Big Weekend: Cochon Heritage BBQ 2012

This past weekend we were on the ground at the inaugural Cochon Heritage BBQ — a three-day event that aimed to bridge heritage pig farming with America's rich barbecue culture. Each event aimed in some way to demonstrate how quality pork can be utilized (smartly, responsibly, deliciously) in all aspect of barbecue. As in, not just slow-smoked ribs. It's a noble cause from Cochon's founder Brady Lowe. Here's a recap.

Taste Of Memphis and Mixology Roof Party

This weekend jump-off event, threatened repeatedly by the last burps of Hurricane Isaac, pulled together 20 of the city's favorite restaurants and mixologists in a walk-around tasting event, spit-roasting demo, bologna competition and bourbon tasting on the roof of the historic Peabody Hotel. Memphis is blessed, and cursed, with its supreme barbecue reputation. We found out all about the blessing on Saturday during a 10-restaurant barbecue crawl. The city's claims as the country's 'cue capitol is beyond legit. But the curse is the fact that dozens of non-barbecue restaurants are turning out some really interesting things here.

Interim is one of those restaurants, serving four different courses over the three-hour event including a tender pork loin stuffed with fennel sausage (like a porchetta) and a "ladies-only" dessert that we didn't dare to try. The chefs at the table had their eye on the prize. Acre chef Andrew Adams served hog head and ham in a soft pretzel roll with a well-placed fennel apple mustard. As for the drinks, many seemed over-mixed — the classic problem with mixologists trying to match wits at the expense of their guests. I dare not write about the Eagle Rare bourbon mixed with black raspberry and Dijon mustard. But some of the guys found restraint. The Cove did Hirsch bourbon (!!) with brown sugar and lime. Sort of a good ole' boy spin on British Navy grog.

And about this bologna contest. Brady Lowe has one mission in life: To blow up the bologna sandwich as the next pork belly, cupcake, so on. He's on his way by hosting a contest that had 15 chefs send in their take on the classic lunchmeat. Husk Chef de Cuisine Travis Grimes took home the judge's contest.

Food Republic Midnight Brunch And Bourbon Toast(s)

To close out the first day we hosted a late-night bourbon party at the Court Square Center. It pulled many of the participating chefs like Ed Lee and Jamie Bissonnette to toast National Bourbon Month (which began promptly at midnight). Three-finger shots of Eagle Rare was circulated to the 150 guests to mark the occasion. If you're going to shoot brown at the end of a long day, you better make it good. Here are some photos.

Bloody Mary Tailgate With Allan Benton

We're big fans of Allan Benton, the man responsible for his namesake bacon and country ham shipped to hip restaurants around the country from his small Madisonville, Tennessee farm. Allan drove the six hours to Memphis to attend a number of the Heritage BBQ events, including hosting a brunch at South Cooper St. restaurant Sweet Grass. Benton told us that he listened to Sinatra and "10 minutes of Bluegrass" on his satellite radio during the trek in his pickup truck. Even a country boy like himself has his limits. And he of course packed some bacon, which the Sweet Grass cooks fried up to Benton's exacting standards. The bacon should bend, never break.

Man vs. BBQ

We'll go longer about this epic event, but the gist is that Lowe organized a 10-restaurant bus tour that challenged 12 chefs, farmers and journalists (myself included) to eat and drink our way through some of Memphis' most-iconic barbecue restaurants (with a few twists along the way). We did Cornish game hen at Cozy Corner and BBQ spaghetti at The Bar-B-Q Shop. There was chicken at Gus's, pulled pork at Payne's and sausage and cheese at Charles Vergos' Rendezvous. Memphis — BBQ capital of the country. Fact.

Jamie Bissonnette Pop-Up Dinner

As we found out last week, Boston chef Jamie Bissonnette was making the pilgrimage to Memphis to hit up some dive bars (we joined him Earnestine & Hazel's for a very memorable round of Buds) and record shops and to cook Saturday's all-pig pop-up. The meal did not disappoint. Barbecued oysters with bits of lardon and two sandwich courses (grilled ham and brie; bologna and lardo on squishy white bread) started the meal, which was served family style. The highlight was a pulled pork chili with avocado sauce, as well as a fried bones course shaped with Red Boat fish sauce.

Cochon Heritage BBQ Main Event

Unlike other barbecue competitions, ticket holders at Cochon Heritage BBQ — held Sunday on the streets of downtown Memphis — could actually sample every single one of the dishes that the judging committee tasted to select the eventual winners. Nine teams of chefs from around the country presented six dishes from a heritage breed whole hog provided by a local farmer. Participating chefs included Ed Lee from Magnolia 610 in Louisville and Nookie Postal, the executive chef of the Boston Red Sox who recently completed a season on Bravo Network's Around the World in 80 Plates. Local Memphis favorites in the competition represented hot restaurants like Sweetgrass, Acre and Miles McMath, the executive chef at St. Jude's Hospital.

The rules required one main dish each in the categories of Muscle, Bone, Pulled and Stewed, as well as two side dishes that had to be based on mustard and mayonnaise, a nod to the typical accompaniments of Memphis barbecue plates.

Judges tasted and analyzed the 54 individual dishes based on a 1-5 scale in categories that considered flavor, technique and practicality. In the end, the winners were Todd Mussman and Jay Swift of Local 3, Moss & Turner and 4th and Swift in Atlanta. Their meal was deemed to be the best representation of whole hog cooking.

Mussman and Swift's Muscle dish was a "Memphis State Fair Sandwich," made with a mustard-grilled pork loin served on a Hawaiian roll topped with lard aioli and broccoli chow-chow. In the Bone division, the team served a dish they called Master Chang's Szechuan Bone Broth, flavored with smoked mushrooms, chile lard and cilantro, and their Pulled meat entry was a Chile Relleno. Possibly the best dish of the day was their Mustard Cassoulet made with house-cured pastrami, cranberry beans, smoked pork belly and a decadent bourbon/mustard reduction sauce.

Event organizer Brady Lowe promised the crowd that Cochon Heritage BBQ would be a Labor Day fixture in Memphis for years to come. Locals and visitors alike might want to go ahead and circle the date on their calendars for next year — Chris Chamberlain