The long-awaited evening had arrived. F had bought a new outfit and I was wearing makeup. We were giddy with excitement on our way to Chicago's classiest hotel, The Drake, "where the Magnificent Mile begins." Since the roaring '20s, The Drake has hosted the Royal Family, heads of state, dignitaries, and movie stars, so F and I felt very swanky as we rode the 151 bus down the Gold Coast to take our places on this hallowed list of luminaries.
No, we were not guests at a wedding, a gala, or an inauguration. We were on our way to something better: Cochon 555, a celebration of all things pig. Five chefs from among the finest restaurants in the city were selected to compete for the acclaimed title "Prince of Porc" on Sunday, May 24. Each chef would receive a ten-pound pig and create five unique dishes for a discriminating group of 200 guests and judges. The crowd would vote, and at the end of the evening, one chef would be crowned.
I was on my way to this glamorous event thanks to a contest hosted by Foodbuzz.com. Foodbuzz provided my ticket, and F bought another so we could to enjoy Cochon 555 the way any pork-centric evening is meant to be enjoyed: as a romantic night on the town.
Upon entering the elegant Drake Room at The Drake, F and I were greeted by this grotesque, smiling head right out of The Lord of the Flies.
[Caution: if graphic images of a deceased pig will bother you, please proceed no further.]
With a quiet, uncanny calm, this little cochon oversaw the competition, a corporeal reminder of where the chefs' fancy gastronomic delights had originated. He would soon help to demonstrate proper butchering technique. More on that later.
The crowd approached the cochon like a postmodern art exhibit. We circled him warily, intrigued despite ourselves. His skin was waxy and starting to cave where organs had been removed. The poor pig in his inelegant spread-eagled repose seemed all the more avant-garde when considered in the context of his surroundings:
Under the crystal chandeliers and gilt-paneled rafters, guests of all shapes, sizes, and manner of dress clustered around tiny tables scattered throughout the room. The chef tables were arranged around the room's perimeter and the idea was to buzz from table to table, sampling dishes from each chef, then cast your vote for the best chef in the ballot box in the center of the room. In the interest of space, only highlights ensue:
Stephen Dunne of Paramount Room/VOLO
Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot
Sam Burman of Bluprint
Chris Pandel of The Bristol
Patrick Sheerin of The Signature Room at the 95th.
Our favorite dishes, in no particular order:
Pork belly sandwich with mustard and pickle
Brain polenta with fried ramps (ramps! ramps!)
Bacon-infused Maker's Mark
And my favorite dish of the night: pork-belly sandwich on a PIE-CRUST bun!
Stephen Dunne of Paramount Room / VOLO offered pork-filled tamales and a savory pork broth:
F's favorite pork-belly sandwich was created by Sam Burman of Bluprint, who also offered a stick of bacon topped with a tuft of cotton candy standing upright in a box of brown sugar (see the bottom-left corner below).
We must also acknowledge Sam Burman for his bacon-infused Maker's Mark. F and I may have visited Chef Burman's booth more than once...
As the chefs cleared their tables and the judges deliberated, F and I wandered through the room, lost and bewildered now that the food was gone. But then, on Sam Burman's table, we spotted a row of tender, juicy ribs that we had not yet sampled. I hastened over, only to be informed by Chef Burman's assistants that the ribs were reserved for the judges. What could I do? I considered snatching a rib and running for it, but I was wearing high heels. So I smiled politely and turned away.
An aproned assistant trotted after me a mere moment later. "The chef wants to talk to you," he said. Confused, I returned to the table, where Chef Burman handed me a plate of ribs, grinned, and hurried off.
"Grrr," said F. "You're every chef's dream: you're pretty and you love pork." He glared in Mr. Burman's general direction. "I wish I hadn't voted for him," he grumbled.
But he ate the ribs anyway.
Despite the fact that Mr. Burman gave me a special pork rib, he was not my favorite chef of the evening. That hard-won title goes to Graham Elliot of Graham Elliot of the infamous pork-belly sandwich in a pie-crust bun.
As the judges conferred, Andy the Butcher of Lincoln Cafe in Mount Vernon, Iowa, demonstrated butchering techniques using our spread-eagled cochon, who had been waiting patiently at the front of the room all night. I will let these photos speak for themselves (now is the time to look away, if you're feeling queasy).
And voila! Within fifteen minutes, our sad-eyed cochon was reduced to a neat pile of pig parts, which were subsequently raffled off to the crowd.
We didn't win anything. At the time, in the throes of pig passion, intoxicated on bacon and pate, I was disappointed to have lost out on a piece of pig. But in the sober light of morning I have come to accept that my freezer is too small to hold even the smallest cut of a ten-pound porker.
When at last all of the cochon chunks had been raffled away, the chefs took the stage to discover who would be crowned the “Prince of Porc."
From left to right: Stephen Dunne of Paramount Room/VOLO, Graham Elliot Bowles of Graham Elliot, Sam Burman of Bluprint, Chris Pandel of The Bristol, and Patrick Sheerin of The Signature Room at the 95th.
And the winner is... Graham Elliot! Since my vote was instrumental in his victory, I think it's only fair that Graham Elliot should send me his recipe for pork-belly sandwich in a pie-crust bun. Chef Elliot, I will accept a blog comment, an e-mail, or a recipe card by mail.
While clicking through Graham Elliot's fabulous website, I discovered just one more reason to love the chef who introduced me to the pie-crust bun. His website features a risotto with red apple skin paint, aged cheddar, pabst glazed pearl onions, granny smith apples, crispy prosciutto AND CHEEZ-ITS! If the "prince of porc" can make an elegant dish with Cheez-Its, I am completely justified in my Cheez-It-crusted cod experiment. Thank you, Chef Elliot.
I will have to try and make this risotto at home, since we certainly could never eat at Graham Elliot. We picked up a menu, took one look, and set it back down with a sigh of regret. Ah well, I enjoyed my once-in-a-lifetime taste of pig perfection while it lasted.
And on that note, I would like to take a moment to formally thank Foodbuzz.com for giving me the opportunity to eat an entire pig at the Drake. This was an unforgettable night on the town.