Like all of our favorite chefs, Thomas Boemer of Corner Table is quietly modest. Not all that comfortable talking about what he does, he'd rather be cooking.
So when we call to ask what effort went into his impressive menus that took the big, piggy prize at last Sunday's Cochon 555 culinary competition, it takes him a while to get to the mechanics of it.
Really, it was all in a day's work. Knowing the farmers who humanely raise animals that are prized for flavor and nutritional benefit, paying attention to how they are processed, and then breaking them down and turning them into hundreds of delicious preparations. It's just what they do, week in and week out.
But finally he admits: "It was absolutely insane."
See also: Who Won Big at Cochon 555?[jump]
1. Tell us about the pig:
"We had multiple conversations with the pig farmers [Boemer's hog was a Large Black from Lucky George Farm]* about the animal and the weight. We had to test that same hog from that same farm. We had to test the whole menu as similarly as we could prior to the event under as similar conditions as possible. I really wanted to use my own processor, because we work with incredible farmers and they raise incredible animals, but there is a middleman between them and us, and that is the processor. Most processors work with commodity meat and they do thousands of animals at a time. What happens to this animal during processing can totally destroy the quality of the meat and their equipment isn't designed to handle the size, weight, fat content, and skin-on requirements we have for these animals." 2. What was the week leading up to the competition like?
"It was restaurant week, and we are also remodeling for Revival (his much-anticipated Southern-style fried chicken restaurant), and I am doing a lot of the remodeling myself and certain things have to be done at certain times, so during all of this I'm also doing woodwork and trim. It got very difficult. It was extremely stressful. The whole crew was working multiple 16-hour days and getting 3 to 4 hours of sleep. You just know that nothing good is going to happen to you. But no one complained." 3. What went into the masterpiece of your menu, the pate en croute presentation?
"Myself and one of my cooks, Tess, came in and worked on pate for 15 hours without a lunch break except for when I had to replace a plug for a smoker I had just bought to do the jowl. So in the middle of it all you get to be an electrician, too."
4. And on site of the competition you had to share the kitchen with all of the other chefs at the Loews Hotel?
"You want to make sure that everything arrives as perfectly as possible. Things that are supposed to be crispy are crispy, things that need to be hot are hot. So I prefer to work in an environment we know rather than one we don't know. In a new environment you have very little control, so we did pretty much everything out of propane burners and hot boxes. I think they only thing we used at the hotel kitchen was to put something in an oven." 5. Food competition is not really your style, so why did you agree to do this one?
"I don't like to be preachy about food, but quality of food has everything to do with our own health and happiness. What this event is for is to raise awareness about heritage breed hogs, some of which there are only a couple hundred left on the planet right now. The whole idea that fat is bad, and people wanting to be skinny more than they want to be healthy, has led to the destruction of beautiful animals that taste wonderful. And animal fat is actually necessary for many aspects of our own health: organs, skin, hair, collagen, connective tissue. We have to change the way we think about how we eat. What's making us sick is not organic chickens, hogs, and beautiful grass-fed beef."
Cochon 555 is an annual culinary competition designed to to promote sustainable farming of heritage breed pigs. Boemer will go on to compete against winning chefs from nine other cities in Aspen this June.
*"Large Black originates from Chinese breeds brought to England, the Large Black is a critically rare breed known for its taste, pasture foraging skills and overall hardiness. Large Blacks have short black hair, wide shoulders and a long body. When harvested, even at 200 pounds, the micro-marbling, short muscle fibers and excellent bellies produce exceptional bacon and moist meat with old world flavor." (From Cochon 555 literature)
Send your story tips to Hot Dish.