The Bacchanal of Pork – Cochon 555
You won’t find Brady Lowe on the Food Network or with his own TV show touting greasy food and donkey sauce. No, he’s no celebrity chef. However, if you are any type of food lover that is persuaded by the mere presence of pork then you know who he is – the founder of Cochon 555; America’s premier event in honoring the humble pig.
At each event, 5 chefs work to create up to 6 dishes each using 5 whole pigs while pairing wines with the help of 5 wine makers in a competition based on the elevation and appreciation of the pig – for it is the star of the show and deserved of such attention. And people across the country will have the distinct honor and pleasure of sampling some of the best pig meat money can buy. With a combination like that, it’s easy to call the event the Super Bowl of Pork. But even better – it happens 10 times a year from Seattle to Miami.
The Man Behind the Event – Brady Lowe
I recently had a chance to chat with Brady Lowe in advance of the Cochon 555 event scheduled to be held here in Seattle on April 10th, 2016 at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. This year’s event features several local chefs including Tyler Palagi and Charlie Garrison from Radiator Whiskey, Josh Henderson from the Huxley Wallace Collective and Bobby Palmquist of The Walrus and the Carpenter.
Here’s what he had to say about his love of pigs, farmers and bathroom reading…
Where does your interest in food stem from?
Well, I grew up in Iowa and my mom had a sick cookbook collection. Everything from Martha Stewart and Betty Crocker to Mickey Mouse Disney cookbooks. And as a kid, every time I went to the bathroom I took a cookbook. I hated reading books and was horrible in reading class. I just failed at the whole book club thing going on at the time.
But I really liked process and my mom would make recipes – she was a risky chef who would try different things out and make changes. My Dad was the opposite – he would try the same things five times to work it out to perfection. Either way, food was really an important part of my life growing up.
How did that translate into adulthood?
In college my job was selling premium cigars on a national landscape. So while I was cigar-brokering I took all my money and bought wine with it. Then, I’d take my wine up to college to drink with my friends. But I had to talk them into it because they didn’t want to drink wine and just wanted Natty light all the time. But I always liked to cook and grill and I did it through school and kept going afterwards.
Where did you get the idea to start Cochon 555?
When I came to Atlanta I was doing a lot of educating people around wine and cheese. It was high-profile stuff and some people would ask me to come in using the Taste Network brand (which I started in 2002). So I’d do those and would bring in some high-end wine, a bunch of cheese and teach them about pairings. This is where I started to get my basis of understanding terroir and sense of place. Through cheese I learned the word ‘husbandry’ which turned me on to animal husbandry. And I realized I loved it.
I remember being at dinner this one time and the chef was charging something like $300 a plate. He walks in from the neighborhood grocery store with fresh salmon and everyone was all ‘oohs and ahhs’. But it was from the same place anybody in the area shopped and really nothing special. You have to be honest about things and this really turned me on to sourcing and being intentional about it.
So when did the first Cochon 555 take place?
The first year was 2008 in Atlanta and then it was like – ‘How do we do it like this but how do we expand across the country?’. I knew I had something and we did events there, in Napa, New York, Seattle and Miami – basically every logistical nightmare you could think of we tackled in the first year to pull the tour off.
Did you have some training or background in event planning?
I had zero background in big events – I learned as I went. But I was out there to redefine the event business. I listened to chefs, the community and we never, ever said that we were the best at what we did. Every year we reshape this thing to make sure it’s stabilized and better.
At lot of people don’t listen and just do what they want – and maybe they throw sub-par events sometimes. We are the opposite. It’s all about making sure that everyone at the event is happy. If the chefs are being taken care of, their team feels good – it translates into a better experience for the guests.
Tell me about Piggy Bank and your relationship with them
I’d been looking for a charity to fully put my energy and the tour behind. And Piggy Bank was a response to a lot of issues I had heard with farmers across the country with farmers. I think Piggy Bank was that opportunity to expose what happens to farmers when they lose their entire farm to a disease or flood or disaster. Who is there to help you? Insurance companies will probably give you 10 grand for a show dog but not for your top boar.
It’s a shame that farmers get the short end of the stick.
