Heritage Hog Renaissance
As the founder of the pork-centric culinary competition Cochon 555, Brady Lowe is on a mission to remind us what true pork tastes like. In each of the 10 cities on the annual tour, Cochon 555 showcases five chefs, five heritage breed pigs and five winemakers to promote breed diversity and whole animal utilization. The tour concludes at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen with the Grand Cochon, a season finale that’s likened to the Super Bowl of all swine events. If you’re in Aspen or any of the cities on the competition circuit, you want to buy tickets. Trust me. We talk with Lowe about how it all got started, why heritage pigs are magical animals, what it takes to win the competition, and bringing BBQ restaurants into the local food conversation.
AndrewZimmern.com: You founded COCHON 555 to spark a national conversation about heritage breed pigs. What impact has the tour had on heritage hog farming and awareness in the last six years?
Brady Lowe: Six years ago we started this little national tour called Cochon 555, and it has morphed into a well-respected culinary competition lauding the benefits of using the whole animal. These epic pork events have tied together a star-studded community of chefs, farmers, sponsors and community leaders. The events attract affluent audiences and chef communities who appreciate responsible food traditions and are looking for new ways to support the good food movement. It’s been an honor to feed these champions who attend Cochon events and to learn about the conversation of craft producers.
When it all started, I noticed there was no active promotion for the consumption of heritage breed pigs. When we kicked off the tour, we began to meet amazing farmers who raised these animals. I learned it was a challenge for them to meet chefs (customers) and keep working on raising hogs. Farmers’ markets were starting to blossom nationally, but the good food movement was not yet a booming conversation. We saw a need to create an event that would showcase these food champions on both sides of the pasture. We wanted to highlight that there are different breeds, just like different grape varietals, that are very specific to the grower and region, and in time, this concept took off like wild-fire.
Our single largest success story by far is helping heritage breed pigs find a voice on the internet. We have created a network of farmers and chefs that share something in common: an authentic event experience that delivers on their expectations. Staying true to brand integrity has been difficult because not everyone sees the vision the same, but ultimately, the tour has motivated hundreds of organizations and farmers to better represent the species on pasture and to provide better business marketing practices. By creating ultra-premium, hyper-local annual events, we spark marketing campaigns and business models for a national network of farmers. Farmers now have access to work with new chefs, meet celebrated media personalities, and get annual coverage that they could never attain without the Cochon US Tour. I still pinch myself when I look at the network we work with.
“Cochon 555 has been wonderful to our growth. From the very first one, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with many chefs that I did not already know, and to build on relationships with existing chefs and customers. The media exposure is fantastic, which a small producer like us could never afford.” – Mark Pasternak / Devils Gulch Ranch/DG-Langley Farms
AZ.com: How has the heritage pork culinary competition evolved since the first year?
BL: The first year, we served 2,500 guests. Today, we serve up tasty heritage pork to more than 10,000 guests annually. The first year, the internet was fragmented with sources to buy and learn more about heritage pork. With help of our partners and media, we harvest more than 500+ million media impressions for those three little words “heritage breed pig.” In addition, the tour annually works with over 1,500 pioneers who support a better food system, which now has three times the conversation power than it had the first year. It’s amazing. Over 50,000 people have eaten at Cochon 555 and heard the flavor-touting sermon of eating tasty, healthy pork from family farms.
We have come a long way from year one, reaching new people, providing brand exposure and creating authentic experiences that get people excited and talking. The conversation of these epic heritage pork feasts has reached places I never thought, landing on more dinner tables and entering more top-name kitchens each year across the nation.
AZ.com: How will it expand in years to come?
BL: This is a great question that keeps me up at night. First is expanding the concept of brand integrity to keep people loving the event. We need to find the right partners who will support the tour, because we can’t continue to grow on ticket sales alone.
Our biggest goals are education and finding the right team to continue building interest. Something we have in motion is creating a tour run by chefs, for chefs. We started hiring chefs and butchers to take up the helm and continue the vision because they are all about details. I’m committed to hiring a team of culinary masterminds because it’s very important that the chefs and farms enjoy the experience. For example, it’s been amazing to have Michael Sullivan (former master of butchery and charcuterie at Blackberry Farm, introduced via Sean Brock) running the tour as my right hand. He gets all the details and understands why it’s so important. We are in the process of building a team that can run a world-class event, but also come into your home and cook one damn good meal.
