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Competing Cochon555 Heritage BBQ Chefs Dish on Pigs and Their Paths to Victory

Five chefs, five pigs: Who will win the Cochon555 Denver "Prince of Barbecue" title?

The butchering squad at Blackbelly breaking down their Berkshire pig for the Cochon555 Heritage BBQ Denver competition. Photo: courtesy of Blackbelly.

There’s no food soiree in the country more devoted to the almighty pig than Cochon555, a butchery-intensive culinary showdown that involves five local chefs tasked with creating no fewer than 30 dishes utilizing snout-to-tail cuts of heritage breed pigs. This year’s Denver smackdown, which is dedicated to barbecue, features Will Nolan of Eight K, the signature restaurant inside Viceroy Snowmass; Hosea Rosenberg of Boulder’s Blackbelly Market and Blackbelly Butcher; Darrel Truett of Barolo Grill; Bill Miner of Il Porcellino Salumi; and Burton Koelliker of Osteria Marco, all of whom are battling for the title of “Barbecue Prince” on Sunday, March 19 at The Curtis Hotel. The rivalry (and revelry) starts at 4 pm, and tickets, which range from $125-$400, are available here. Bonus: A portion of Cochon’s proceeds are donated to Piggy Bank, a foundation that doubles as a genetic sanctuary for heritage breed pigs and business plan database for family farmers.

Founded in 2008 by Brady Lowe, the mission of the multi-city pig bonanza, which traverses through major metropolitan cities, is to increase awareness of heritage breed pigs, support family farmers, and educate chefs and the public about the agricultural importance of utilizing old-world livestock. “We work with every type of restaurant imaginable—mom-and-pop, farm-to-table, barbecue, Michelin-starred restaurants—and our participating chefs all share one core value: they source products responsibly,” says Lowe, who created the Heritage Barbecue competition as a sister event to Cochon555. “The major difference between Cochon555 and the barbecue competition is that the five chefs competing in the Heritage Barbecue competition must focus on whole roasting and grilling,” explains communications director Rob McKeown. The goals, he adds, are twofold: “We want to help widen the opportunities for farmers by raising the awareness of heritage pigs in restaurants that are centered around grilling or live fire, and the other goal is to focus on the fact that we live in a more global era than ever before and there are so many other food cultures to learn about.”

The winner of the Denver Heritage Barbecue tug-of-war will be crowned the “Barbecue Prince” and compete later this year at the Grand Cochon in Chicago, Illinois. We asked the competing Colorado chefs to dish on their winning tactics, call out their favorite pig parts, and namecheck the one pork dish they can’t live without.

Will Nolan: Executive Chef, Eight K, Viceroy Snowmass

Photo: courtesy of Viceroy Snowmass

Tell me about your path to victory: I believe in showcasing bold flavors—things like chiles, cayenne pepper, cane syrup, cane vinegar, brines, smoke, and paprika. I’m a firm believer in utilizing the whole pig and using classic techniques, including brining, slow roasting, spit-roasting, Cajun cochon de lait (cooking a pig before an open hardwood fire), smoking, and charcuterie.
What’s your favorite part of the pig? I’m a huge fan of jowls, temples, and collar. I love these parts because they’re heavily used muscles that cook down to the most tender and gelatinous bites.
The one advantage that you have over your fellow competitors? I’m from New Orleansand in New Orleans, we’re just born into flavor; even the water that surrounds us is like a soup. With dishes like gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish etouffee, you know we’ve got the flavor aspects dialed in.
Which heritage-breed pig are you working with, and what are the attributes of that particular breed? I’ve got a Berkshire pig, which translates to great flavor, fat content and well-marbled meat. The pig is fed a secret recipe and the breed—of which there are no negatives— is from Mountain Primal Meats in Emma, Colorado.
What’s the one pig dish you can’t get enough of? It would have to be cochon de lait-style smoked collar.
Butchery trend you’d like to see more of: More restaurants will start featuring whole animal themes as opposed to just single dishes. The trend will change from typical menus to “featured animal” menus.
If you take home the title, what’s the celebration going to look like? Like we say in NOLA: Laissez les bon temps roulle! Or, in English, let the good times roll!

