ASPEN - An egg isn't just an egg. I first discovered this two decades ago while dining in the French countryside outside of Chartres.We were pheasant hunting. My date was a young Parisian aristocrat of the Bourbon lineage who was happy to be shooting his ancestor's gun that dated back to the Napoleonic era. As the beaters walked through the brush, crying out "avance avance!" to shoo the pheasants with their sticks from their lowland hiding places toward the sky, I sat on a small folding canvas chair and watched for falling birds. In the field, "staff" delivered country baskets of duck foie gras, cheese, bread and wine.Back at the hosts' Chateau, the day's tally arranged in rows for all to inspect before the birds were donated to the village butcher, cocktails in hand, we awaited dinner. The wives joined wearing silk and tweed; a portly woman wearing an apron rang the dinner bell and we found our place cards around the long Mahogany table for 20. The first course arrived. Soup. Simple. Butternut squash topped with the family crest in crme fraiche. In the midst of multiple courses paired with exceptional wines from the ancient cave, the table hushed.We were then served an egg. Perfectly poached, it lay inside a gelatin with three red berries shimmering like an encased Faberge.Once the applause died, the gray-haired Spaniard rose to make a toast. The writer, traveler, bon vivant and butterfly "farmer" who had recently returned from the Amazon's interior thanked his guests for honoring his oeuvre about the egg.After all, L'oeuf en Aspic, or rather, Chaud-froid dishes - dishes that were prepared hot but served cold - became fashionable in the 18th century. Evidently, his tome explained why.This was my first introduction to food as invention, luxury, history, culture.
"Food defines culture, population, individual...and has since the eve of time," said Stephane De Baets of OptAsia, who along with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc., conceptualized the Chefs Club by Food & Wine brand that now resides at the St. Regis Aspen.The idea of a "one restaurant, many-chefs-concept" is novel. "In a way, we are no different than an art gallery or a concert hall in that what matters is who displays and who performs. In our case, who cooks," says De Baets.The formula works. Since the debut of Chefs Club, Food & Wine has selected from its list of "Best New Chefs" to curate innovative menu items over the course of the year. "Economic recession always triggers a very high creative response," says De Baets. In the dining scene, very creative and talented chefs are now "breaking the mold." This explains why renegade chefs hosting innovative and radical culinary presentations in their own homes have become de rigeur. And why Chefs Club is fast becoming a nexus for cutting-edge culinary arts. "There's a culinary trend of focusing on the substance rather than the form, a going back to the roots type of attitude, focusing on the purity and quality of ingredients," says De Baets. Experiencing chef Jonathan Sawyer's cooking class and dinner at Chefs Club epitomized this.The stocky and bearded redhead with the tattoo of a tree running wrist to bicep at first glance could be a carpenter or butcher. But the Best New Chef 2010 and James Beard Foundation nominee is a "hot" culinary commodity, well-known from "Iron Chef America," and "The Best Thing I Ever Ate." Sawyer's casual working-man demeanor belies an exacting vision and culinary execution. Like all the great alchemists, he can take seemingly mundane ingredients (what he referred to as "poverty-based") and elevate them to unforgettable palette-transforming moments. Sawyer's prix-fixe dinner spanned peasant to haute: red wine-braised lentils with tarragon, escargot, root vegetables and marrow to the main course of Maine lobster, Nantucket bay scallops and Perigord truffles in puff pastry. The experience was intimate and highly entertaining. Nothing beats live Cooking - having the actual chef cooking in the kitchen - which is the driving force behind Chefs Club's interior design. If you can get one of the coveted eight seats at the "kitchen counter" you can watch the inner machinations of a great chef at work.By the time the fashionably late diners arrived at 9:30 p.m., the restaurant had transformed to a who's who of the culinary in-crowd. Large tabletops of 30-somethings speaking Portuguese and French blended with the elderly patrician set. A Naomi Campbell lookalike in a strapless dress with her "seasoned" cohort arrived and were placed center stage. This is what happens when Aspen meets Food & Wine.
