What It Feels Like To Judge The Cochon 555 Final In Aspen

I've covered the wildly ambitious heritage pig cooking competition and brown liquid exhibition Cochon 555 for years, but have never had the chance to sit in the judge's room until today. I had butterflies walking into the Jerome Hotel in Aspen — and it wasn't just last night's 2:30 a.m. Veuve talking. Why? Because this wasn't just any cooking competition. The talent was heavy. Marc Forgione, Michelle Bernstein, Ben Ford, Jamie Bissonnette. And everybody was in it to win it.

It is a huge honor to be asked by the event's passionate founder Brady Lowe to throw my two nickels into the mix alongside people like Sean Brock, Andrew Zimmern, Best New Chefs Jenn Lewis and Alex Seidel and Blackberry Farms proprietor Sam Beall, along with another dozen industry people.

Our job as judges was simple — walk around to the nine presenting chefs (the San Francisco entrant Thomas McNaughton had to cancel last minute), listen to their five-minute presentation, eat, discuss, eat more. At a Cochon final, chefs are judged in three categories: presentation, utilization (of the whole hog) and flavor, with each receiving a 1-10 rating. Each judge was asked to interpret the scale for themselves. So, no standardization.

As we were led through the Jerome, talking and tasting, it was clear that the competing chefs brought some game. Forgione (New York) did a highly refined pork bone consomme with a banh mi–like sandwich stuffed with sausage. Kelly English (Memphis) chose to interpret "what I want to eat when I'm hungover" with a cold Chinese noodle dish served in a takeout box (the noodles were made of half egg, half lardo).

Jamie Bissonnette (Boston) was inspired by a recent 3-week trip to Vietnam and served lemongrass sausage, coconut red curried pig skin with a pork rillettes "sung" dotted with red curry pork fat mayo. Michelle Bernstein (Miami) did pork ceviche. Ben Ford (Los Angeles) did pork tartare. Scott Drewno (Washington, D.C.) served pig head curry and a lettuce cup with char siu and a fried rice salad atop a homemade (and hand-carved) wooden platter.

It was dizzying. It was inspiring! Most of the dishes were incredibly thoughtful and competent. That said, I had to pick my pony. It came down to invention over pure flavors. Bissonnette won me over big time with his Vietnamese sausage. Nothing flashy. Super authentic. I wanted to eat a dozen of those little bastards.

On the other hand Jason Vincent of Chicago's Nightwood was out there, in the best possible way. A doughnut, bacon-butterscotch of course, was served with soft scrambled egg wrapped in pig skin and a so-called hollandoink sauce. It was a play on Sunday brunch. A deconstructed and dehydrated Bloody Mary on the bone was literally that. A spicy cocido clinched the victory for him. Congrats to Vincent and all the other competing chefs.