Cochon 555: It's So On

We chatted with the five chefs who’ve gone whole hog to emerge victorious from the year’s piggiest cook-off. Here, they talk dishes, strategies, and the challenges of a fatty pig.

By: Jessica Voelker, Anna Spiegel

This weekend, five Washington chefs compete at Cochon 555, an annual event in which toques are challenged to use as much of a heritage pig as possible to create dishes for a pork-loving crowd. The winner will take on victors from 9 other cities around the country for the title of prince (or princess) of pork. We checked in with the local competitors to find out what to expect.

THE INCUMBENT

The Source's Scott Drewno won last year's Washington Cochon, then traveled to Aspen to compete in the finals. Several of this year's chefs listed him as the one to watch--not only for his past win but for his facility with Asian flavors, something that could help his dishes stand out to the judges.

The pig source: Leaping Waters Farm in Virginia.

The strategy: "It's like when you're in college: We pull an all-nighter Saturday night. We'll start a little bit during service, 5 or 6 o'clock, and work up to the competition."

The dishes: Drewno will be bringing back his most popular dish from last year, the pork dumpling. Additionally, "I have dishes planned out with the heart, the skin, the blood, and all the fat, of course."

The competition: "Mike Isabella! He's the fan favorite going into it. Wes has some killer sausage over at Art and Soul. There're no slouches in the group."

THE FAN FAVORITE

With three new restaurants in the works and plenty of public appearances on his agenda, Graffiato's Mike Isabella seems like a busy guy. But his competitors shouldn't bank on the fact that Isabella is too busy to take Cochon seriously. The Top Chef alum has assembled a crack cracklin' team to help him take home the trophy.

The pig source: Autumn Olive Farms in Virginia.

The strategy: "We have assembled a large team: four of my chefs between Graffiato and Bandolero, a manager, a designer, my wife, my father-in-law, and someone else helping to build signage. Our table setup includes a seven-foot menu with hand-drawn pictures and descriptions of the dishes."

The Dishes: "You'll see Italian-, Mexican-, Greek-, and Indian-inspired food, even some American food." Think: vindaloo, tacos, spit-roasted shoulder, and ravioli. For dessert? A "'jelly belly' donut stuffed with strawberries bits of pork belly/fat, fried in lard, and dusted with powdered sugar, and crispy chicharrones.

The competition: " Myself. If I can execute my dishes to the best of my ability, I feel like I can win any competition."

THE CAJUNATOR

Wes Morton of Art and Soul is looking to his childhood to inspire the spread at his Cochon station.

The pig source: Ray Family Farms just outside Raleigh, North Carolina.

The strategy: Morton is well known for his sausage-making skills, something he's using to his advantage. He's also make use of small-scale Louisiana ingredients and a devoted support staff bent on seeing their team win.

The dishes: The classically trained Louisiana chef has been revisiting his roots as of late, which is reflected in dishes such as rustic andouille sausage with Sea Island red beans and collared greens, and a muffuletta with Morton's own salami.

The competition: "I'm not too concerned about what they're doing."

THE PRETTY ONE

The chef that makes the ladies swoon is showing his culinary confidence this year, allowing a pig to be chosen for him by event organizers. The fatty he wound up with (a 100 percent Ossabaw hog) presents some challenges, but Bibiana's Nicholas Stefanelli is in it to win it.

The pig source: Autumn Olives Farms.

The strategy: Focus on execution. "You can have the best idea in the world, but if you can't execute it, you're lost."

The dishes: "We knew about ten days out that it was going to be an 100 percent Ossabaw [pig]. Ossabaw are really prized for their fat, so there are a lot more fat-driven dishes than if it were a Duroc or another breed. Fat is a little difficult to work with, because people are used to eating straight protein. You can only eat so much lardo, so you have to be creative."

The competition: "I think my biggest competition is Scott Drewno because of his flavor profile and all the Asian ingredients."

THE INKED AVENGER

Tattooed toque Ed Witt of 701 has devised some creative ways to stand out in his first ever Cochon competition. Take, for example, his dessert: a cone of cracklings dipped in chocolate and filled with blood and chocolate ice cream. That's intense.

The pig source: Eco-Friendly Foods in Virginia.

The strategy: "I've been playing with stuff for the past couple of months. It's all about using as many part of the pig as you can."

The dishes: Witt's starting out with mixed charcuterie including kidney bacon, lardo, and liverwurst. A play on biscuits and gravy incorporates leaf lard into the biscuits and includes pulled pork made with Dr. Pepper-marinated shoulder that's been smoked and pulled.

The competition: "Drewno won last year; Nick's done it three times. I don't know what Isabella is going to do--we'll see how busy he is with his other stuff. Wes has played with a lot of pigs before. It's a pretty good cross-section of people this year. We'll see what happens."

Best Bites will live-tweet from the event this Sunday. Follow along to be the first of your friends to learn who wins this pigathon.