by Mike Sula
On Sunday I was one of 20 bloated and increasingly desperate judges sequestered in an empty ballroom at the The Drake for Cochon 555, trying to evaluate over thirty five separate pork preparations--terrines, patés, ribs, rillettes, headcheese, carnitas, soups, doughnuts, sausages, porchettas, testa--arriving on tiny paper plates faster than we could finish them. Organized by Atlanta's Taste Network, this was the seventh of ten traveling events that pit five local chefs against each other, each given a heritage pig and directed to make the most of it. The winner, dubbed the Prince of Porc, is chosen partly on the votes of the 20 judges and on those of the paying crowd mobbed up around tasting stations in a separate ballroom. The winners go on to compete against each other in a national competition (yet to be announced).
Here Chris Pandel of the Bristol, faced off against Stephen Dunne from Volo and the Paramount Room, Patrick Sheerin from the Signature Room at the 95th, Sam Burman from Bluprint, and Graham Elliot Bowles, in absentia represented by his kitchen crew. Pandel's four dishes came out first, and were highlighted by a deep-fried mortadella-stuffed munchkin, dusted with hazelnut-maple sugar. Dunne followed with five courses, distinguished by a salty but superflavorful head soup, but he didn't do himself any favors with a cold, dry tamale. All of Sheerin's course were well executed, but he outdid himself with a mole-flavored headcheese and pork belly-porcini dashi. Then Bowles's crew arrived with a daunting nine courses, each created by a different cook, who took inspiration from some regional cuisine of his or her choosing. At that point my notes were getting a little wobbly but they put out a number of inventive plates that popped just at a time when our senses had begun to dull with pork fat. For me, it was a relatively simple pulled-pork barbecue sandwich with napa slaw on a larded biscuit that really put things into focus--this group would be hard to beat. Finally Burman rolled out a whopping ten preparations, beginning with a seemingly gimmicky but terrific bacon cotton candy and a brain polenta with pancetta, pickled ramps, and smoked pig ear jus that almost put me under the table.
We judges were to score on presentation, utilization, and flavor and in the end it was the Graham Elliot crew that took the prize. I know it wasn't a decision without some controversy. Some of my fellow judges were pulling hard for Sheerin, and others thought Burman was at an unfair disadvantage having to present his courses just as we began to weep pig fat. Furthermore, we were told delivery of pigs wasn't synchronized, which meant a few chefs had the better part of the week to work on their entries while others only had a few days. But it was all in good fun, for a good cause. I've attached a series of some of the more successful courses, beginning with Burman's brain polenta.