At Wrecking Bar Brewpub one recent evening, Cochon 555 founder Brady Lowe and chef Terry Koval were having an animated, graphic discussion about butchering and the relative fat and water content in the meat of various heritage breed pigs.
Suddenly, Koval caught the gaze of some wide-eyed onlookers, stopped, and stammered, “I guess we get a little crazy about all this, sometimes.”
On Sunday, Koval, along with fellow Atlanta chefs Ford Fry, Nick Melvin, Kevin Rathbun and Hector Santiago, will be competing in the Cochon 555 Heritage BBQ culinary competition at the Stave Room.
According to the Cochon 555 website: “Each competing chef will be given a 180-200 pound heritage breed pig and tasked to create, prepare and present a ‘Judge’s Plate’ of six dishes scored on utilization, global influences, cooking techniques and overall flavor; then the winner will be crowned the ‘BBQ King.’
And if all that does sound a little crazy, consider that this is but one of a string of carnivorous porcine spectacles Atlanta-based Lowe has mounted across the country over the past eight years, starting out with the idea for an event showcasing five chefs, five pigs and five winemakers.
But before there was Cochon 555, there was Taste Network, the company Lowe created in 2002,“to educate the world on the best wine and cheese pairings.”
“The whole Atlanta scene for me started when people would have me come in with a box of wine and box of cheese,” Lowe said during our conversation at Wrecking Bar.
“I was educating. And still, to this day, if you want to get to me on that super passionate level where I’m just talking about something I really love, it’s wine and cheese. That’s where I really geek out.”
The jump from wine and cheese to pigs can be summed up in one word, Lowe said.
“I learned about animal husbandry. Husbandry was that word that became that bridge between wine cheese and heritage breeds. And then I kind of got bitten by the pig and that led to a series of events that became Cochon 555.
“I got five breeds together, and when I realized that there was no one in the United States doing anything like that, I figured it was another opportunity to educate myself and others. And all the farmers that I met were real people and they were passionate.”
Starting in 2008, Lowe has taken Cochon 555 on tour to some 18 cities a year, with the goal of building awareness for the preservation of flavorful and diverse heritage breeds, such as Berkshire, Old Spot and Tamworth.
“It’s all about knowing and caring about where your food comes from,” Lowe said. “And its about showing people the farmers who are raising the heritage breeds and celebrating the chefs who using them in their restaurants, because it is a higher priced protein. So safe, healthy, honest, responsible food that tastes better became the message of the tour.”
Beyond the message, Lowe readily admits that Cochon 555 has always been a bacchanal that plays on audacity and showmanship, and maybe even decadence. And it’s certainly not vegan-friendly.
“It’s always been this kind of lavish kind of pork experience,” Lowe said. “About fours years ago, we started calling it epic, like, ‘It’s an epic pork feast,’ and every year you have to redefine yourself. You can’t just show up.
“The event we’re doing here in Atlanta is a nod to our love of barbecue, and honestly, there isn’t a barbecue event like it in the world. Every chef is asked to cook in a global tradition dating back at least 100 years, going South of the border, across the oceans, back to Asia, to chart the course of barbecue in different cultures.”
Back to the message, Lowe points out that aside from some outliers like Bryan Furman of B's Cracklin' Barbeque, the current state of Southern barbecue is a commodity-driven business that rarely embraces heritage breeds.
“So we’ve been doing this Heritage BBQ event to drum up support for this new style of barbecue,” Lowe said. “The event coming up is basically a redefinition of what we think is barbecue at an all-inclusive meat feast of delight and joy with splashes of wonderment.”
Heritage BBQ tickets (all-inclusive): $100 (4 p.m. admission); $150 (3 p.m. admission). 4-7 p.m. Oct. 30. The Stave Room, 199 Armour Drive N.E., Atlanta. events.cochon555.com/atlanta_2016
Heritage BBQ highlights
Five Competing Chefs and Pig Pairings
Chef Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun’s Restaurants – Tamworth from White Oak Pastures
Chef Ford Fry of Rocket Farm Restaurants – Old Spot from Heritage Spots and Feathers Farm
Chef Nick Melvin of Venkman’s – Farmers Cross from Gum Creek Farms
Chef Hector Santiago of El Super Pan – Saddleback from Carolina Heritage Farms
Chef Terry Koval of Wrecking Bar – Berkshire from Riverview Farms
Five ‘Smoking Guns’ Competing Barkeeps
Trip Sandifer from The Painted Pin
Arianne Fielder from Regent Cocktail Club
Joseph Haywood from Bar Margot
Richard Tang from Char Korean Bar & Grill
Jeff Banks from Brush Izakaya
Five Competing Somms in the Somm Smackdown
Linda Torres from the Ritz Carlton
Mani Gonzalez from City Winery
Melissa Davis from One Midtown Kitchen
Adam Pucillo from American Cut
Stevenson Rosslow from Wrecking Bar
Traditions Chefs Cooking One Global Bite
Chef Todd Mussman of Muss & Turner’s – La Caja China
Chef Stuart Tracy of PARISH – Mangal
Chef Chad Clevenger of Alma Cocina Latina – Barbacoa
Chef Drew Van Leuvan of Seven Lamps – Tomahawk Bar with Creekstone Farms
Chef Zeb Stevenson of Watershed on Peachtree – Vietnamese
Chef Todd Richards of White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails and Richards’ Southern Fried – Suya
Chef Mike Perez of Colletta - Umbrian
Chef Judd Foster of South of Heaven BBQ - Lexington
Chef Julio Delgado of JP Atlanta - Locally Inspired
Chef David Zboray of Old Bus Tavern - Reinterpreted American Classics
Chef Marc Suennemann of Emory Conference Center Hotel - Valona Shrimp
Tomahawk Bar featuring 4-pound ribeyes with magnums of Faust Cabernet
Don Julio Perfect Margarita Experience
Tiki Bar with Perfect Puree of Napa Valley
Glenfiddich Bourbon Barrel Reserve 14 Year Old paired with Char Korean Bar & Grill
Ice Cream Pop-Up from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
Live Music from Sans Abri, members of Packway Handle Band