Matt Steigerwald knows what to do with a pig. That’s obvious to anyone who has eaten the house-made charcuterie at Lincoln Cafe, his restaurant in Mount Vernon.
So at Sticks, an elegant art studio surrounded by woodlands and corporate office sprawl, Steigerwald and his Lincoln Cafe crew set up shop in a place that wasn’t built for cooking. He faced off, 140 miles from his kitchen, against some of the best Des Moines, an increasingly hip and food-savvy town, had to offer: Bill Overdyke of Centro, Andrew Meek of Sage, Tag Grandgeorge of Le Jardin (who teamed with caterer Cyd Mull) and Jammie Monaghan of the Embassy Club.
He hauled his entire pig, in various states of completion, along with as much kitchen equipment as he could possibly need, the 140 miles.
And, when the votes were counted, he’d won.
I voted as a judge at Cochon 555 in Des Moines. I tried every single dish the chefs put in front of me — brains on rye, heart wrapped in pureed liver, lard ice cream with cracklings, truffled pork loin, liver mortadella, a couple barbecue-on-a-biscuit sandwiches. We were asked to rank the five chefs in three categories: presentation, flavor and utilization (their ability to use as much of the pig as possible). Picking a “winner” was difficult.
It didn’t help that by the time we got to the balloting, I’d been consuming wine and swine for some three and a half or four hours (one tends to lose track of time under such conditions). And, even though I knew I would be eating pork from about 5:00 on, how could I turn down La Quercia proscuitto and a mountain of cheese beginning at 3:30 that afternoon?
We got fed by Sage’s Meeks first. The favorite was a lovely piece of pork belly from a hereford hog, marinaded in orange and something else and sprinkled with sea salt (I am a sucker for large crunchy pieces of salt as a garnish).
Next came Le Jardin and a gorgeous set of dishes from a duroc. The standouts were a simple, salty pork-consomme bloody mary and smoked pork shoulder (a popular preparation that night) served on a cracker spoon with a strawberry sauce.
The Embassy Club’s Monaghan went Southern with a tamworth. Barbecue on a biscuit. Dirty rice. A pork loin in a bourbon sauce. Perhaps owing to Monaghan’s background as the Embassy Club’s banquet chef, he avoided temperature problems that hurt the earlier cooks. And perhaps owing to the amount of wine (and the bottles that Scott Bush, president of Templeton Rye, brought to the table), my notes became less descriptive and more terse. “Really, really good” these read.
Steigerwald offered a very nice selection of garde manger, a head cheese and liver mortadella, especially. Another version of North Carolina barbeque that was impossible to not compare with Monaghan’s (Steigerwald’s was better). A pozole, a traditional Mexican pork-and-hominy soup.
We were stuffed beyond the breaking point. Then came Centro’s Overdyke and his Guinea hog. More rillets and a fantastic rolata di coteccino (Centro’s spelling, not mine) that I am totally unable to describe. My notes are absolutely no help at this point. The page says Centro and then — nothing.
Then we voted.
While we waited for the votes to be tallied, we were plied with even more food (all bacon-infused desserts). I declined.
When Steigerwald won (and was handed a trophy, a bottle of Templeton Rye and, I’m not making this up, a painting of a pig leaping into a pond) it felt like an upset. The Des Moines crowd had picked an out-of-towner. People had been coming up all night, he told me: “They would taste something and say, ‘Where the hell are you guys located?'”
What put Steigerwald over the top, as I told Cecelia Hanley of The Gazette, was his pozole. It was such a delicious, porky soup. And it offered a surprise: with a bit of cheese submerged just out of sight below the surface.