Additionally, in recent years, the 10-city Cochon 555 Tour has found a sustaining community of foodies that buy up the tickets and create demand for a sold-out event. That gives us the opportunity to find out what’s hot in the good food community right now. As we continue to listen, we can create very detailed culinary experiences, executed by a team of chefs, who will not only support local agriculture, but feed an influential crowd of foodies and support new trends. We set our sights on other segments in the hospitality/food realm that don’t yet focus on heritage pigs, but have the means to make a difference, and create events around them with the intention of changing that focus in years to come. For example, I have developed brands like Heritage BBQ (Globally Themed BBQ), All-Star Cochon (Late-Night Asian Speakeasy), Heritage Fire (Communal Fire-Cooking) and my new HOT BOX (theme is a secret) that we will be debuting in Aspen at the Classic. These all create demand in segments of the food industry today that can support local food. If one restaurant opens, supporting whole heritage pigs, then we are successful. It only takes one.
AZ.com: Why focus on pigs?
BL: First off, heritage pigs are magical animals, from head to toe, and it is a respected act of consumption when we eat every part. It’s a renaissance protein. For years people forgot about their palate, somehow they were taught to abandon their lust for real flavor. Heritage pig has been that trigger for me to dig deep into someone’s flavor-stripped caverns and start a fire, reminding them what true pork tastes like. I look at pork in the grocery store and I wonder why it has to have a diaper on it, why water is draining from the meat. Water doesn’t equal flavor, fat creates flavor. Where did it all go? When pigs were raised to feed the masses, the industry stripped them of their ability to run free in pasture, dig up woodlands, and live a normal lifespan of building fat on muscle, which creates the flavor we all crave. From head to toe, heritage pig is the meat I feel equals good eating, especially when it comes from real people who take care of the environment and support their families–this is what Cochon is all about. Our sponsors, friends, and chefs around the country believe we can continue to build momentum, one pig at a time. This is why I chose pig, because the whole story is shared by all our supporters. It’s not about just having ticket sales, or sponsors who help pave the road, it’s about aligning everyone together, sharing a common passion, telling a story – and the pig has made this all possible.
AZ.com: Why is whole animal utilization the ultimate challenge for a chef?
BL: Heritage breeds are important to the culinary community because it teaches us many valuable lessons, first of which is utilization in the kitchen, or zero waste. The trend is way older than me. Our grandmothers and elders never wasted any part of the animal, so why should we? Using whole heritage breed pigs takes us back to our roots. Nothing is more coveted than family butchering and cooking a whole animal–and when I say they eat every single part, they eat every single part. From old world family traditions to celebrated kitchens in New York City, it’s all about team, and creating a shared experience that supports a better food system. The idea is to use every ounce of the product, from the root to the toot, in order to survive, or feed your family.
Once you have a team in place, the inspiration comes from all over. The animal on the butcher block talks to you, your sous chefs tell you their grandmothers’ recipes, and chefs can break the rules and cook off the menu. The challenge is listening to your environment and ushering all that talent into 6 dishes you are going to feed the judges. The challenge is both methodical and creative and it feels quite good inside.
AZ.com: How are competing chefs selected in each city?
BL: Chefs are selected via an advisory board based on a few criteria. We look at their support of the local food community, their raw talent for all things pig, and of course, their dedication to whole animal utilization on the menu. It is also really important that chefs name heritage breed pig on their menu. This is a dedication to sourcing specific breeds, and promoting the names of farms on the menu. Once we find a group of chefs to work with, the next phase of selection comes down cuisine. We need diversity at the events, so if one Italian chef confirms, it pushes out duplicate regions. We look for a balanced event representing various cooking techniques that involves and excites as many people as possible.
AZ.com: What does it take to win the competition?