Hosea Rosenberg: Executive chef-owner, Blackbelly Market and Blackbelly Butcher Shop

Photo: courtesy of Blackbelly

Tell me about your path to victory: We’re a meat-centric restaurant that has a whole-animal butcher shop attached. I’m no stranger to cooking competitions, and Nate Singer, our head butcher, is a total stud when it comes to butchering meat. I can’t imagine a team more well-suited to winning a competition like this.
What’s your favorite part of the pig? I love every part of the animal, but some parts are a bit tastier than others. The head and feet are probably the most delicious, so expect to see some fun things come from those ends.  
The one advantage that you have over your fellow competitors? 
Our greatest advantage is that we break down multiple whole hogs every week—and we make them into every delicacy you can think of. It would be fair to say that we practice this on a daily basis.
Which heritage-breed pig were you given, and what are the attributes of that particular breed? We’re working with a Berkshire pig that was raised by our buddy Clint Buckner from Boulder Lamb. He finished it on peanuts per our request, and we’re pumped to see how it tastes. Some of the finest pigs in the world are the black Iberican pigs from Spain and Portugal. What makes them so amazing are not only the genetics, but that they finish them on acorns before slaughter, which makes the meat nutty, fatty, and ultra-luxurious. The Jamon Iberico is considered the best in the world, but since we don’t have access to those pigs and acorns are very expensive and not plentiful around here, we went with peanuts. They will hopefully add nuttiness to the flavor and help us mimic “the-best-in-the-world” pork. We’re also going with a southern theme for our dishes, and peanuts are synonymous with the south. In a nutshell, Berks are known for their great marbling and flavor—the chef’s pig, if you will. They’re versatile and delicious.
What’s the one pig dish you can’t get enough of? A BLT. Every day, all day. For breakfast, you can add eggs; for lunch, avocado. And for dinner, just add a few more pork products like ham or loin. You just can’t go wrong with bacon…but don’t tell my doctor I said that.
Butchery trend you’d like to see more of: 
Going back to our roots. The age-old art of charcuterie is making a huge comeback, and we’re thrilled to be part of the movement.
If you take home the title, what’s the celebration going to look like? Let’s just say I won’t be driving my car back to Boulder that night.

Darrel Truett: Executive Chef, Barolo Grill

Photo: courtesy of Darrel Truett

Tell me about your path to victory: I’m going to stick to what I know and do best. In other words, there will be a heavy Italian influence in all six of my dishes.
What’s your favorite part of the pig? In this case, the whole pig. I’m super-excited to receive—and work with—an entire animal that I get to break down. I use various sections of different animals throughout the year, but rarely do I have the opportunity to work with the whole animal. 
The one advantage you have over your fellow competitors? 
Presentation. I work in a fine-dining restaurant, and I believe people eat with their eyes. It has to taste good and look good. 
Which heritage-breed pig are you working with, and what are the attributes of that particular breed? I’m using a Large Black hog from Rock Bottom Ranch, which is just outside Carbondale, in Basalt, and owned and operated by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. The pros to working with this pig are in its micro-marbling, moist meat, and complex flavors. I plan on incorporating flavor through smoke rather than fire, thereby focusing on a more delicate cooking process.
What’s the one pig dish you can’t get enough of? A BLT. Because I’m a chef, the time to sit and eat is short, so my go-to is a BLT sandwich: some sour dough bread, bibb leaf lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, and smoked bacon. 
Butchery trend you’d like to see more of: 
Butcher shops that include a small restaurant space. I’ve seen some of these popping up recently.
If you take home the title, what’s the celebration going to look like? A shot or two of Fernet Branca!

