Michelle Bernstein of Michy's won last night's Cochon 555 at the Four Seasons in Miami, an event in which five chefs each cooked a whole heritage pig -- offal and all -- for judges and several hundred adventurous guests.
At the announcement of the win, the crowd held up flutes of sparkling rosé and flashed camera phones like lighters at a concert. Bernstein cried with joy. This isn't your everyday chef cook-off.
Organizer Brady Lowe of Taste Network has orchestrated an event that speaks to the religion of pig, a reverence for heritage breeds, and nose-to-tail cooking. Fueled by a craving for meat porn, Cochon is one of many nationwide events that feed farmers' indie rock-star status and the rise of the butcher movement.
Among sightings: A tattoo artist lit up a pig carcass in ink, a fascinating yet disturbing demo followed by its butchering to a rowdy soundtrack of TV on the Radio and the newest Sleigh Bells album.
A Michael's Genuine team dressed in black wool hats and black T's stamped with a pig drawing that read FAT across the shoulders. Women wore temporary tattoos the team handed out, FAT PIG across bare lower backs, like tramp stamps.
And a whole bronzed pig head, that first served as a table centerpiece, was later used as a receptacle for braised meat.
It was the first time Miami has been a part of the ten-city tour that includes New York, Boston, D.C., Chicago, L.A., and San Francisco. Finalists are flown to Aspen for the Food & Wine Classic to compete against winners in each city for the Grand Cochon tasting, the final nose-to-tail event.
Five family wineries poured reds, whites, and rosés, while Anchor Brewing Company offered a selection of craft brews. Rappahannock River Oysters shucked bivalves, and Murray's Cheeses displayed some decadent American craft cheddars, among others.
James Strine, sous chef of Cafe Boulud Palm Beach, was also a participant, along with Michael Schwartz and Bradley Herron of Michael's Genuine, whose team crafted a giant pork rind sculpture that looked like something you'd find in a terrarium.
James Petrakis of the Ravenous Pig in Winter Park served ridiculously delicious head cheese boudin. And Aaron Brooks of Edge Steak & Bar Miami featured a luscious banh mi as well as bacon ice cream garnished with pork rinds.
Strine's menu offered one of my favorite dishes, a Vietnamese consomme pho, with pork meatballs and shaved pork, garnished with mint, cilantro, and Thai basil.
The soup was created as a result of an in-house contest among his staff, says Strine. The broth was the most beautiful I'd had in a pho, reduced from seven gallons, that included fish sauce, pig trim, roasted pork bones, and beef brisket in the making.
"It's a 12-hour simmer, not a boil," said one of his cooks when I asked. "You boil it and it's done. All the flavors mush together." The key, though, is charring the vegetables, as well as diakon, galanga, and ginger.
"They have some serious skill," said Clay Connelly of Buccan, who served as a judge for the event. Wearing a faded Red Sox cap, he's apparently a Boston fan.
Michelle Bernstein's porky offerings were stylish. Displayed on Wonder Bread squares, her mini sandwich featured head-cheese salad served with chiccarrone dusted in cayenne. For judges, she offered bites such as pork dumpling, a pork ceviche, and a pork custard displayed in mini-jars and little lunch bags.
Toward the finale, Yardbird galloped in for the dessert encore of porky caramel apples and bags of bacon-infused popcorn.
The afterparty on the hotel rooftop overlooking the ocean had quite the potential. Early on, a supporter from Strine's camp congratulated Bernstein as he twirled her around between tables. Bartenders shook cocktails for a liquored crowd several deep around the bar.
Cochon 555 has gained momentum since it revved up four years ago. It's not often that chefs of such high caliber prep pork for weeks for a judged competition. It's a showy, stand-alone event for a crowd that dines whole hog.