Chef Gregory Gourdet (of Departure Denver) made one of the favorite bites of the weekend, crab in a spicy southeast Asian-inspired broth. (Greg McBoat, Special to The Denver Post)
Got your attention? Then you probably really love food and/or wine. So much so that you’ll spend precious time reading about a ridiculously expensive festival (Food & Wine Classic in Aspen passes were around $2,000) in a town that makes Denver real estate look like the clearance rack at Walmart.
But love makes us do crazy things, like embarrass ourselves or spend way too much money on the objects of our affection — two things that, by the way, are prevalent at the Classic. When it comes to food and wine, what wouldn’t we do for that hit of flavor, that high of umami-induced intoxication, the potential of tastes yet to be experienced? For many Classic-goers, the answer is, well, nothing.
So, now that we’ve established that we’re all on the same food-and-drink-loving page, here are my takeaways from my first Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. If it whets your appetite, maybe you, too, next year will embarrass yourself and shell out way too much cash in the hopes of eating caviar spaghetti, drinking from rare bottles of wine, and getting kissed by celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman (twice!).
- It’s kind of amazing that we have this caliber of food festival in our home state.
“There are a lot of events, but this is the premier food event in this country,” said Ming Tsai, celebrity chef and host of “Simply Ming.”
The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen really is peerless when it comes to food festivals, and we’re lucky to have it here. It draws the best chefs and winemakers each year and gives attendees unparalleled access to them and their products.
When I asked Gail Simmons — who (little-known-fact alert) put together and directed the Classic for five years, from 2005 to 2009 — why they keep this huge festival in little Aspen, she said, “Because Aspen. In all honesty, people come to us all the time from other cities to get a festival. None of them are this. This is about Aspen; the town of Aspen, the people of Aspen. It’s the city that makes it so special.”
The newest Iron Chef America, Stephanie Izard, agrees.
“It couldn’t be a better backdrop,” Izard said of Aspen. “Every time I land, I get off the plane and think, ‘My life does not suck.’ ”
- Yes, celebrity chefs really are everywhere, and they’re willing to chat and selfie it up with us commoners.
With only 5,000 people attending the Classic, you run into the same folks over and over again, and many of those folks are celebrity chefs. I saw Simmons so many times that she jokingly called me her best friend. (But really, Gail, I felt the connection; didn’t you? Call me!)
Some Denverites I ran into showed me photos of them dancing with Graham Elliot at an event the night before. Thanks to everyone drinking all day and night — and therefore are very forthcoming in conversation — I now know Richard Blais’ and Johnny Iuzzini’s have crushes on a certain “Top Chef” judge.
- They’re going to kill me for saying this, but …
The best events aren’t part of the festival. It’s more about getting your name on the right lists for the parties that went down each night.
Anyone who was anyone was at The Spazmatics, a 1980s cover band, who performed at Aspen music venue Belly Up. (I got turned away at the door and walked dejectedly through the queue of much better-connected people.)
I did, however, make it into the big event of the weekend, the Dubai in the Sky party on top of Aspen mountain to celebrate the Classic’s 35th anniversary. There, Padma Lakshmi introduced me to her “friend, Adam,” (Adam Dell, her on-again, off-again love and father to daughter Krishna) and I nearly fainted after bumping into culinary god Daniel Boulud.
Locals flocked to the Infinite Monkey Theorem’s Wine at the Mine party, where Denver-area restaurants like Abejas, The Inventing Room and The Regional served up tasty morsels on your way to a mine tour.
None of these events required a festival pass, just an “in.”
- There is A LOT of wine.
Of the hundreds of vendors in the Grand Tasting Pavilion, the vast majority are winemakers. If tasting 300 different wines over lunch is on your bucket list, this is the place. There are $15 bottles of wine and there are $300 bottles of wine, and they are all right there for your drinking pleasure. You will never go thirsty at this festival.
- When it comes to food, it’s quality over quantity.
I was surprised by A. how much better the food was than I expected, and B. how scarce that food was. Because they’re feeding so many people, I didn’t think that the food would be that great. It was. But it was not available all that often.
Aspen restaurants were overflowing with people who didn’t want to battle the crowds for bites of chocolate at the Grand Tasting.
At one point I was so hungry that I had to leave the Classic and head to the American Express Platinum House (a humongous house about a mile from festival HQ that served food almost around the clock) to stop the fantasies of cooking and eating Curtis Stone.
- You’ll learn something.
The seminars and cooking demos are treasure troves of information for home cooks. Carla Hall taught us to grate cold butter with a cheese grater to mix into her perfect biscuits and to put fried food (like the hot chicken she made at her Southern food demo) on bunched up — not flat — paper towels so it’s not sitting in grease losing its crisp.
Simmons explained why professional chefs season their food from high up (the higher your hand, the more evenly distributed your seasonings will be) and how to measure the doneness of meat using the fleshy part of your hand between your thumb and index finger (rare feels like the fleshy part when it’s relaxed; medium is when you make a fist).
Even if you’re unimpressed by the chefs’ rock-star status in the culinary world, you’ll appreciate the inspiration they provide.