BL: Another great question, in which I can only share my opinion. Textures, good acid, taking your guest on a roller coaster of peaks and valleys, telling the story of the breed, making sure to showcase the pig in each bite, and striving for balance. Do what you do best, don’t think about the consumers or judges, cook from the heart, and put all your time into the food to make sure you are providing an experience you would enjoy yourself.
AZ.com: What dishes really impressed you during the 2014 tour?
BL: I was super impressed by the Pozole dishes this year–the two best in my lifetime. Jennifer from Rioja and Douglas from Alma de Cuba are going head-to-head in a pozole-off in Aspen. Very exciting. Seamus Mullen pulled off this pate on top of an anchovy tin in NYC–insane. And Mary Dumont’s ice cream sandwich was a stand-out this year. Also, Patrick Szoke from Alla Spina in Philly had this pork confit-stuffed cherry pepper, I ate like 10 of them. Best bite so far would have to go to the ice cream sandwich though, it was perfect.
AZ.com: Who’s competing in this year’s Grand Cochon season finale at Aspen Food & Wine Fest?
BL: This year’s winners and competing chefs include Seamus Mullen of Tertulia (NY), Jose Mendin of Pubbelly (Miami), Ray Garcia of Fig Restaurant (L.A.), Dustin Valette of Dry Creek Kitchen (Napa), Jennifer Jasinski of Rioja (Denver), Erik Bruner-Yang of Maketto (D.C.), Mary Dumont of Harvest (Boston), Tim Graham of Travelle (Chicago), Richie Nakano of Hapa Ramen (San Fran) and Douglas Rodriguez of STARR Restaurants (Philadelphia).
AZ.com: Any tips for surviving the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen?
BL: Don’t eat brunch–that’s a great start. Don’t drink too much, and get ready for the super bowl of all swine events. Make sure you break a sweat each morning, even if it’s running up and down stairs–it’s good for the ticker. Drink tons of water and buy a ticket for Grand Cochon, as heritage pig can cure all your worries. If you are able to get to the event, savor every bite, try everything. It is a real honor to have all of these great chefs in the same room, working so hard (months on end) to create the best experience.
AZ.com: Heritage BBQ is a real focus of yours these days. What is it and why are you so adamant about promoting it?
BL: Similar to Cochon 555, Heritage BBQ is an all-inclusive event, a stand-up tasting where five notable chefs are each given a 200-pound heritage breed pig to create six dishes for a crowd of pork-loving enthusiasts. The goal is creating a globally-themed BBQ community event that raises awareness for responsible family farms, culinary schools, local food producers, craft brewers, winemakers, and distillers. We want to celebrate every culture and take foodies on a journey of grilling traditions from around the world. In addition to the flavor circus, education is pivotal to the event. As much as we think BBQ is American, it’s an extension of our not-so-savory history as a country.
As Americans, we see BBQ as an English-speaking cuisine, and we couldn’t be more wrong, or untrue. Here in the states, we are lucky enough to be caretakers to a special extension of BBQ, but it’s what we decide to do with it that matters. Some decide to support the local and responsible, some decide not to. If we are going to preserve our new BBQ heritage, then we need to find a connection with our local food roots, building on tradition from the ground up. Heritage BBQ comes from a belief of cooking one whole animal at a time (pig, duck, beef, lamb, bird, and goat). One approach to defining our new food culture starts with a handshake from a local farmer, followed by the smile of a guest who knows we are doing what we can as chefs, and as caretakers of hospitality and environment.
Sadly, our booming state of BBQ is not a food segment that’s supporting local agriculture and I am so very adamant about education and sharing all I know in a positive, tasty way. Back in the day, we celebrated BBQ in America with slow-cooked, delightfully smoked whole animals.
