Sunday, April 5, 2009

If you aren't planning on attending Cochon 555, why not?

After I interviewed Brady Lowe, the man behind Cochon 555, I realized I had no idea where to find the tenderloin on a butchered pig. What is this Cochon 555? And what does that have to do with tenderloins? Let me explain.

On April 19th, 5 local chefs from Des Moines will be provided with 5 heritage pigs (one each) and then asked to prepare the whole pig, every part, for a crowd of 200-plus hungry Iowans. 5 family-owned winemakers produce wines for this porcine feast. All the proceeds for the Des Moines event go to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. This sounds simple, and it is, but I believe it can have a profound effect in changing the attendees into consumers who engage with their food purveyors to find out the full story behind their food.

Competing in Cochon, Des Moines version, we have a star-studded line up of some of my favorite chefs: Andrew Meek (Sage), Matt Steigerwald (Lincoln Café), Jamie Monaghan (The Embassy Club), Tag Grandgeorge (Le Jardin) and Bill Overdyke (Centro). All of these noble competitors are top notch and will churn out a feast that will shock and awe those who are unfamiliar with their work.

I have always considered myself to be a fairly enlightened gourmet. I can tell you the difference between free range and organic chicken, I support family farms and I say things like, “I deplore the commoditization of food”. But my conversation with Brady made me realize how much I could learn, and how much his event, with its emphasis of education and outreach, can teach our society, not about what we eat, but where it comes from and how it is raised- the “story” behind our food, if you will.

Cochon is more than just an excuse to (pardon me; I can’t resist) pig out on some good food. As Brady Lowe explained to me on the phone the real goal of the event is to educate the attendees (whether they be experienced gourmets or someone who just loves food) about the importance of engaging with the farmer behind that pork tenderloin, steak or chicken breast.

All the pigs for the event are “heritage” varieties from small, family owned farms- a stark contrast to the pork in most grocery stores; shrink wrapped and bearing a label from “Hormel” or some other monolithic producer of commoditized, flavorless meat. Heritage pigs are lesser-known varieties, which are not as widely raised, generally because they do not bulk up as quickly, which reduces the meat yield relative to investment. However, oftentimes they are much more delicious, as these varieties will be. Mr Lowe hopes that the exposure to the succulently tender, flavorful and healthy pork that comes from these rapidly disappearing varieties of hog will show the audience the importance of engaging with food and finding out its story: where it came from, how it lived and how it got to the plate. In the end, he hopes to expand this dialogue between consumers and producers.

This vision comes is particularly evident in the chef selection process. Practicing what the he preaches, Mr Lowe explained that the three main criteria are that the chefs have an “in house pig program”, that they source food from local farms (“For protein and produce”) and that the chefs are ambassadors to the community. In house pig programs, if you do not know, are the procedures and equipment that allow chefs to take an entire pig and break it down into manageable pieces, as well as create some of the finest products of the butchers art- pates and other charcuterie. Generally, the presence of such a program is intimately linked with the other facets for which Mr Lowe looks.

Honestly, I cannot recommend this event enough. Is there anything not to love about it? Great food, a good cause and wine: what more encouragement do you need to go to their site ( and buy a ticket as soon as you read this?

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