I certainly don’t have plans to quit my day job, but I must admit that the plastic pig trophy looks great on my mantle.

As a member of the food media, I serve as a judge at cooking events throughout the year where chefs battle it out in heated competitions. 

But the tables were turned recently at an event that tested the culinary competition chops of local food journalists as area chefs sat in judgment over us.

The Tucson Food Media Pulled Pork Throwdown was the backdrop for this historic moment on my life journey.

The challenge? Create, prepare, and present an original dish, using pork butts from Beeler’s Pure Pork, and serve it with a companion cocktail to a panel of local chefs.

The grand prize? Bragging rights. Oh, and a plastic pig trophy.

“We felt like this event would be important for camaraderie purposes for us as media outlets, and fun to bring in some of our closest friends on the food side to come and judge what we’re doing at home,” said James Blue, event co-founder, wine distributor, and a member of the “520 Eats” media team.

The 520 Eats team, which also included food distributor Jamie Rice and liquor distributor Chris Cohen, went full-on Asian with their dish.

“We’re fans of Far East flavors, and we wanted to do a non-traditional pulled pork dish as a mash-up of southern smoked pork with a lot of Asia,” Rice said. 

The dish brought the pork together with fish sauce, ground ginger and miso paste, served on Asian-style steam buns. 520 Eats’ cocktail remained in the Asian zone with lemongrass and ginger-infused vodka, ancho chile liqueur, and fresh lemon juice, with a grilled lemongrass, mint, and kumquat garnish.

“We were more ‘N Sync’ than Justin Timberlake,” Cohen joked.

The Tucson Foodie media team, made up of culinary content curators Adam Lehrman and Jackie Tran, called on some Asian inspiration for their dish as well, with sous-vide pork medallions and a Vietnamese fish sauce caramel wrapped in fresh collard greens.

Tran explained that his pork butt sat in a warm sous-vide bath for 30 hours, at a steady 140 degrees, which ultimately yielded its “steaky texture with a lot of richness.”

Tucson Foodie’s cocktail was a fun and fascinating marriage of fermented cabbage and a traditional michelada called, of course, the kimchi-lada.

“For savory cocktails, Tucson loves their micheladas,” said Tran, noting how well his worked with kimchi, which he calls “one of the trendier ingredients” these days. 

Named for my radio show “On the Menu Live,” my team included filmmaker Scot Litteer and auto mechanic Brian Thacker, and our dish was designed around the flavors and traditions of the south.

It was anchored by a griddled corn cake with roasted chiles, crowned with hickory-smoked pulled pork, a Tennessee whiskey and vinegar sauce, and a garnish of fried pickles, chiltepin dust, and a smoked paprika crema.

Our cocktail was a twist on the mint julep, with mint-infused bourbon, agave nectar, and fresh lemon, served neat with a fried mint leaf garnish.

The judges, Travis Peters of The Parish, Ben Caballero of HUB Restaurant and Ice Creamery, Daniel Thomas of BIRD Modern Provisions and Bar, and Ben Forbes of Forbes Meat Company, privately convened for what seemed like hours to discuss each entry in the context of presentation, creativity, and taste.

And the winners?

Best cocktail, 520 Eats.

Best dish, On the Menu Live.

And the best experience for my team? Earning the coveted plastic pig, which, by the way, should be staying on my mantle for years to come.


Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at mrussell@russellpublic.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.