I grew up in Iowa, and BBQ to me meant Backyard Grilling, sharing with friends and socializing. It wasn’t until years later when I encountered the regionalized BBQ argument that I was educated by my peers. People would call me out, and tell me “Backyard Grilling is not ‘real’ BBQ, because it ain’t from Carolina or Texas,” and I began to feel alienated. As I got older, educated, and really started to understand the hospitality industry, I gained a sense of confidence. I noticed in hospitality we say “YES.” We don’t just say “NO” because it’s a tomato-based or a vinegar red sauce. To me, I absolutely love BBQ, and feel the fabric of American BBQ has been woven askew. If we can help educate BBQ restaurants to consider supporting local family farms before going to a box cutter program, then we are doing something good. Our goal is to build a better future our children’s’ food system, and to provide people with a choice when they go out to eat BBQ in their city. It’s lofty, and it’s challenging, but I am trying…
We are developing an event that educates, creates demand, and associates whole animal in a blooming BBQ-restaurant-opening industry. I want to open the doors of hospitality to all BBQ cultures like Hibachi (Japan), Braai (Africa), Asado (Argentina), Char Siu (China), Satay (SE Asia), Mangal (Central Asia), Luau (Islands), Regional American (Kansas City, Lexington to Louisiana), Lechon (Philippines) and Barbacoa (Mexico). From Argentina to Korea, and down to the Bayou, we hope to create a BBQ experience unlike any you know. This is exactly what the Cochon US Tour is about.
The end goal is to spread the word and create events that trigger interest among existing BBQ restaurants to join the conversation of local food and heritage pigs, thus creating long-term growth, jobs on farms and better food choices for the future.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
BL: I have a meat coffin. It’s full of Salumi and Whole Muscles from Creminelli and the remains of a whole Jamon Iberico from Cinco Jotas. I have three flats of anchoas, because I love them, and making kale caesar salads. I have a lot of butter, and cheese is a staple. Lots of hot sauces from all over, balanced by some maple syrups. Freezer is full of ice packs, as I take food everywhere with me on my travels. I have lots of heritage pork in my freezer, always ready to braise or roast, and get nervous if I am running low. Every Saturday, I spend my weekly allowance at the farmers’ market buying vegetables from friends–I always have more than I need. Lastly, the beverage shelf includes champagne and white wine, always ready to go. Speak of the devil…
About Brady Lowe
Brady Lowe is a respected authority of fine wine and artisan cheese who has been producing exceptional food events since 2003. It was then, while working in Atlanta at the dawn of the local food movement, that Lowe was among the first to unite boutique wines and hard-to-find cheeses. One taste pairing in particular sparked an ‘out of body experience’ in a customer that Lowe would never forget. At that moment, he devoted himself to transcending the boundaries of the food world, to creating unique combinations, not just with ingredients but among people. Now a food educator and taste influencer, Lowe is passionate about reaching individuals with a social conscience to support a responsible community of local chefs, butchers, winemakers and farmers that we all depend on.
Lowe grew up in Iowa reading the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series and his mother’s collection of cookbooks, books that would influence the narrative of his culinary future. At University of Iowa, he studied communications and marketing. Upon graduating, he moved to Atlanta and stepped into the world of fine dining. While selling cigars at the height of the burgeoning cigar culture, he discovered there was a unique vernacular to cigars, a flavor vocabulary that he enjoyed learning and sharing. The ideas translated naturally to other languages he wanted to study, those of wine, cheese, chocolate, and cuisine.
His appetite for the larger food movement blossomed in 2006 when Lowe started hosting larger tasting events for private clients and notable members of the Atlanta food community. Three years later, he launched Cochon 555, a ten-city culinary tour showcasing five chefs, five pigs and five winemakers in a competition to promote breed diversity and whole animal utilization. In 2010, COCHON 555 began teaming up with Food + Wine Magazine for the Grand Finale showcase during the Classic in Aspen. Now ‘pig is big,’ but Cochon 555 is still the nation’s only heritage breed pig culinary competition. In 2011, the tour continued to expand with the addition of Heritage Fire, a tribute event to fire cooking and butchery and All-Star Cochon, the first ever non-competition event that was hosted at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. This year, Lowe has plans to release Cochon Heritage BBQ in Memphis during the Labor Day weekend.
More recently, Lowe has been working to revitalize the art of butchering with two new ventures, Protein University, an online technique- and story-swap forum for butchers, and PRIMAL, an annual fire cooking event in Napa. Lowe is still based in Atlanta but he spends most of his time on the road, tasting his way across the country. Next up for Lowe is a project that cycles back to his origins in the wine industry, a tool that will give the advantage back to the consumer to learn directly from wine producers.