That’s the problem Piggy Bank solves. It helps fix that issue. Then all of a sudden these other value propositions came out of it. We have an opportunity to change the future of food. Not only for pigs. It’s an open source concept and anyone can jump on the site and steal the idea. They can take the business plan, the model and download the whole thing. Just change the word ‘Piggy’ to ‘Chicken’ or ‘Cow’ and start tomorrow. It propagates well and keeps making more and more sense.
Why focus on Heritage pigs?
I think the food system is broken. Heritage breed pigs really kind of jump-start a new idea or conversation or path to look at better lifestyle or better food choices. Every time you buy heritage pork it comes from local farms. It’s just a fork in the road and a pretty tasty fork indeed. I think everybody should try it. When they taste it they flavor is totally different and the way it should be.
This is important to me – when you buy heritage pork you are supporting family farms. Almost 100% of the time – raising these pigs is nearly an endangered practice and they are supporting the people preserving it.
What are your favorite Heritage breeds?
I love Mulefoot and Large Black – these are my two favorites.
Describe the atmosphere at the event
Cochon 555 is like the most progressive tasting event that you could ever go to. It’s set up as the most gregarious dinner party cooked by the best chefs with the best wines and spirits. All you have to do is keep your ears open and listen to stories and learn.
The music is great and the environment is enriching. Or you can go and get shit faced and have a great time – and then go out afterwards and keep partying. Everything there has a purpose and that is to educate you on better, safer, responsible living. Eating and drinking with a cause. That’s my challenge – who’s doing it better? That’s what I look at every day.
How do you select the chefs who will compete?
I would say that we get some outreach from chefs who are interested in participating. But typically it’s a search from local people in the know that suggest chefs and provides some advice on chefs in each market. Then we look for how much whole animal do they go through – we actually read their menus. We are looking for where they are hiding the pig.
You can tell a lot about utilization through looking at a menu pretty quickly. We also look at menus to see if they are promoting the farm or the breed. People who put mention of the farm or the breed on the menu are generally pretty proud about sourcing. Then we look at how many and what events do they do. We want to see what they are promoting and what kind of ambassadors for local food they are.
I can tell you that if they are cooking at ‘Baconfest’ they probably won’t be here.
Talk about the Asian Speakeasy and the Chef’s Course dinners preceding the event.
We debuted it last year in Chicago in the fall with a national audience of chefs. It was sort of soft-opening for our dinner series this year. We learned, tweaked it and now everyone is loving it. The reason behind the event is that I want a place where I can go eat late night Asian food that is safe and responsibly sourced. I hope someone picks up on it – there should be a place like this in every city.
I’m always kind of trying to probe into slots where we need something or it’s uncomfortable. The Asian community and Asian chefs have been getting into this and they are starting to get into more sustainable sourcing which is great.
What’s your favorite city to go to?
I really like Chicago – good people. I also really love Miami but I have a bunch of friends there that really support the events and that influences me.
What’s your perception of Seattle as a food city?
A lot of people don’t travel there enough and you kind of get this limited response. But those who do know what’s going on know that there’s this plethora of ingredients, chefs and experiences. And the city just offers a ton. Everything that’s happening in wine, cocktails and food. For some reason people don’t travel to the corners. I don’t know why.
I think there’s more connection in Seattle with food than Portland – as much as Portlandia wants to show that they care – it may just be that they are a bit more emotional about it.
What is the most outrageous preparation you’ve ever seen at Cochon 555?
Across the board, I would say blood sausage – morcilla. I think it’s the most underutilized/rarely seen thing. Nobody is really doing it. It’s a great product and when you know how to do it and you do it really well it’s amazing.
Who are some of your favorite chefs across the country?
I think Walter Manzske at Republique in Los Angeles is amazing. Also Ray Garcia of Broken Spanish from LA. Ryan Smith at Empire State South in ATL has really got a good talent. Jose Mendin in Miami is doing great stuff. And Hillary Sterling in NY at Vic’s – she did a stunning job this year at the event.
If your mouth is now watering and you want to be one of the lucky 225 people who attend each event – go to the Cochon 555 website and get your tickets now!