Judging COCHON555

Have you been to COCHON555? The event hits eight cities across the United States and teams 5 chefs, 5 wineries, and 5 heritage breed pigs for a good old-fashioned showdown.

From a chef's perspective, here's what you need to know: there are no rules. When asked I asked about that, COCHON555 mastermind, Brady Lowe, put it simply, "Why would I want to stifle a chef's creativity? Whatever they want to do, is fine with me." That blank slate affords a wide range of creative freedom. I've seen everything from house-cured meats to maple-bacon ice cream sandwiches.

I was a judge for last year's competition and the chefs went over the top. Between five chefs, the average plate consisted of 10 components. Think of a 10-course tasting menu, all on one plate. In the brief time between presentations, it was difficult to taste, analyze each element, and determine the merits.

After the second round of 10+ components, it became even more perplexing. Without menus from the chefs, previous dishes quickly faded from memory. Weighing one contribution against another became a serious challenge. (Fortunately I took photos along the way and reviewed images from chef #1's plating to say, chef #3's plating.)

What also became apparent: of the 10 components, half were be mind-bogglingly delicious, and half were forgettable. How do you assess that?

Reprieve came at the tail end, when James Beard Award-winning Chef Jonathan Sundstrom presented just 3 components. Around the judge's table, there was an audible cheer. While Sundstrom was the winner of last year's competition, were all 3 components a knock out? In my opinion, no. Was he wildly creative? No. In the end, I think his judicious use of restraint tipped the scales in his favor. (Plus, with just 3 components, we stood a chance of remembering them!)

This year, I expect a different a different type of competition. Of the chef line up, Ethan Stowell, Holly Smith, and Jason Stratton are greatly influenced by simple, straight-forward Italian cuisine. Jonathan Sundstrom, winner of last year's Cochon555 is back, and the one possible curve ball will be Rachel Yang. Rachel's food is pure fusion, drawing heavily on French technique and Asian flavors, most notably from Korea. (An example drawn from her current menu, Joule BBQ: short rib steak, sweet chili sausage, and grilled kimchi.)

The Seattle leg of the COCHON555 competition begins today. Since this is my second year judging, it will be interesting to compare the two. Of the five chefs, Holly Smith and Jonathan Sundstrom are regional James Beard Award winners. Ethan Stowell has been nominated for a James Beard Award three times. Jason Stratton is one of the current Food & Wine Top 10 New Chefs in America. And Rachel's restaurants, Joule, and newly opened Revel, are poised for some serious national exposure. The winner? It's anybody's game today.