Annie Pettry was nervous without need.
Her voice quavering slightly while she read her menu entries for the Cochon Heritage Barbecue contest held Sunday, Decca’s shy and talented executive chef told 20 judges how she used an entire hog to prepare the plate of four meats and two sides before them.
“I recently went to Spain, loved it and came back really inspired by what I ate there,” said Pettry.
And we, the recipients of said inspiration, were moved to clean our plates—despite being full from tasting the equally complicated works of three previous entries and knowing a fifth plate lay ahead.
Perhaps in an attempt to act professionally, the judges — a group made up of chefs, food writers, beverage pros and accomplished home cooks — had said little while judging. Over Pettry’s plate, however, their measured silence was broken.
Across the middle of the table from me, chefs Anthony Lamas (Seviche) and Bruce Ucan (Mayan Café), moaned as if being massaged. Whispers of “Wow!” “That’s sick!” and “That’s incredible!” peppered their conversation, a rapid-fire exchange of English and Spanish. Similar murmurs of pleasure were heard elsewhere in the room.
Too bad Pettry missed those reactions. She’d absconded (whether out of shyness or by command of event organizer Brady Lowe, I don’t know) and rejoined her cooks to finish preparations for 300 soon-to-arrive paying patrons of the inaugural event, held in the basement gallery of the 21C Museum Hotel.
No matter. Her work was finished and done extraordinarily well. The final taste of the day, Rye executive chef Tyler Morris’s plate, would have to be a grand slam to top Pettry’s home run. (It wasn’t, though, like all other entries, it was exceptional.)
Earlier this year, I told my wife I was done judging food contests because, by and large, they’re just awful chores. In two decades as a food writer, I’d had enough contrived “contest food” that, while appealing to the eye, argued bitterly with my stomach.
But when invited to judge this one, I couldn’t type the, “Hell yes!” reply email fast enough. This would be special, a contest centered on pork—my favorite meat—and prepared by some of Louisville’s best chefs.
And they delivered. There wasn’t a bad flavor on any plate, not a single nose-wrinkling, brow-furrowing bite that made me think, “And the point of this is exactly what?”
Sure, there were outliers like mustard ice cream and hog spam “sushi” that stretched the imagination, but not those chefs’ credulity. I liked their experiments and their willingness to take chances.
It was a contest of truly great food triumphing over truly good food, plates of grub I’d have paid to devour were they served at the respective competing restaurants: Proof on Main, Milkwood, Harvest, Rye and Decca.
Pettry eventually won the contest, both in the judges’ minds and—at least by my conversational count—minds of guests I talked to. Pettry’s menu included:
- Porky croquetas: fried, pulled pig (head, shoulder, belly, jowl, brain, tongue, trotters, tail), harissa aioli and preserved lemon
- Jamon rapido: Spanish tasso, ham, loin, olive oil purée and Romesco sauce
- Costillas de purerco: wood-grilled ribs, heirloom tomato and sesame seed jam
- Fabada de chorizo: chorizo meatball (shoulder, belly, liver, heart, kidney, neck, hocks, trotters), ham hock and fresh lima bean stew
- Sandia con chicharron: watermelon, mustard seed pickled rind and chili-fried pig skin
- Elote con crema de Manteca: charred corn on the cob, pork fat and feta crema, candied belly and ears
Don’t feel bad if that’s confusing to your mental palate. The flavors were incredibly complex, and it’s hard to understand such textures without eating the actual food. Just believe the judges: It was brilliant.
In a way, Pettry’s menu was symbolic of the whole Cochon Heritage Barbecue event: complex, multifaceted, fresh, innovative, ironic, clever, cacophonous and a bit crazy.
Lowe, the animated articulator and full-time drum beater of a cause centered on heritage breed hog cum haute cuisine couldn’t fully convey the notion of it all to me in a face-to-face conversation in July.
“Just believe me, it will be really cool,” he said, and I believed him. But it was more than cool. It was one of a kind.
The center of the 21C basement gallery featured a hog butchering display—a pseudo-sanitary slaughterhouse live,yet without the killing, blood and guts—to convey what the whole animal looks like when it heads to and emerges from the butcher.
No less than Gregg Rentfrow, Ph.D., meat specialist at the University of Kentucky’s agriculture extension, dismembered the hog — right in front of a menorah that featured pistols in place of candle slots. (Anyone catch the irony there, especially as we approach Yom Kippur?)
Which brings me to this side trip: What’s with 21C’s historical obsession with naked men? High on a wall above Rentfrow were two huge photographs of bare men whose penises pointed toward the crowd. (Given that it was a pig party, I’m surprised there weren’t more “pork” jokes made as a result.)
I’m no artist or art critic, nor even a prude, but given that half the population sees exactly that in the mirror each day — if they even care to look — I fail to see the originality or intention of such images around the entire facility. But I digress.
Spread throughout the space’s alcoves lay stations where guests grabbed bites of each competing chef’s elegantly prepared food, glasses of wine or beer and pours of bourbon. Save for its sound-reflecting surfaces, which amplified and distorted the inexplicably loud music, the space was ideal for the event.
And to be fair, the basement was loaded with tasteful and imaginative art, too. (By comparison, “Here’s my penis!” poses were, thankfully, in short supply.)
The price tag — $125 for general admission, $200 for VIP admission — and the Sunday schedule may have combined to lower the headcount. Though the crowd was a good one, there was space for more. (As post-event media coverage spreads, so will the good word, too.)
“We didn’t sell as many tickets as we’d hoped, but that’s not my concern today,” Lowe told the judges. (The count provided later was 96 tickets sold out of 340 in attendance.) “This is about showcasing heritage breed pigs to an audience that might not know anything about them.”
Even at those lofty (for Louisville) price points, some of my (similarly underpaid) media colleagues couldn’t object to the serious value for the dollar. Endless drinks and top-notch grub served up to a good crowd … that’s hard to beat even for a $125 a pop. Even in a restaurant-soaked city like ours, there’s no way you could enjoy such food and drink diversity in equivalent amounts for that nickel.
“The energy in Louisville is captivating,” Lowe said. “Hosting a successful event is about connecting like-minded independent chefs, farms and businesses with a similar interest in lifting our local food scene to the front-lines. I could not be happier with the outcome and can’t wait to start planning a return on the next tour.”
Us either, Mr. Lowe.