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July 2, 2007

Where Serious Foodies See What’s Cooking  

Grazing, schmoozing, and celebrity-chef-watching --- it’s all at the festival in Aspen


The late morning sun was beating down on the terrace of The Tavern restaurant in Aspen when I arrived at the appointed time. I asked an employee working the computer if he had seen my interview subject, Mario Batali. "Who?" he asked. "Does he work here?" When I explained he was a famous chef, he replied sheepishly, "I'm just the IT guy." 

I may have found the only person in Aspen who wasn't on a first-name basis with Mario, not to mention Bobby, Emeril, Thomas, and Giadia. Better known as a winter playground for the rich, this alpine town each June turns into the epicenter of culinary cool when it plays host to The Food & Wine Classic, a three-day festival that has become a Davos for foodies.

When the festival began 25 years ago, arugula and free-range chicken were hardly in the average person's vocabulary. But the Classic, which was taken over by Food & Wine magazine in 1986, has grown in tandem with the country's appetite for fine cuisine. Today, thousands of food-obsessed folks (attendance is capped at 5,000) pay $1,000 or more to sample wine, attend cooking seminars, and rub elbows with celebrity chefs.

The festival centers around billowing white tents set up in the town center surrounded by snow-capped mountains, where attendees sample artisanal cheeses, chocolates, meats, wine, and spirits from around the world. When they're not grazing their way through the tents, festivalgoers flock to cooking demonstrations. This year, Emeril Lagasse whipped up clam chowder and seafood with piri-piri sauce (a Portuguese hot pepper sauce) while Iron Chef Masuharu Morimoto gave a master class in preparing sushi. Shell out more money, and you could sup on a wine-paired meal cooked by chef and restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten ($500) or attend a rare vertical, or multi-vintage, tasting of Screaming Eagle, a cult cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley ($750).

Cooking skills are not a prerequisite for this crowd. Joanne Crosby was attentively following Emeril's cooking session, making notes in the recipe book handed out. But she says cooking is not something she does a lot at home in Austin, Tex., or Vail, Colo., where she spends her summers. "The fun thing for me is going to their restaurants after and feeling like I know the chefs," she says.

By bringing together the culinary world's movers and shakers, the festival tends to be a leading indicator of food trends. By that gauge, we'll be hearing a lot more about Spanish and Greek wine, unusual pairings such as wine with chocolate, hand-cured meats, and barrel-aged beer. Thomas Keller, the renowned chef of The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York, demonstrated the art of sous vide, a slow-cooking method that immerses food sealed in bags in water kept at a constant, low heat. He suggested it will become commonplace in the home. A series of panel discussions for the trade explored the future of fine dining (get ready for "fast-fine") and the latest cocktail trends (bye, bye, mojito; hello, Ramos gin fizz).

In keeping with our eco-conscious time, sustainable cuisine was a dominant theme. Food & Wine is donating a portion of the proceeds to Farm to Table, a program run by New York nonprofit Earth Pledge that supports local agriculture. Farmed caviar from the U.S. and Uruguay were sampled, and Chef Ryan Hardy of The Little Nell inn, which houses The Tavern, produced feasts that featured fresh produce from his nearby farm. At his cooking session, Keller stressed the importance of supporting local farmers and introduced his lamb supplier, Keith Martin of Elysian Fields Farm in Waynesburg, Pa., who explained his philosophy of "holistic lamb"--humanely raised, naturally fed.

For chefs, at least the established ones, the festival is more of an opportunity to schmooze with peers, but they also can pick up tricks. "I have discovered some things, like all the different kinds of salt from around the world, American caviar, and American Kobe-type beef," said chef and author Jacques Pépin.

Like most of the chefs, TV personality and restaurateur Batali mixed business with pleasure. In shorts and sunglasses, he clearly relished being in Aspen. Sitting on The Tavern's terrace, enjoying a lunch of gazpacho and oysters, Batali reminisced about the days when the Classic was "a bunch of single guys and girls hanging out. Now it's a family thing," said Batali, who brought along his wife and two sons. Just then, Ilan Hall, a young chef who has toiled in Batali kitchens but achieved fame after winning the reality show Top Chef last season, walked by. "My kids want your autograph, man!" Batali shouts.

The young Batali boys weren't the only ones who were starstruck. The sight of so many food-world personalities can excite even the most jaded. "We're from L.A., and celebrities like George Clooney or Paris Hilton come into the restaurants all the time," said Kevin Travis, general manager of Boa, a Los Angeles steakhouse, who came to the Classic with his colleagues. "But when we see Jean-Georges riding a bike down the street, that excites us."



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