Last Saturday night I sat glued to Twitter, pulling down to refresh every few seconds. And then it just happened: The King Of Porc, as so crowned by the judges at the Grand Cochon event in Colorado, was announced as our own chef Thomas Boemer and the Corner Table gang. Grand Cochon is the culmination of the 10 city national tour, bringing the top porky winners of Cochon555 from across the US to Snowmass for a weekend competition highlighting cheffy talent and heritage breed hogs from small farms.
I did a little couch dance and couldn’t stop smiling for more than a few hours. I’m still smiling as I write this.
It’s not that I didn’t believe in them, it’s just that sometimes I’m super Minnesotan and it's hard for me to believe that anyone else will ever appreciate or get us fully enough. But the CT team broke through and kicked a whole bunch of talented ass. And I couldn't be prouder.
Let’s be clear, they brought game. Ever since winning the local Cochon555 event in March, it has been about strategy. Boemer, his partner Nick Rancone, and the whole team at Corner Table and Revival have been working and researching and preparing to go up against the nine other winners from across the country. At their own expense they bought another Large Black heritage hog from their partnered farm Lucky George, just for recipe testing. They went back and forth on the dishes they would present, because they'd have to pare it down from five dishes to three for the finals.
“We knew we wanted to bring technique, tradition, artistry, and a real understanding of our animal to the competition, but we didn’t exactly know how that would play out, “ Boemer said. They concepted a dumpling that was a play on the bone broth dish in the first competition, and perfected into a great bite, but the team felt it was more about the dumpling than the pork, so they scrapped it. “We wanted this to be about the beauty of the animal, because where it’s raised, how the farm feeds it, how they take care of it all matters to the specific flavor profile. Alain Ducasse taught me: ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. Everything you do should highlight the beauty of the ingredient, you just have to find the right process that does that the best, the one that will bring that ingredient to the highest version of itself.”
And so. Paté encroute was chosen, which is rooted in French tradition and makes for a gorgeous display (as shown above). It’s solid, it’s deliciously porky, and it’s a showstopper. The pork jowl dish was also chosen because “the jowl is a real study in the elegance of pork fat. It’s one of the most decadent textured fats on the planet and a true window into how the animal was raised.” The team played to Boemer’s southern roots by rubbing and smoking the jowl for eight-plus hours, giving it a crusty edge that they hit with North Carolina style vinegar sauce and cut with pickled watermelon. All of that sat on a backbone of white cheddar grits. The third dish was the chicharrones that they developed with the help of Patisserie 46’s John Kraus. If the paté and the jowl were rooted in tradition, the chich was a nod to innovation as the big puffy caramelized bits sat in puff pastry with apples, maple syrup, and tasso ham. “You couldn’t do this dish with a commodity pig, our Large Black hogs live a real outdoor life and develop a thick, ruddy skin that fries up into these gorgeous puffs.”
And so they packed up the mini-van. Yes, Boemer and sous chef Tess Bouska drove out to Snomass in a mini-van packed with their smoker, knives, linens, dry-ice packed raw ingredients, towels, tongs, whatever they thought they might need. Because: strategy. They arrived on Wednesday and joined up with Rancone and chef Kyle Bultinck to start prepping. Hoping for as much kitchen time as possible, they were the first to show up and often the last to leave (how Minnesotan). There might have been some bourbon consumption and frivolity in between.
On Saturday, the judging started at 5:30 p.m. and CT was on deck for 6 p.m. service. They plated up 24 judges’ plates and then had to turn around and ready 500 samples of each dish for the public, who also had voting power. By the end of the night, they’d met countless people with Minnesota ties cheering them on, a large number of eaters who rightly dubbed the chich “crack,” and many fellow chefs from across the country eager to talk about how they executed their encroute. Britt Tracy and Jim Christiansen from Heyday were also in attendance, Britt to compete in the Punch Kings contest and Jim as a part of Food & Wine's Best New Chefs celebration, so there was a small hometown contingent in support. It was all good no matter what happened.
But then it happened, and they were crowned Kings of Porc and handed a golden pig. And there was much rejoicing.
They can’t compete again, they just get to sit in kingly repose while running two busy restaurants of course. Cochon555 will be back again to Minneapolis next year to select a new competitor, but Boemer and team will happily watch from the wings. If you want to get a little taste of their winning ways (and maybe hear some of the stories we can't print), this Saturday Corner Table will start running a Judges Table tasting menu with all five dishes that led them to the throne.