathered manchego biscuits and "mouthwatering pig face," an oinkier version of the classic Szechuan dish. Marc Vetri stuffed shells with piggy bolognese. The Mildred's Mike Santoro offered spicy, peach-glazed ribs, potatoes stuffed with pig's feet and hunks of a pork rind so enormous his guys had to use a Thanksgiving-style carving set to get it apart.
Pork "can be prepared every way you can imagine, plus lots of ways you can't imagine," said West Philly's Steve Metraux, a University of the Sciences prof in attendance with fellow Ph.D. Rebecca Canna.
No one saw this coming: Jason Cichonski's blood waffles, which involved the Ela chef replacing the milk in his batter with pig's blood and dolloping the wedges with whipped lardo and strawberry syrup.
"I never believed in meat sweats until today," admitted Art Etchells, editor of the food blog Foobooz, citing the perspiratory phenomenon that afflicts those who fight formidable piles of protein and lose.
Though craft was stressed via attractions like live butchering demos (set to dubstep!), EPIC, for many eaters, unfurled as a burly indulgence, judging by the vacant, "Walking Dead" stares emanating from the crowd along the homestretch. But more than a few attendees interviewed were quick to laud the heritage-breed mission as a reason to attend - and to return. (Lowe teases that a 555 could be held here in 2014.)
Bill Weber, a Pitman, N.J., native who now lives in Wisconsin, traveled to Philly specifically for EPIC. It's his fifth Cochon event in three years.
"This is my Phish," said Weber, referring to the prolific touring band and its loyal following. "The idea of chefs engaging in something responsible . . . that's what I love about it. If you can have this kind of event with sustainable food - I'll pay anything for that."
Drew Lazor has been writing about the local food scene since 2005. His twice-monthly column focuses on unexpected people doing unexpected things in Philadelphia food. If you come across a chef, restaurant, dish or food-related topic that bears investigation, contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @drewlazor.