I recently spent 10 days out of the office, bouncing between the Dominican Republic, Miami and Cuba. The weekend in Miami gave me the chance to take in part of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Our company is a sponsor of the event, and my colleagues at Wine Spectator have long participated, but my schedule never allowed me to take part. This time, I was in.
I landed in Miami on a Saturday afternoon and checked into the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. This is one of my favorite hotels—they adore cigar smokers. I began with lunch by the pool (one of the world’s largest) while waiting for my room, and when I finished I was really in the mood for a cigar. A group of poolside tables, mere steps from the restaurant, had cigar ashtrays. I sat down, fired up a Tatuaje Havana Cazadore, and all was right with the world. If I was out of cigars, I could have bought one in the well-stocked Biltmore cigar shop.
The Biltmore isn’t on South Beach, but it played a major role in the festival, hosting the event closest to my heart—Swine & Wine. This was a pig roast, where 14 teams of chefs would each roast a pig and compete against the others, with the hungry audience serving as judge. I couldn’t wait.
I’d be up for any pig roast, but I knew one of the competitors, and so do you—Jorge Padrón, the president of Padrón Cigars Inc. of Miami. You know Jorge as a man who knows his cigars, who learned the art of turning tobacco leaves into delicious smokes at the side of his father, the legendary José Orlando Padrón. But you may not have known that Jorge is also quite the pitmaster. He cooks a pig almost as well as he can make a cigar. I’ve had his lechon asado on several occasions in Nicaragua, and it’s always been delicious.
Roasting a 60 pound pig is a slow process. Jorge woke at dawn to get started, and since all the pigs were being cooked at a courtyard at the Biltmore, where I was staying, I was able to get a view of lengthy process, from near-start to finish. Each of the teams started with a Duroc & Hampshire pig from Pat LaFrieda Meats, and most opted to cook on a La Caja China box, but the Padróns were cooking on their own rig, an impressive steel roasting box they made themselves. I went to the courtyard at 9 a.m., lit up a Padrón Serie 1926 No. 35 (it’s never too early) and checked in with Jorge and his team, called the Bar-B-Cubanos, which included Richard Pérez and Willy Pujals. They had marinated their pig in the traditional Cuban mix of sour orange, salt, garlic and oregano, was on the fire, basking in the Padrón’s custom-made metal roasting box. A grill at the side was the staging area for starting new charcoal. There were tools, and a tent above (scattered showers were in the forecast.) Plenty of beers were on ice—these were clearly professionals with a plan.
I shot a little video and looked around. Hmmm. That guy in the pink shirt—I know him. I couldn’t place the name immediately, but I knew the face from TV shows. Turns out it was Jonathan Waxman, chef and owner of New York City’s Barbuto. Many of the chefs in America consider him a groundbreaker, and a master. Hmmm. I thought Jorge might be in for some stiff competition.
I took my leave to attend another South Beach event, a brunch cruise, and promised to come back in the early afternoon. I showed up around 2 p.m., and met up with Gordon Mott, who had just flown in. I lit up another Padrón and took another look at the pig, which by this time was smelling of garlic and pork, scenting the air with an incredible aroma. The courtyard was far busier now, with the teams scrambling as the clock was ticking down to the 4 pm serving time. Jorge was getting ready to flip the pig and crisp its skin. I took a walk around the courtyard to check out what others were doing.
I recognized more people. The big guy in the white chef’s coat? Michael White, of Marea, one of Manhattan’s finest Italian restaurants. The tall guy in glasses and a newsman’s cap? Mark Ladner, of Del Posto, New York’s only three-star Italian restaurant. The tall guy who used to play basketball against Michael Jordan? Isiah Thomas. OK, he probably can’t cook, but he has serious star power. Jorge was up against the big guns.
Not long after 4, the contest began. Host and actress Debi Mazar, who also was competing, greeted the sold-out crowd and invited the guests to begin testing the pig. Each contestant had a table with a ceramic piggie bank; everyone who attended was given a wooden coin, and was instructed to place the coin in the piggie bank of their favorite pig. The Padróns were giving out Padrón cigars, and Litto, Tony and Ines-Lorenzo Gomez were passing out La Flor Dominicanas. Gordon and I set out to do some serious research, joined by Wine Spectator editor Bruce Sanderson, who also loves a great cigar.
Every table had a group of sous-chefs preparing the plates. Some had flour tortillas and guacamole, others had chacrouterie, others pickled onions—you get the point. The exception was the Padrón booth, which had two large bowls and tongs. Serve yourself. Let the pig speak for itself. There were some delicious plates, but there’s an art to roasting pork. The Padrón lechon was killer, salty and garlicky and cooked beautifully, but Jorge wasn’t sure. “We didn’t win anything,” he said at one point. I had my doubts—an amateur cook going against seasoned pros? And with no presentation, just the pork and nothing but the pork? Tough contest.
Mazar took to the stage to read off the winners. They would only award trophies to No. 1 and No. 2. In first place was Ingrid Hoffman, Miami resident and host of the Food Network show Simply Delicioso. In second place? Team Padrón. A howl went up. The Padróns were estatic. Jorge told me he was more excited over this win than being named Cigar of the Year.
Gordon and I hung out with Jorge and his family for celebratory drinks and stories about the day. Well deserved. It was great pig.