From this Friday through Saturday, March 28-29, Hogs For The Cause brings an amazing music lineup and their preeminent pork cook-off to City Park's festival grounds. This two-day event isn't just any old festival. Now in its sixth year (and second year at the festival grounds), Hogs continues to raise money for the families of children being treated for pediatric brain cancer. Last year alone, the event raised $700,000 and continues to grow. Amazing, considering that back in 2008, founders Rene Louapre and Becker Hall were just two lifelong pals hoping to organize a small barbecue to help kids like Ben Sarrat, Jr., a 4-year-old diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in November 2008. Since then, Hogs for the Cause has grown almost overnight into a full-blown festival, with live music (this year includes North Mississippi Allstars and The Hold Steady), a gala dinner the sold out Seafood Jubilee Boss Hog passes, and a cook-off for anyone who doubts that New Orleans can host a kick-ass pig roast. Here now, Louapre and Hall talk event highlights for 2014, their coming expansion to South Carolina, and more.
Do you want to talk about the main changes to the event this year?
Becker Hall: Not really. Let's just focus on 2015, if you don't mind. Let's just talk Saints.
Rene Louapre: We have more teams, 90 teams in the cook-off. We have a new category, a Camellia beans category that we're excited to introduce and it sort of functions like our "porkpourri" where the beans need to be an element of the dish. But we don't want 90 pots of beans, so I think some teams are doing some really cool things. We also have decided to do a seafood dinner the night before, instead of a meat dinner like last year. For the first time we're having live music on Friday.
BH: Yeah. So we have a few more chefs for the gala, John Currence and Ashley Christensen, who are quite impressive. For the music we went a little more national and regional, and we added the three bands on Friday night. It should be a little funky with Earphunk and Dumpstaphunk. Saturday is looking pretty incredible music-wise too.
You guys just added The Hold Steady as the final band?
BH: I was actually trying to decide between Deer Tick and The Hold Steady. And The Hold Steady was coming out with a new album, and hadn't played New Orleans in so long, and they're such a good band. I thought they could bring a really rocking sound to Hogs that we haven't seen yet, and I think it's paying off. I think people are really excited about it.
Last year you guys brought in $700,000 to fund families of children with pediatric brain cancer. Do you have a goal for this year?
RL: I think it's very doable to hit a million dollars this year. I think our goalwe get asked this question a lot, like how do you keep growing, and we continue to grow But what Becker and I spend most of our year fretting about is how can we make this event better. We certainly think it will continue to get bigger but we're constantly evaluating how can we make this a better festival experience, and what can we offer to people to differentiate ourselves. I think that's one reason why we're never satisfied on the Sunday after Hogs. We want to be a premiere festival in New Orleans that has a low cost of entry, but that can really attract you with a lot of things.
BH: I think there's a lot of festival fatigue that's set in with everybody everywhere. There's all sorts of festivals, but they're all the same. They're all inside this box. To attract a patron, you have to be different.
Are you beefing up staff as you continue to grow?
RL: Becker and I are way too protective of this little baby right now to let it go. We have a great board, great interns, and great in-between contractors who work with us to fulfill our vision. But at the end of the day, it's pretty much both of us texting back and forth.
BH: I have a very voluminous, lustrous head of hair. Now that it's just he and I the week before Hogs, it thins out a little bit because of the stress.
RL: My hair is pretty much luxurious.
What are some of the good new teams this year?
BH: We have a lot of teams coming in from around the country. Big barbecue restaurants. It's hard to say look out for these guys, because you never know who's going to win.
RL: I've been trying to get Alon Shaya to compete for the last couple of years, and I think I've finally bothered him enough, so he's in. We have a bunch more amateur teams. I think that's one of the best draws. In Louisiana especially, there's such a fantastic cooking tradition. Almost everybody cooks and loves to cook for other people. So the amateur teams, that's the majority of our teams, and they've really taken to the event.
Any must-try pork specialties to be on the look out for at the event?
BH: The teams don't talk to us anymore. They tell us nothing. I think Twitter is probably the best way to find out.
RL: They're all convinced we're going to sell it to the Russians or something.
Any advice for folks attending Hogs for the first time?
RL: This year we're going back to a ticket system on Saturday. Food tickets are sold in increments of a dollar, and drink tickets in increments of two. But I think it's kind of cool to come out on Friday too.
BH: Yes. The insider secret is that Friday is exponentially more fun than Saturday. It's wild.
RL: It is. All of our teams are sort of preparing, and they'll have parties that are open to the public, so you can go by and meet them. And we have the live music, so don't sleep on Friday. I think it's a great way to meet a bunch of teams, and have a better plan of attack on Saturday, but public sampling is on Saturday, 12 to 4.
BH: Come Early.
RL: Oh, another thing. We've always kind of had an issue with non-pork vendors, it's kind of tough to find them. We've decided to do our own branded items called Hoggy Snacks. We're doing a black bean slider, a crawfish roll. MVBurger is coming back for a limited engagement, and we'll have cowboy caviar and nectar soda. We'll be selling those throughout the weekend. If you don't eat pork, or if you want a little break, we'll have those options available for you.
BH: There are A LOT more vegan-friendly dishes than we've ever had.
RL: We are not just flirting with veganism right now. We are actively pursuing it.
BH: As I've been sampling these dishes, I'm getting ripped like crazy.
RL: We also have a Cathead Vodka lemonade this year. I just finished making 21 gallons of lavender simple syrup. Bayou Rum will also have a peach tea. It's delicious. It's a ginger peach iced tea with rum. We've got Bastianich Wines, by the glass and bottle.
Are the Cure guys going to be bartending Friday's gala again, the Seafood Jubilee?
RL: Yeah, they'll be doing some cocktails for the dinner. Two Cathead cocktails and a bayou rum cocktail, and most importantly... My tiki bar, which my father in law built for me out of bamboo, will be there.
BH: And, we gotta stress, there will be bourbon in the yard this year.
RL: Here's some other insider information, Heather Lolley of The Link Group and I are trying to book DJ Jubilee for the after party, that will be called DJ Seafood Jubilee. Nothing's been confirmed yet, but if it goes down, you best be ready to groove into the early hours. That's all I'm going to say.
BH: Well I think this is a good time to segue into: There's crawfish boils, and there's hog boils, and the hog boil is really what happens in the jacuzz after the jubilee.
You guys finally got the 'jacuzz' this year?
BH: Well, you know. We can't really tell you yes or no.
RL: We're still waiting on one big sponsor to come in and underwrite the backstage jacuzzi, so until then... They all are a little scared to be in charge of that.
So what's the likelihood that you guys will be expanding to South Carolina, as you've recently mentioned?
BH: Oh, man look at this. Insider question. I think it's a very strong likelihood. In the next few months actually. It might be a little bit different concept, but it's still under the pork and Hog's umbrella. But yeah, I think it's safe to say that we will be expanding into the Charleston area in the Fall. In early October.
RL: That's the rumor.
· Hogs For The Cause [Official Website]
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Becker Hall, chef Donald Link, Rene Louapre, and chef Stephen Stryjewski at last year's Hogs Gala. [Photo courtesy of Becker Hall]