In the world of foodiedom, there is no event more anticipated, glamorous and prestigious than the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, now in its 28th year. More than 5,000 hungry and thirsty enthusiasts braved the thin air at 8,104 feet of altitude to swarm the mountain resort town for four indulgent days to commune with their favorite celebrity chefs, sommeliers and mixologists, many of whom are New York City fixtures.
The welcome reception at the understatedly swanky St. Regis Hotel featured a cavalcade of Gotham biggies, including Food & Wine’s Dana Cowin, chefs Mario Batali (Babbo), David Chang (Momofuku), Masaharu Morimoto (above, Morimoto New York), Thomas Keller (Per Se), Jacques Pépin, restaurateurs Drew Nieporent (Nobu) and Joe Bastianich (Del Posto), Top Chef top judge Tom Colicchio (Craft), Top Chef doyenne Gail Simmons, Top Chef Season One winner Harold Dieterle (Perilla), Top Chef Season Two finalist Sam Talbot (below, with Simmons), and others.
The backbone of the festival was the Grand Tasting Pavilion, where 1,021 different wines could be sampled, from California, France, Germany, Chile, Spain, Italy, Argentina, Greece, South Africa, Canada, Portugal and Australia. For those who preferred more structured samplings, there were ample seminars, including a rather dazzling one titled “Two Decades of Dom Pérignon.” The bubbly sipping, with vintages back to 1988, began at an ungodly 10 a.m., but no one seemed fazed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Joshua Wesson (Best Cellars) paired hot dogs with everyday vinos like Prosecco and Grüner Veltliner. The festival also entered more spirituous territory with a seminar on “American Whiskey” that celebrated America’s micro-distillers, including New York State’s Ralph Erenzo of Tuthilltown Spirits. Bourbon, rye, wheat whiskey and legal moonshine all exhibited their own unique charms.
On the culinary side, attendees dutifully queued up in the blazing sun for the chance to sit in on perfectly choreographed cooking demos hosted by celebrity chefs. David Chang spilled the beans on his mom’s Korean marinade, that he uses in his many restaurants. He also demystified the sous-vide process. While optimally done with a $1,000 immersion circulator, it can be jury-rigged at home by employing a couple of pots, a thermometer and a very watchful eye.
Thomas Keller (left, with Tom Colicchio) tipped his toque to the world’s best preserves and demonstrated how to make cured lemons and a sweet onion tapenade. Mario Batali enthralled his fans with Northern Italian takes on seafood and pasta. Clams casino, anyone? Morimoto illustrated Japanese knife techniques with breathtaking precision. Tom Colicchio teamed up with Gail Simmons to showcase two lamb dishes, one representing an ambitious restaurant style, one a homey style. Jacques Pépin and his daughter Claudine teased each other mercilessly and showed how a dab or two of caviar can make even the most mundane dish, like a humble omelette, totally transcendent.
When the sun set, many chefs, like Batali (left, with Dana Cowin), threw enormous parties at their rented chalets. In fact, Colicchio and Bastianich stopped by Mario’s with acoustic guitars in tow and strummed and sang some good old Simon & Garfunkel. And after all the parties, anyone who was anyone usually wound up at Jimmy's, an unpretentious bar and restaurant, to down some shots of tequila, eat the best crabcake outside of Maryland and bask in Jimmy Yeager's legendary hospitality.
The festival wrapped up with the Food & Wine Best New Chefs Dinner at the Aspen Meadows Resort’s Doerr-Hoiser Building. In this gorgeous, museum setting, ten rising cooks from across the U.S. prepared their signature dishes, with NY homegirl Missy Robbins (A Voce) making New Yorkers proud with her Strachiatella Cheese with House-Cured Lamb Pancetta and Grilled Pickled Ramps.
Everyone left Aspen stuffed and slightly hung-over, but infinitely more enlightened about food, wine and booze, and eager for more education next June. —MICHAEL ANSTENDIG