10-city culinary tour touts the benefits of raising, eating heritage breed pigs

How do you know when a celebrated culinary event lives up to the hype?

A. The whiskey cocktails and craft beer prove so tasty, you drink a little more than you wanted to. (OK, a lot more than anticipated.)

B. You wish you'd worn a big 'ole dress instead of close-fitting jeans because you can't stop stuffing your face, it all tastes so good. (So much for the diet.)

C. Despite being an out-of-towner who's traveling by train, you get sweet-talked into buying a 9-pound fresh ham from a hog that's just been butchered in the next room so you can try to re-create the flavors at home. (You better make good on your texted promise to guide me, Kevin Sousa.)

When the answer is all three of the above, we're talking Cochon555's traveling pig show, which unfolded at Philadelphia's Le Meridien hotel this past Sunday.

Philly was the last stop in a 10-city culinary competition, which started in New "Pork" City on Jan. 26 and wound its way south to Miami and as far west as San Francisco. It comes to a tasty finish on June 22 with the Grand Cochon for the individual cities' winning chefs at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo.

Whoever comes garners the most votes at that competition will walk away with a four-day wine experience in Rioja, Spain. Plus bragging rights as the "King or Queen of Pork."

In the City of Brotherly Love, more than 200 paid $125 or more for the chance to pig out on more than two-dozen chef-prepared dishes (a VIP ticket that bought guests early admission ran $200) during the annual event, which was cooked up six years ago by wine/cheese expert Brady Lowe to raise awareness and appreciation for family farms raising heritage breed pigs.

Attendees --who got to eat, drink and generally make merry for three nonstop hours before voting for their favorite chef -- weren't disappointed.

The nose-to-tail cooking contest is not for the timid: Each of the five competing chefs (Douglas Rodriguez of STARR Restaurants, Patrick Szoke of Alla Spina, Jason Cichonski of Ela, Mike Santoro of The Mildred and Jeremy Nolen of Brauhaus Schmitz) were charged with preparing up to six dishes for the crowd from a whole 200-pound heritage hog.

As a result, every body part but the squeal made its way into hundreds of bite-sized gourmet eats. Plainly speaking, you got to sample some pretty creative uses of pig face, skin and trotters along with the more traditional belly and loin.

At the Brauhaus Schmitz table right inside the entrance, for instance, diners could choose between a cooked egg white filled with head-cheese salad and chives; pork schmalz (fat) with fresh bay leaves and crackling spread on tiny squares of pumpernickle; German "ramen" made with pork bone broth, pig skin spaetzle and roasted pork belly; and plump, sweet Italian ramp sausage.

Around the corner at Alla Spina, conversely, the spread included really terrific house-cured cherry peppers stuffed with pork-shoulder confit; prosciutto cotto and slow-roasted loins with polenta and red and green salsa; nduja-stuffed pretzel bites with pecorino fonduta; and smoked pig head and sweet pea crocchettes with sweet pea maionese.

When the votes were counted, Chef Rodriquez came out on top for a menu that included pozole verde with pickled pig skin; spiced pig pate with Cuban lard crackers; and bacon ice cream on chicharron cones with smoked pecan bacon candy.

My favorite dishes were prepared by Ela's Jason Chichonski. While I passed on the Top Chef's smoked scrapple croquettes, his pickled pork jerky -- tossed in a bowl with pretzel spaetzle, parmesan and melted lardo -- was the culinary equivalent of crack: totally addictive. So was his salty-sweet puffed pig skin "caramel corn."

I also very much enjoyed Chef Santoro's 48-hour grilled pork belly, which he served on crema di lardo biscuits topped with ramp salsa verde. Ditto the restaurant's giant crackling, which took three days to prepare and was almost as big as sous chef Noah Poses.

That, and the many glasses of Goose Island Beer Co.'s Sofie, a Belgian-style farmhouse ale with hints of citrus.

Along with a beef-tartare bar in the lobby, the evening included a "Punch King" competition among five local barkeeps featuring Breckenridge Bourbon; an artisan cheese bar with Di Bruno Bros.; and a chupito bar for mezcal tasting.

Guests also got to watch a whole pig being butchered at a "pop up butcher shop" led by Marc Pauvert of Spring House Farm, after which the various cuts and parts were sold to raise money for culinary education. (That's how I ended up with my $60 ham, which is currently residing in my son's Philadelphia freezer. I couldn't bear the thought of hauling it back on Amtrak on a busy holiday weekend.) It concluded with Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream and mini mason jars filled with Manhattans.

I was too full, and old, to attend the after-party at Alma de Cuba, where a sixth whole pig prepared by chefs from Pub & Kitchen was to be served. But I hear from my son, who's much younger and has a much bigger appetite, that it was a rockin' good time.


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