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Michael Fiorello Crowned Porc Prince at Cochon555 Chicago

The five chefs
The five chefs

[Photos: Ari Bendersky]

Last night, the Chicago leg of the Cochon555 tour (the "Super Bowl of pork") was held in a beautiful balconied ballroom in the Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue. Five ace chefs — Stephanie Izard (Girl & The Goat), Andrew Zimmerman (Sepia), Michael Fiorello (Mercat a la Planxa), Michael Sheerin (Three Floyds) and Chris Pandel (The Bristol) — were given five heritage breed pigs to create meals to pair with five wines for a crowd full of pork-living foodies and a panel of industry experts who would crown one chef the Prince or Princess of Porc.

After hours of eating plates of creative pork dishes, the judges crowned Mercat a la Planxa's Michael Fiorello the Prince of Porc—and the buzz from many of the judges was that "he brought it." His "liver and onions" (pork liver mousse, aspic, caraway-onion jam and grilled sourdough) and the "mortadella" (Bahama bread, back fat sausage, whole grain mustard and pickled pistachios) were two stand-outs. So now, along with a sweet pig-topped trophy, Fiorello will represent Mercat and compete against the winning chefs from the other cities hosting Cochon555 events later this year at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. Onto the hangover observations!

The Food

Pork dishes inspired by various global cuisines flowed throughout the ballroom. Some of the standouts:

Stephanie Izard (Girl & The Goat) had members of her crew pass around trays of kimchi bacon (with braised smoked belly and fish sauce vinaigrette) and a bourbon gelato float, but at the table, the smoked shoulder chilaquiles and tom kha soup with pulled shoulder wowed the crowd.

Michael Sheerin (Three Floyds), with the help of his brother Pat Sheerin (Signature Room), plated five disparate dishes, including a fantastic molé hot dog on a pretzel bun with tomatillo-jalapeño relish, queso fresco and huitlacoche mustard. Another standout was the ham dashi with fresh ham with egg yolk custard placed right on top.

Andrew Zimmerman (Sepia) got super adventurous and pulled off 10 different dishes and a charcuterie platter featuring four items. We're not sure if we liked the pozole verde with hominy or the shabu shabu with ham dashi better, but we loved the pork sugo with potato gnocci and the crunchy breakfast sausage. Best of all, he finished things off with a sweet sampling of a roasted lard caramel.

Michael Fiorello (Mercat a la Planxa) definitely won over the judges with his pork liver mousse and mortadella sandwich. Something else? The ramen with shaved loin and grilled belly had the crowd buzzing.

Chris Pandel (The Bristol) added an ethnic spin with his marinated ham tacos al pastor with pineapple, but his modern twist on a bologna sandwich on wonder bread took us back to our youth.

Inside the Judging Room

The 20 local judges, comprising chefs, journalists, winemakers, brewers and more, were sequestered in a room off the main hall. Every so often, each chef would wheel in plates filled with their creations and the judges would nibble, take notes and sip everything from Elk Cove and Red Car wine to Templeton Rye whiskey. By the fifth round, many of the judges looked like they were going to pass out from pork coma, but they managed to muster though. Perhaps it was the Templeton? An impassioned moment came when Carl Blake of Rustik Rooster Farms in Iowa talked about raising Swabian Hall hogs and the importance of supporting farmers who raise heritage hogs.

Industry Roll-Call

Most of the bold-faced names in attendance were either the chefs themselves or the folks judging the food, but there were still some heavy hitters roaming about, including Dave Beran and Craig Schoettler, who will run the kitchens at Next and Aviary, respectively, and Emmanuel Nony, the owner of Sepia. Some of the heavyweights at the judges table included Paul Kahan (Blackbird, avec), Doug Sohn (Hot Doug's), Rob Levitt (The Butcher & Larder), Heather Shouse (Time Out Chicago), Heather Sperling (Tasting Table), Merlin Verrier (Graham Elliot), Herb Eckhouse (La Quercia) and Ellen Malloy (Restaurant Intelligence Agency)

The Vibe on the Floor

Stephanie Izard had the longest line all night long, almost right up until the announcement of the Prince of Porc, with many attendees seeking a photo with the Top Chef winner. But a crowd surrounded the Sepia corner throughout the night as well—could it have been the allure of the salted lard caramel? Hundreds of people flowed between the main ballroom and the hall with the wine and booze, including St. Germain cocktails, all night long and there was a steady hum all evening during this pinnacle of porcine debauchery.

As soon as the butchering competition was announced, attendees rushed the stage to view the hefty hogs laid out and two heads placed center stage. With video cameras rolling and flashes capturing the moment, Cochon founder Brady Lowe seemed like a ringmaster at a circus, loving every bit of the moment. And if people weren't already falling into a food coma following the main feast, Nightwood's Jason Vincent carted in two hogs he prepared for the pig roast. If that weren't enough, someone swept through the crowd with a bowl of melted dark chocolate ringed by pork rinds for dipping.

A Classic Moment

For anyone who thinks the pressure of preparing a 200-plus pound heritage hog all week wouldn't get to a chef, when we asked The Bristol's Pandel if was freaking out that his pregnant wife could go into labor any day, he said Cochon was making him even more edgy. Now that's intense!

· Cochon555 [Official site]
· All Cochon555 Coverage on Eater Chicago [~EChi~]

Girl & the Goat

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