Thursday, September 5, 2013

Barbecue and Whiskey in Memory of a Friend - Cochon Heritage BBQ

Last Friday a group of extraordinarily talented chefs gathered in Downtown Memphis to cook heritage pigs from small, area farms in a friendly competition that transitioned into more of an Irish wake by the end of the night. Cochon Heritage BBQ is a spin-off of the Cochon 555 series. Like the Cochon 555 event in Memphis last year, each chef's team uses a heritage pig from the farm of their choice. As the name implies, at Cochon Heritage BBQ the focus is on the art of slow, off heat cooking with smoke. 

The focus is also on small farms that are dedicated to raising animals humanely and sustainably.  This year four of the six teams competing used Berkshire hogs from Newman Farm. Anyone who has purchased Newman Farm pork products either at area farmers' markets or off the menu at outstanding local restaurants like Sweet Grass, Hog and Hominy and Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen understands why so many teams opted to compete with pigs from Newman. So the tragic sudden death of Newman Farm patriarch Mark Newman less than two weeks before the event turned it into a send-off for a great man who left a huge mark on the culinary landscape. 

Mark was a huge advocate for both sustainable farming and the talented chefs who used his products in their kitchens. And that naturally made him a huge advocate for the Cochon events as well. His big grin and joking personality made him an integral part the local farmers' market scene. At the Cochon 555 event in Memphis some of my favorite memories are of sharing whiskey and stories with him. The first Cochon Heritage BBQ followed shortly after during last year's Labor Day weekend, but I missed that event since my wife and I were vacationing on the West Coast at the time. We made plans to attend Memphis's second Heritage BBQ competition at Beale Street Landing assuming we'd be sharing more jokes and drinks with him.  

It was my first visit to Beale Street Landing, a taxpayer-funded fiasco that has finally partially opened years behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. But that can be an urban planning rant for another post. [UPDATE a week after I posted this the Memphis Flyer provided a great summary of the Beale Street Landing fiasco.]

The tone for the evening was set as soon as I walked in the front door of Beale Street Landing and was greeted with a hug from Mark's wife of 39 years, Rita. After offering my condolences I moved on to sample the food from the first team I encountered. 

The St. Jude Culinary Team headed by Mile McMath and Rick Farmer are a skilled group of cooks who spend their work days feeding the staff and patients at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The St. Jude team had a sign announcing its use of a Newman Pig for the Cochon competition...

...And Mark's name had been added to the team's shirts.

The St. Jude team presented its food on cafeteria style trays and immediately established how high the level of competition was going to be. From left on top; that is braised pork belly with dim sum-style sticky rice, an oyster topped with barbecue bologna, and an outstanding tamale. Below that from; pork short ribs with pig ear "pasta," a butermilk and cornbread parfait and a can of field peas with pork tongue pastrami and pickled pig's feet and ears.

The next station featured a team that combined staff from two Atlanta restaurants with chefs Chad Clevenger of Alma Cocina and Nick McCormick of TAP Gastropub. Here you see a crispy barbecue rillette, pork posole, a Cuban-style pork torta and a green bean salad. Just two teams into sampling the competition I was already feeling sorry for the judges who would have to pick a favorite.

My first two stops had been at indoor stations. Next I moved outside where three teams were suffering in the August heat. I'm not sure why an event in Memphis that included so much outdoor space was scheduled to start a 5 p.m. on a day in August. By 7 p.m. the temperature got much more bearable but those first two hours were muggy and scorching. This team paired chefs Ryan Trimm of Southward, Sweet Grass and Next Door Memphis with Josh Galliano of the Libertine in St. Louis.

The Trimm/Galliano dup served slow-roasted ham with peach preserves on lard biscuits, a pig's head baked bean and jalapeno stew, ribs, a "pizza" of pork loin on pork rinds with a mustard sauce and pulled pork corn dog bites dusted with dry rub.

Tamales were a popular dish, which was great for a tamale lover like me. The Central BBQ team headed by Craig Blondis and Chris Taylor served a pulled pork tamale with a "soul stew" of ham, sausage, beans and peas; greens served with rind-on pork belly; and pork and peanut bonbons. I found out that the bread on the top left of my plate was supposed to be for the Central BBQ answer to the McRib sandwich. Despite how underwhelming an actual McRib is, I hate that I missed trying the Central team's take on it. 

After sampling two of the outdoor teams I retreated inside away from the August heat to try Jackson Kramer of Interim's spice-rubbed ham and his outstanding pressed pork confit.

While cooling off inside I also took time to grab a Manhattan before heading back into the heat to try the last food station. The whiskey was as abundant at Cochon Heritage BBQ as it has been at any of the Cochon 555 event I've attended.

The heat was already uncomfortable when we arrived and after trying food from five teams along with a generous sampling of quality bourbons and beers I had to brace myself to try the final table. But I'd heard enough people raving about the entries from Travis Grimes of Husk in Charleston, S.C., that I knew I had to find room for them. The husk team ended up winning the event. It served peach barbecue sauce-glazed fried bologna with a pickled peach relish; confit pork neck corn fritters; pork shoulder with heirloom tomatoes, onions, Ricotta and olive oil; and field peas cooked with bacon and ham hocks.

I was able to duck back inside to the air conditioning whenever I got too hot outside. Evan Potts, who normally bartends at the Cove on Broad, didn't have that luxury. He was working an outdoor bar beside the river, getting the full brunt of the sun as it moved to the west.

The sun was literally melting the stacks of plastic cups he was using to serve drinks.

Like any cochon event there were also oysters, this time topped with bacon and goat cheese...

...And lots of additional good cheeses...

...and butcher demonstrations.

The view from Beale Street Landing, even in its current unfinished state, is spectacular.

As the sun went down and the temperature dropped everyone gathered around the stage for the awards ceremony.

Cochon events usually end with the awards ceremony. At this event the awards ceremony quickly morphed into a memorial service for Mark Newman.

Mark's Family on stage with Cochon 555 founder Brady Lowe (second from left with microphone). The event took on the feel of an Irish wake as family and friends shared memories, toasts were drank, tears flowed and multiple F-bombs were dropped on stage by people searching for the right words.

Lowe took time to present the trophy to the event's winners, the Husk team led by Travis Grimes. Then hot air lanterns were dispersed through the crowd for attendees to light and release over the Mississippi River in memory of Mark.

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