Bill Miner: Executive chef-owner, Il Porcellino Salumi

Photo: courtesy of Il Porcellino Salumi

Tell me about your path to victory: We have a very talented staff, and what they bring to the table is second to none. Plus we work with whole hogs just a little bit over here. That said, this competition is definitely outside of our comfort zone because of the “heritage barbecue” theme, so we’re trying to embrace world flavors and some old-world cooking techniques. We’re constantly tasting, testing, and trying to improve on the products that we make at il porcellino, and we’re employing that same process for our Cochon menu. Let’s add some smoke to this or some lard to that, and why not make dessert? Everyone is creative and brings a lot to the table, and we’re looking forward to showcasing a different aspect of creativity from il porcellino that people might not expect. It’s just been fun bouncing ideas off of each other, testing things out, and trying to make each dish truly memorable.
What’s your favorite part of the pig? I’m definitely excited about working with the head and the liver. I think the two dishes that we’re making from those parts of the pig are really going to shine. One is savory and one is sweet.
The one advantage you have over your fellow competitors? 
What we do at il porcellino is very much a team effort and we’re super-excited to show Denver what we can do aside from making delicious salami and sandwiches.
Which heritage-breed pig are you working with, and what are the attributes of that particular breed?
I’ve got a Berkshire hog from Cone Ranch, a farm in Julesburg, Colorado. We work with this breed all the time and truly enjoy the clean back fat and beautiful color and flavor of the meat. We typically use the backfat in our salumi-making process, and while we’re not doing salumi for Cochon, there will be no shortage of lard in our dishes.
What’s the one pig dish you can’t get enough of? That’s tough, but I’d have to say the pork soup dumplings that I recently ate at Nan Xiang Xiang Long Bao, in New York City. They were absolutely mind-blowing. I could eat them every day.
Butchery trend you’d like to see more of: 
I feel like we’re setting a trend right now in Denver at il porcellino with our house-cured salumi and charcuterie program. We use every bit of every hog that comes through our doors. We use the skin for chicharrones and dog treats; the bones for stocks and broths; the head for either head cheese or guanciale; and the liver for pâté or mousse. Everything else pretty much gets dry-cured. We feel like this is a stepping stone to our USDA wholesale business that we plan to launch by the end of the year. The wholesale business will allow us to make our award-winning salumi on a larger scale so that we can sell our products in Colorado, and nationwide. We hope to be up and running by the end of the year or in early 2018. And once we are, there will be more retail locations across the Front Range, as well. We’re just getting warmed up.
If you take home the title, what’s the celebration going to look like? If we win, it’ll be extremely humbling, but I honestly don’t do too much celebrating these days—there’s not time between being the co-owner of il porcellino (along with Brian Albano), having an awesome wife and two amazing little boys, and trying to launch a much larger business later this year. Celebrations are few and far between, but a nice dinner out to thank our staff at il porcellino would definitely be in order.

Burton Koelliker: Executive Chef, Osteria Marco

Tell me about your path to victory: Planning and preparation. For an event like this, execution will be the fun part. In branching out and trying to capture the spirit of “global barbecue,” I designed our menu to touch on multiple cultures. Barbecue is simply defined by grilling or heating meats outdoors, but each part of the world treats this task differently. I intend to show the dynamic, yet static world of barbecue in six delicious bites.
What’s your favorite part of the pig? I like the versatility and the different flavors that come from the pig’s head.
The one advantage you have over your fellow competitors? I have a great team of talented chefs that are excited to help out for this event. With their help, we’re going to be a well-oiled machine. My team of Cochon chefs cook at different Bonanno Concepts locations and bring a wealth of experience that covers all styles of cooking. From Asian to French, Italian to American barbecue, we cover the “global” aspect of this year’s competition. It’s a major bonus, too, that we have access to walk-in coolers at multiple locations.
Which heritage-breed pig are you working with, and what are the attributes of that particular breed? We’re working with a Duroc pig. It’s a popular breed because it grows quickly, but it also lacks flavor in comparison to other breeds. And while that could be perceived as a negative, I see it as a blank canvas to paint whatever I want from a flavor standpoint. I’m excited to smoke the head with nectarine wood—which I’ve never used before—and see how that enhances the natural flavors. Our pig was fed a 100-percent vegetarian diet of grass and grains. It gives the meat a “natural” flavor, absent of gaminess. When the animal eats what it was intended to eat, its true flavor stands out.
What’s the one pig dish you can’t get enough of? Pork fried rice. It has everything you could want: sweetness, savoriness, vegetables, starch, and protein.
Butchery trend you’d like to see more of: Full-on utilization, I hope. So many people are scared to eat outside of their comfort zone, and because of that, the less popular cuts are often underutilized.
If you take home the title, what’s the celebration going to look like? We’ll have a big family dinner with my four kids, my amazing wife and whoever else wants to come. We’re probably going to have steak or chicken, though.

Cochon555 Heritage BBQ takes place on Sunday, March 19th at The Curtis Hotel {1405 Curtis Street, Denver; 303-571-0330} from 4-7:30 pm. Purchase your tickets here

By Lori Midson