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Mountain Chefs Impress at Denver's Pig-Centric Cochon 555

What happens when you take five Colorado chefs and five pigs and put them in a friendly-fire competition in at the Ritz-Calton Denver? Besides the hardened arteries, copious consumption of booze, and lots of smart-ass taunts, you get one hell of a porkapalooza. Curbed Ski was there as a judge, so tune in for a behind the scenes recap of the sixth annual Cochon 555.

Among the competitors were Jennifer Jasinski, Rioja; Steve Redzikowski, OAK at Fourteenth; Bill Greenwood, Beaver Creek's Beano's Cabin; Justin Brunson, Old Major, and Paul C. Riley, Bottle + Beast (previous year's contestants have included Kelly Liken of her namesake Vail restaurant, and last year's winner- aka Prince of Porc- Jason Harrison of Flame, at the Four Seasons Vail.

In between the porky tasting plates, there were mescal, cider, and bourbon, a "Goose Nest' by sponsor Goose Island Brewing Co., a boozy Punch Kings competition, pop-up Butcher Shop (benefitting Johnson & Wales University's Culinary Arts program) and a "late-night" (in reality, 6:30pm; although eating copious amounts of pig parts tends to bring on a severe food coma) Asian Speakeasy thrown by chefs Brian Busker and Toru Watanabe of Matsuhisa Vail.

How does one go about judging a cooked pig comp, especially when it involves 30 dishes needing to be consumed and evaluated in under an hour? Day-after Lipitor prescriptions aside, it's based on three categories: Flavor, Utilization (i.e. nose-to-tail cooking), and Presentation. How those are decided depends upon said judge's vocation- a chef is going to rank things differently than, say, a food writer or culinary instructor.

Like any competition, objectivity is key. Cast your personal opinions and relationships with chefs aside, and focus on the task at hand. (Although, says Cochon Tour manager/charcuterer Mike Sullivan, "The heart to me of Cochon is creating relationships, a handshake between ranchers and chefs." Adds Cochon founder Brady Lowe, who added, "When we first started, things were pretty barren in Colorado, and we had to bring in our pigs from other states. This is the first time all of the pigs were sourced in-state." Cheers to achieving local food security.)

While the beverage pairings aren't a part of the judging process, OAK at Fourteenth co-owner/mixology studmuffin Bryan Dayton upped the ante by whipping up the irresistible "Burnt End Smoker" (housemade pork belly and bacon-infused bitters, Eagle Rare Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and Germain-Robin Apple Brandy). Way to subtly influence the judges, Dayton.

Creativity is key, but sometimes a killer rendition of a classic can nail it. Rioja's "Chef Jen's Kickass Posole" was exactly that: a complex, earthy, spicy fusion of roasted pork-guajillo chile broth loaded up with hominy, pork bits, tortilla lime salt, and cabbage-radish slaw. More, please.

Brunson is a master of charcuterie (his silky liver pate was one of the night's best bites), and his elegant peanut butter liver mousse and strawberry-blood jam macarons put him in top contender territory.

Down from the mountains, Greenwood, an experienced butcher and the son of a Georgia chef, gets props for helping to slaughter his own hog, a Large Black from Basalt's Rock Bottom Ranch which recently launched a heritage pig breeding program). Curbed Ski doesn't endorse this method for rookies, but experienced chef/farmer/RBR director Jason Smith was on-hand to assist. Greenwood's resulting "Bloodwick Stew," a thick, savory, flavorful braise of pork shoulder and head with marrow beans, blood, cornbread, and smoked tomato, was a standout of the night.

While not part of the comp, dessert bites like lard-enriched truffle made the rounds, but Curbed Ski was besotted by the creamy decadences of Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream's min-cones of Moonshine Orchid Vanilla Ice Cream, studded with chunks of candied pork brittle.

As for the winner: Curbed Ski congrats go out to the newly crowned Princess of Pork, Jennifer Jaskinski, who will be competing in the Grand Cochon at the FOOD & WINE Classic in Aspen on June 22nd, when the nation's Prince and Princesses' vie for the ultimate title of King or Queen of Porc. Check in with Curbed Ski, where we'll be on the scene with a more in-depth description of the carnage.
-By Laurel Miller

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