Still to visit Chefs Club are chef Cyril Lignac: March 6, 8, 9; chef Mathieu Pacaud: March 14, 16; chef Jonathan Sawyer: March 28, March 29, March 30 (he will also host a cooking class this day)Q: What are the three ingredients you cannot live with out? Chef Lignac: Beef from Aubrac (a French region), duck foie gras from les Landes (another French region); Espelette pepperChef Pacaud: Piano music, friendship, family are the three main ingredients of my life. Others come and go and I'm always happy to find them.Chef Sawyer: Garlic, miso, and olive oilQ: What is your most daring dish?Lignac: Bourbon vanilla mashed potatoes. I love using vanilla as a condiment in savory dishes!Pacaud: In each new menu there are bold creations, they are full of ways, daring technically; bold taste...Sawyer: Offal lasagna made with hearts, kidney, and tongue.Q: What is the most historic dish you have re-created? Lignac: No doubt it is the chocolate souffl, which is a classic in French pastry. I re-created it by adding a spoon of caramel ice cream to create a hot and cold effect.Pacaud: By mistake, once I thought I invented a recipe for fig, spices, honey etc... I was very proud of my creation, and then one day I was reading a recipe book in the kitchen of Louis XIV and saw the same recipe made the same. This is the day I understood that in the kitchen we did not invent anything.Sawyer: Turnips Apicius - adaptation of a garum recipe made famous from antiquity featuring 140 day aged beef fat, an ancient fish sauce called garum (that we make at Tavern Vinegar), raisins, and radishes.Q: What or who inspires your creative vision? Lignac: Nature. I cook with what nature provides according to seasons. And the wealth of the growers.Pacaud: I love to be inspired by my emotions - a piece by Beethoven, a reading of a poem by Dante. I believe that it is important to provide the emotion to the person who discovers the dish and leave an emotion known, strong. It is a good working tool. I am working on a new book which will be guided by 10 musicians, we depart from their technique of creations, harmony etc. (Mozart, Beethoven, Monteverdi, Liszt, Mantovani, Chopin, Wagner)Sawyer: First and foremost, my family inspires me each and everyday. I want to leave this world a better place so that they can enjoy it, and hope that they will do the same for their children. If I could sit down with any chef in the world, I would want to dine with Fernand Point, the father of modern French cuisine. His style of preparing meals "a la minute" with daily changing ingredients changed the culinary mindset indefinably. I want to ask him how be came up with the concept, and enjoy a meal together the way he would have served it at La Pyramide. Also, cooking with the right produce, i.e. the freshest, most succulent ingredients available at any given time, is what drives us to create passionate and inspired dishes.Q: What are the seminal food memories and tastes? Lignac: My mother's marmalades.Pacaud: As a child, my father preparing bottles of Saint Jacques with truffle.Sawyer: Picking food from my mom's garden and helping her cook with it.Q: What is the hardest culinary feat to execute? Lignac: There is no culinary feat in my view: all is about chef's sensitivity and personality.Pacaud: Eggs, they must be perfectly executed to the millimeter.Sawyer: Properly folded French soft egg omelet.Q: If you had only one evening left to cook whatever you wanted, what would be? Lignac: A roasted chicken! I love to prepare meals to share for my loved ones, it is important to take care of your family and friends.Pacaud: It is not so much what but for whom. I would cook for my wife the dishes she likes.Sawyer: Roasted Duck Mitten over the open hearth with drippings, pop overs, ginger sage rhubarb & brled onion salad.Q: What would you request for your last dinner?Lignac: Lemongrass and pimentos del piquillo lobster made by my friend chef Jean-Franois Pige, to drink with a wine from his own cellar.Pacaud: A bottle of Romane Cont.Sawyer: A bottle of JL Chave Cuvee Cathelin and a perfectly roasted chicken, shared with family and friends.