Aspen Times Weekly: Hot to Trot
IF YOU GO ...
Heritage Fire by Cochon555
June 16 at 5 p.m.
$125 GA / $200 VIP
Snowmass Base Village
WHEN ELK CAMP CHEF Jim Butchart hopped an early flight the morning after Heritage Fire in Snowmass last year, he found himself in a strange haze. He’d showered off any semblance of meat sweats or a hangover, of course, but he couldn’t shake the smell.
“I’m sitting on the plane, like, ‘I can’t believe this, I must have smoke still in my nose or something,’” he says of that foggy dawn. After all, he had spent 10-plus hours outdoors in glaring sunshine, stoking a live fire beneath a primitive cinder-block grill upon which he and fellow Aspen Skiing Co. chef Andrew Helsley wrestled enormous quarters of beef to serve some 500 guests. Now he was in fresh clothes, but the heady scent of charcoal and roasting meat seemed stuck on him.
“Then I realized: ‘Jesus Christ, it’s my sunglasses,’” he says. “It was gnarly.”
Butchart laughs at the memory — stinky shades and a hat that went straight to the trash are a small price to pay for the opportunity to participate in the most epic culinary showcase that Snowmass (or Aspen, for that matter) has ever seen.
The 2015 inaugural event, sister to then-seven-year-old Heritage Fire Napa and run by the Cochon555 national tour, drew more than 50 chefs from across the country to flaunt their skills in roasting whole, heritage-breed animals at the base of Snowmass before the official 2015 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. On Thursday, June 16, Heritage Fire returns to the ski slope for its sophomore engagement, and it’s shaping up to be even more badass than the last.
“It’s a constantly moving maze of chefs cooking outdoors in beautiful weather,” says Eight K at Viceroy Snowmass executive chef and local event host Will Nolan. “It’s not a competition, but everybody comes together.”
Last year, Nolan’s kitchen team roasted rabbits. This year, they’re tackling a savory trifecta: Whole pig, shrimp and Cornish game hen to create Nolan’s signature New Orleans-style dirty rice with produce from Sustainable Settings in Carbondale. When he talks of roasting pork on a spit and birds over hot coals, the excitement in his voice is unmistakable.
“It’s so barbaric,” Nolan enthuses. “Very rudimentary — how cooking was done before we had rotisseries and stoves. Which is cool for all the chefs to do and guests to see. This is taking us back to where (cooking) started, the way it should be done.”
That’s Heritage Fire founder Brady Lowe’s main mission: to showcase live-fire cooking techniques and raise awareness for farmers working to raise heritage breeds, as he puts it, “with purpose and passion.” In September, Lowe — who is also founder of the 10-city Cochon555 culinary competition tour that culminates with Grand Cochon on June 18 at the Viceroy Snowmass — crowned Piggy Bank the organization’s official charity. He estimates that the events will raise as much as $10,000 for Piggy Bank, which donates heritage hogs to farmers in exchange for business plans on how they will grow their operations.
“It’s more beautiful seeing animals being roasted with their limbs and heads on than without,” Lowe says. “And it’s so much easier for a farmer to sell an animal whole. There’s this exciting trend now where farmers are only selling animals whole, not parts. It takes the salesman out of the farmer.”
Acting as the overarching executive chef of Heritage Fire, Lowe assigns proteins to each team of chefs; they decide how to cook the animals en route to preparing a finished dish. Heritage Fire this year will see more than 4,000 pounds of beef, pork, lamb, goat, lobster, squab, rabbit, duck, fish, chicken and oysters — along with free-flowing wine, beer, spirits and cider. Roughly 60 percent of chefs are returning for the second year.
“They’re empowered,” Lowe says. “Last year we were on the phone with all the chefs for about an hour. This year, five minutes. Let’s rock ’n’ roll.”
Early on Thursday, Lowe will prepare 14 asados — six-foot steel posts set at a 60-degree angle — each of which skewers a whole animal, splayed open, spread-eagle style, over its own fire. Other chefs will build rustic grills from fireproof material to top with metal grates. Last year, Butchart and Helsley shared a cinder-block setup with Carbondale chef Mark Fischer, which helped to buffer gusty Colorado winds; they may re-create it this year to roast Spanish, Moroccan and North African-inspired Colorado lamb to pair with wine from the neighboring Rioja tent. Once Lowe lights the fires around midday, the game of fire management begins; for four to six hours, chefs work together to maintain low, slow heat.
“We try not to use much power at all,” explains Brady, who has secured three cords of peach wood as fuel. “We don’t have many controlled environments.”
Which means chefs must get creative — especially when working with massive cuts of meat. Paul C. Reilly, chef-proprietor of Beast & Bottle in Denver — a rookie this year — plans to affix a standing rib roast of bison to an iron cross and then wrap the whole shebang in chicken wire. After the meat achieves a charred exterior crust, Reilly will mist the bison with a cooling spray of brine — a technique practiced over the white-oak wood-burning fire at his new restaurant, Coperta, opening next month in Denver.
Chef Josh Pollack of Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen in Denver will arrive with a handcrafted rig in tow — a whole sturgeon, dangling dramatically over flames, was likely one of the most photographed showpieces last year. Ditto for the spectacle created by Stephen “Octoman” Fried, representing New York City-based Gullo Specialty Foods through distributor Seattle Fish, who teams up with chef Kelly Whitaker of Basta in Boulder and Cart Driver in Denver; together they’ll string up a small fleet of 10-pound octopus. Served over an earthy cauliflower purée with lemony salsa verde and smoked pimento chile, their charred octopus will mimic a dish that Whitaker prepares at Basta.
Hosea Rosenberg, “Top Chef” Season 5 winner and chef-proprietor of Blackbelly in Boulder, is staging a massive rotisserie; fellow “Top Chef” alum and Washington, D.C.-based chef Mike Isabella will work with the “Asado to Go,” Lowe’s invention that cooks animals anywhere, even over pavement.
Mexico City-native Eddie Chima, chef de cuisine at Richard Sandoval’s Venga Venga in Snowmass, will roast an 80-pound hog in a La Caja China box smoker. Dubbed the “Cajun microwave,” the contraption is covered in coals and left to sit, untouched, for four hours or longer.
“As chefs we like to control every aspect of what’s going on and be really prepared, so showing up early, having an open mind and not trying to do anything too intricate or time-sensitive (is key),” says Butchart, who roasts whole pigs and lambs on rotisserie grills for Elk Camp’s Farm-to-Table dinners on Tuesdays this summer. “Anytime we can get primal cuts or whole animal, we jump on the opportunity. Chefs are able to keep things intact and present them in the way they’re meant to be seen. People appreciate that.”
Education is paramount. Flip Wise of Meat & Cheese in Aspen is helping with the live butchery demo (see sidebar) as well as preparing fire-roasted local rabbit with roti paratha bread and burnt scallion pesto for VIP appetizers.
At the same time, “It’s a party!” Butchart says. “People love to gather round, seeing us cook. It’s the camaraderie of it all. I’m so happy that food is getting away from the frou-frou — it takes great restraint to do that, and much of it is in sourcing.”
Amanda Rae will be running stairs at the Aspen Art Museum next week — often. firstname.lastname@example.org