The “Queen of Pork” reigns over Berkshires, Red Wattles, Mulefoots and Duroc Yorkshires.
Yes, Karyn Tomlinson’s subjects are all heritage pork breeds.
That’s what happens when you emerge victorious at Cochon555, a prestigious nose-to-tail cooking competition that places chefs and whole animals under the clock. It got its start a decade ago as an effort to shine the spotlight on family farms and heritage breeds.
Tomlinson, the talent in the kitchen at Corner Table in south Minneapolis, won the regional “Princess of Pork” title in March, where she emerged victorious against Remy Pettus of Bardo, Daniel del Prado of Martina, Timothy Fischer of the Loews Minneapolis Hotel and her former boss Russell Klein of Meritage.
She went whole-hog on the national stage in Chicago on Sept. 30, going up against peers from New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Austin (Texas), Miami, Denver and Banff, Alberta. She’s the first woman to win the national prize.
(Tomlinson isn’t the Cochon555’s only Gopher State victor. In a competition among 11 bartenders from around the country at the same event, Dustin Nguyen of Martina was named 2018 “Punch Kings Tequila Invitational” winner, taking the top trophy with a blend of tequila, vanilla mint fermented tea, processed pulque and milk.)
On the morning after her coronation, Tomlinson rehashed her experience.
Q: What was your strategy for the competition?
A: My family is made up of Scandinavian immigrants from a few generations back, and so I wanted to give people an experience of my cultural heritage and tradition of hospitality. That’s always inspired me to do what I do. I thought that the Scandinavian meal that I have at the holidays would also represent something about Minnesota.
Q: You chose to prepare a Duroc Yorkshire pig from Hidden Stream Farm in Elgin, Minn. Why that particular breed?
A: It’s the type of pig that perfectly reflects the Midwest. It’s not too flashy. It doesn’t have crazy amounts of fat. It’s really an all-purpose pig — it gets the job done.
Q: What did you prepare?
A: We started with blood pudding with Swedish meatballs and lingonberries. Then we did spare ribs in a Scandinavian holiday style. It’s basically the belly and the rib together. We brine it, do a dry rub with lots of allspice and then kind of steam roast it until it sort of melts. Then it gets an apricot glaze and a Black Poplar mushroom conserve.
To feed the crowd, I treated the belly, bones and shoulder in the same way, and served it on dinner rolls, my great-grandmother’s recipe. They’re made with milk, butter, sugar, a lot of yeast and a lot of love. It’s a very basic recipe, but every single time that our family would get together — or every single church basement supper — those rolls would be there. Dessert was apple pie, with a lard crust, just the way my grandmother taught me to make it. It’s the first thing I ever learned how to make. Then I made a pancetta caramel, and a liver ice cream. It was very porky, and decadent.
Q: Are you going to serve any of these items at Corner Table, to give Twin Citians a taste of the contest?
A: I’m probably going to have to, aren’t I? I’ve had the spare ribs on the menu for a while. Perhaps that apple pie, for a limited time only.
Q: How much did you prepare in advance?
A: The biggest challenge was knocking out most of the prep before we left for Chicago, without sacrificing quality. I got the pig on the 20th and I butchered it that day, at Corner Table. By that time I had also already started pickling things — for the judges’ table, I wanted it to evoke a family holiday table, so we had little relish trays with lots of pickled things — and so I’d already gathered up things like milkweed buds and pickled them. We drove down late on Friday night, and rolled into the kitchen at about 2:15 in the morning. For the competition on Sunday — which was at City Winery, a really great space — it felt like we had a lot of time to set up.
Q: What’s the actual competition like?
A: The judging is the most adrenaline-driven time. It’s stressful, but it’s also fun, with just the three of us working the logistics of doing 30 plates, and keeping the food hot, all in this small window of time. Besides those 30 judges, there were about 800 to 900 people who had purchased tickets for the event, and it was hard to keep up. But then once we were able to get the food out faster, then we were all having a blast. I think that this type of food quickly connected with people. It was really neat to talk to people who weren’t from Minnesota, who didn’t know us, who were just there for the food and the raw hospitality of it all.
Q: How long were you on your feet?
A: Honestly? It wasn’t much longer than a normal day. The working part of it was probably 12 or so hours. My old sous chef Isaac Kirkpatrick [now at In Bloom, the just-opened sibling restaurant to Corner Table] and my new sous chef Hector Revilla were my official helpers. Some friends and family — including one of my cooks, and her boyfriend, who used to work for me — drove down and helped out behind the scenes, so there was a lot of support.
Q: How did you learn that you’d won?
A: At the end of the night, all of the contestants went up on stage. We were introduced and they thanked us for coming, and then they just started announcing, by the type of pig. It caught me by surprise. I watched the video later, and learned that I’m a pretty boring reactor. I didn’t have a big “Yes!” moment. Someone told me afterward, “You were so stoic.” But it was a very exciting moment, and it was one that I didn’t expect.
Q: How did you celebrate?
A: Everyone from the competition went to the Chicago Athletic Association. I had a burger. And then my crew went out and sang karaoke. We decided that needed to happen regardless of the outcome. I’m driving back, so I got to sleep in, and I’m having lunch with a friend at Cafe Marie-Jeanne. Hector is a trouper. He flew back very early this morning and is going to hold down the fort tonight. Isaac had to go back, too, because In Bloom opened last week. We’ll have to convene later to celebrate.
Q: What does the winner win?
A: Mainly it’s honor and respect. All of the contestants are going to northern Spain in November. That’ll be great; I’ve never been there. I got a bottle of Eagle Rare [bourbon whiskey]. And I got a crown [laughs]. I’m really glad for my team’s sake that we won, because they put in so much extra work, and we can enjoy the victory together. Our goal was to feel like we did the best and represented Minnesota well, and regardless of whether we’d won, we would have walked away feeling that.
Q: What’s it like to win the same national competition that your boss, Thomas Boemer, won three years ago?
A: It’s a really special and unique thing, and it’s really sweet, because I know he sees the importance of it and knows what it’s like. Our menus are very different, and we went about this in very different ways. But the things that I see in him — his drive, and his work ethic, and his commitment to excellence — they all resonate with me, and they helped me in this competition.
Q: So, it was a good experience?
A: I’m glad that I did it. Facing challenges, that’s the name of the game of being in the kitchen. Cochon555 is about really cool things: supporting small farmers, cultivating the next generation of farmers, whole-animal utilization. Those subjects are very important to the food landscape. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you’re running a kitchen day to day. But then something like this comes along and it makes you think, “Yes, this is all very important.”