This post was updated at 7:05 p.m. Monday, March 24.
How close was the voting for this year's Cochon 555, the annual nose-to-tail contest in which five chefs break down and prepare dishes from five different heritage pigs?
So close that the 20-person judges panel, which included chefs and writers and even a farmer, was deadlocked among at least two competitors, according to Cochon 555 founder Brady Lowe.
So close that the ultimate winner, Erik Bruner-Yang of Toki Underground and the forthcoming Maketto, earned the Prince of Porc crown with a little help from the 450 folks who packed into Union Market on Sunday evening for the event. (Incidentally, judges' ballots count for 49 percent, while votes among the alcohol-soaked rabble count for 51 percent, Lowe noted.)
"It was very, very close, and the people gave the extra push to the winner," Lowe said this afternoon during a brief phone chat. "The quality of food in D.C. was spectacular . . . which doesn't make picking a winner any easier."
To be sure, Bruner-Yang faced formidable foes this year at Cochon 555. His competitors included Nathan Anda from Red Apron/The Partisan, Marjorie Meek-Bradley from Ripple, Mike Friedman from the Red Hen and Dylan Fultineer of Rappahannock Restaurants.
"It was a really hard job this year," said judge Richie Brandenburg, director of culinary strategy for Edens, which owns Union Market. "I think all those guys did a good job."
One table of judges apparently favored Red Hen's Friedman, who prepared, among other plates, a pasta made with pork skin. (Says Brandenburg: "That one bite, that blew us all away.") Another table was apparently gung-ho for Ripple's Meek-Bradley, who had created a pig-heart sausage served in a homemade pretzel roll. At least one judge said he couldn't vote for Red Apron/Anda with a good conscience: The judge felt that Anda's salumi cigars could not have been prepared in the short amount of time available before Cochon 555. (Anda denied using any pig other than the one provided for the event. He said the andouille was smoked, "not cured and can be eaten within 1-2 hours from start to finish"; the cigar's small size and four days of aging before the event created its drier texture.)
Bruner-Yang appeared to be the one chef who gave judges little to criticize.
"All of his dishes were consistently really good," Brandenburg said. "His flavors were strong and bold. Across the board, he had good dishes. I think that might be the lesson: consistency."
Another judge, food writer Sam Hiersteiner, e-mailed to say his "ballot came down to a pretty close race between Red Apron, Rappahannock and Toki/Maketto." He noted that Anda was practicing the "highest level of porky craft, plain and simple," while Fultineer "presented beautifully and put out my favorite bite of the day: the liver pudding over grits. That was scrapple magic."
"Bruner-Yang," Hiersteiner added, "gave us food that just took you on a ride with textures and flavors and spice. The [fermented] sausage was fantastic, and that's a hard item to use to create distance from your competitors, all of whom make great sausage in their own right. I had a pretty difficult tie-break decision to make in the end, and I'm going quietly to my grave with my vote."
Brandenburg wouldn't name his personal winner, either, out of respect for the chefs involved.
The winning chef says he didn't maneuver far outside his comfort zone with the Cambodian and Chinese dishes he and his team prepared with a Large Black hog, an ash-colored breed with a complicated heritage that can be traced to England, China and other other parts of Europe.
"We knew that our menu, no matter what we wanted to do, would end up being different. I know they invited us to be different," Bruner-Yang said after claiming victory. "We didn't want to do what people would classically do or even creative versions of classic . . . nose-to-tail dishes. We just stuck with what we knew and just tried to make as much food as we could."
One of the keys to his menu, Bruner-Yang said, was to serve food hot on the pick-up for Cochon guests.
"We have the pop-up at Union Market so we got to do a lot of our prep here," Bruner-Yang said. "So we kind of had a semi-home field advantage, compared to everyone who had to come and set up."
For whatever reason, Lowe said Bruner-Yang's razor-close victory has been common this year at Cochon stops. "This year has been tighter than any other year," Lowe said. "We haven't had any landslides this year."
The winning menu from Erik Bruner-Yang:
Char Siu Bao: barbecue pork bun with shoulder meat.
Zhuxie Gao: pig's blood cake.
Sach Krark: fermented sour sausage based on a recipe by chef Seng Luangrath from Bangkok Golden.
Prahok K'htih: boiled pork-skin chili with pork belly.
Laap Chrouk: minced meat salad.
Zhu Rou Tan: A bitter melon noodle soup with pork broth.