Chef Justin Brunson butchers a pig at Old Major. (Cyrus McCrimmon, Denver Post file)

On pork, pot & bringing the bacon: Cochon 555 chef competition comes to Denver

Brace yourselves, pork lovers. A herd of heritage pigs arrives at the Ritz-Carlton, Denver this Sunday for the ultimate culinary competition that is Cochon 555.

Cochon 555 chef competition
Warning: You’ll probably go home with the meat sweats. (Galdones Photography, provided by Cochon 555)

This one-of-a-kind traveling meat circus stops in ten cities, where five notable chefs go snout to tail using an entire hog to create five dishes. A panel of judges combined with guest votes select the winning chef in each city to compete for the coveted title of “Prince or Princess of Porc.” Cochon 555 has already hit New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Napa, Calif., and after Denver will continue on to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, Chicago and San Francisco before the Grand Cochon culmination during the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen (June 20-22).

We paid a visit to Justin Brunson, who’s hard at work this week at Old Major preparing for his first Cochon 555 competition. The wildly popular restaurant is known for its in-house butchery and pork-focused menu, and just marked its one-year anniversary. Brunson’s passion started early while growing up on his family’s farm in Iowa and has only gotten more intense. He burst onto the Denver scene in 2008 with Masterpiece Deli, since opening a second location and launching the Denver Bacon Company. For Brunson, who is also a legit Grateful Dead and Phish fan, pot and pigs go hand in hand.

“It’s probably the greatest event to go to if you’re high … ever,” he says.

Brunson landed in Denver in 2003 after finishing culinary school in Scottsdale, Ariz., and has been a long-time proponent of legalization in his adopted hometown.

“I’ve been here in Colorado for ten years now and have watched the process unfold. I’m proud to live in such a forward-thinking state and to witness what’s happening now. It’s an exciting time,” he says.

Brunson credits his kitchen staff’s enthusiasm, dedication and creativity to “staying very well medicated.” Brunson’s personally a fan of the hybrid Sour Diesel strain.

Brunson slaughtered his Duroc heritage pig on Sunday night — it came from McDonald Farms (Brush, Colo.), where he sources all of Old Major’s meat — but he is keeping his plans under wraps for now. Creativity is the key in taking home the Cochon 555 crown, and the Old Major crew has a slight advantage.

“I mean it’s kind of like Cochon all the time in here. … We push the pork as much as possible,” he says. “Seriously though, our restaurant’s mission is really in line with Brady’s (Brady Lowe founded Cochon 555 in 2008) focusing on whole-animal butchery, in-house charcuterie, using local farms whenever possible as well as educating guests on the products they are eating and where they come from.”

What else did Brunson reveal? “It’s going to be charcuterie central with an old-school focus. We’ll be making a few menu items people go crazy over and a dessert dish that’s pretty out there. Plus, it’s just one hell of a wild party and I’m stoked to be a part of it.”

Although the event is now in its sixth year, the No. 5 is always the theme, and as for “cochon,” it’s French for pig.

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Cochon 555
(Galdones Photography, Provided by Cochon 555)

About the 555’s

  • Five pigs: Each chef is supplied with his or her own heritage-breed pig from small farms in Colorado. Which is exactly Cochon 555’s purpose: to support responsible family farming across the country.
  • Five dishes: Each chef will create a complete menu using all 200 pounds of their pig for the 400 expected guests.

The result: one epic celebration of swine with an unlimited supply of booze to wash it all down.

What’s missing: a dedicated smoking area to reactivate the munchies throughout the feast. BYOVP, perhaps?

Details: Tickets are $200 VIP; $125 general admission. Yes, the tickets are pretty pricey. But seriously, no other foodie event compares.
UPDATE (March 6): Cochon 555 is now sold out. There are still seats available for the Chef’s Course Dinner on Friday, March 7 at Harman’s Eat + Drink.

Time/place: Sunday, March 9
4 p.m. VIP; 5 p.m. general admission
Ritz-Carlton Denver, 1881 Curtis St.