Missing the Food & Wine Classic’s more intimate moments
For the Aspen Times Weekly
Memories are made of moments. This year, with the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen going dark for the first time since its inception in 1983, there will not be any moments to remember. We can only hope that the summer of ’21 is a time in which we can renew the celebration of chefs and winemakers, and the people who love them.
In the meantime, we thought we would reflect on some of the moments that make the Classic such a joyous event for so many. Not the grand gestures with famous celebrity chefs and organized events, but rather the smaller, more intimate ones that resonate and remain in our minds long after the circus has packed up its tents and moved on. Sure, we love Martha and Marcus and Bobby Flay, but it is the little things that give the Classic its sense of soul.
Having been to 27 of these things, I have had a lot of soulful moments at the Classic (and surely I have forgotten more than I remember). But rather than letting them slip away in this summer of loss, let’s see how many may have resonated with you, as well.
Tink … tink … tink. That’s the first sound of the summer season for me. When, on an early June morning, the sledgehammers meet the stakes that secure the massive tents in Wagner Park, driving the steel into the still moist turf. All the tents are trucked in from Denver by longtime fabricator Butler Tents, which uses a crew of 60 to erect the villages in the parks, over the ice rink, and down by the Rio Grande. It takes 10 days to get it done. Tink … tink … tink.
José Andrés Hosting Foods & Wines of Spain Parties
Before he got busy feeding the world with his World Central Kitchen, chef José Andrés was a regular at the Classic as host of the Foods & Wines of Spain Thursday night welcoming parties. Pigs on spits, grilled squid, boatloads of fresh cheeses and olives from Spain and the finest and freshest of Spanish wines were served in opulent local homes. The locations rotated every year, sometimes on the river, others at houses in the hills. Andrés is a mad sports fan and if the NBA Finals were on, which was often, he could be found, glass in hand, in the media rooms of these homes loudly cheering for one team or another.
Sunrise on Rio Grande Park for the 5K
The first morning of the Classic may be the most invigorating. A 5K run brings out the hardiest of souls. The chatter from most, as the shadows of dawn give way to the first rays of sun over Independence Pass just before the 7 a.m. start, revolve around not being used to the altitude. Seasoned runners from culinary hot spots like New York, San Francisco, Charleston and New Orleans kibitz about how they are a mile and half higher than they were the day before. Literally and figuratively. And when the race is finally run, everybody is sweating and smiling in equal portions.
Volunteers Bearing Glasses
As water is to an ocean, stemware is to the Classic. The first thing everyone has to do when the Grand Tastings begin is make their way to the large round tables at the entrance to each tent to pick up a pristine, clean glass. It feels so good to tip one over and hold it by the bottom as I make a quick pass through the tents, weighing which wine would make a welcome first pour. Then in the seminar tents, there is nothing like sliding into one of those little white chairs and seeing a half-dozen glasses, some filled with white wine, some red, as you await the featured speaker. How do the volunteers make such magic happen all weekend long?
Lunch on the Patios
From Casa Tua to Bosq and on any and all patios in between, the big tables are reserved weeks in advance by those with black credit cards looking to entertain clients and customers. Everybody is in sunglasses, getting tanned as they laugh at each other’s jokes while sipping from magnums of rosé around the tables. It is the embodiment of the good life.
Privileged as they are, the Classic crowds don’t like to stand in line. But every year they queue up along the back of the Grand Tasting tents for tapas from Spain. The lineup includes Manchego cheese made from sheep’s milk in La Mancha, paper-thin slices of Jamón Ibérico sliced from the bone, and at the end of the line a spoonful of flavorful Paella Valenciana prepared by chef Javier González Bringas from Tempranillo restaurant in Basalt. Chef Javier brings his Spanish traditions (he is originally from Madrid) and his massive paella pan and cooks … and cooks … and cooks.
Getting Caught in the Rain
June is a fickle month for weather in Aspen and while everyone says they want it to be nice the entire weekend, in reality most secretly hope for some Rocky Mountain fireworks. There has been an occasional snowstorm, but much more frequent are afternoons when darkened skies, claps of thunder and summer downpours give way to sparkling sunshine. I’ve been caught more times than I can remember in such storms and I think they bring a sense of shared camaraderie to the crowds. Last year a downpour arrived just as after we boarded the Tiehack lift coming down from a Kosta Browne-hosted soiree at the Cliffhouse. Drenched by the rain, frozen by the wind, alarmed by the too-near lightning, it was the longest — and most memorable — lift ride of my life.
Anthony Bourdain’s Memorial
In June of 2018, just a week before the Classic, word came from Alsace, France, that Anthony Bourdain — chef, author and food culture icon — had committed suicide. Well-known and loved by many in the food community, his death cast a shocking pall over the first hours of the Classic. But someone had the idea to place a card in the tents emblazoned with the logo of “Brasserie Les Halles,” the restaurant where Anthony Bourdain began his career, and wrote his groundbreaking book, “Kitchen Confidential.” Friends and admirers lined up to sign their emotional goodbyes throughout the opening day. It was a celebration Bourdain would have scoffed at, but also embraced.
Mark Oldman Holds Court
For sheer showmanship, wine expert Mark Oldman’s presentations are unrivaled. His outrageous costumes, the silly little party favors that he passes out to faithful attendees who show up year after year, the tiny pours of extravagant wines in his Millionaires/Billionaires/Gazillionairs seminars all help to pierce the veil of pretense and make wine fun again. And he knows his stuff. He is one performer who has sabered his way into the annals of Aspen history.
Laura Werlin’s Summer Dresses
The part-time Aspen resident has become one of the most enduring and perhaps most beloved presenter at the Classic. Her cheese seminars, often with another Aspen favorite, Bobby Stuckey, pairing wines, sell out instantly and, afterward, crowds linger around the tents asking the James Beard Award-winning author to sign their books. While the cheeses are always to die for, and her seminars always illuminating, fun, and most of all, authentically passionate, I think many of her fans sign up to see just what the girl with the curl is going to wear each year. Her summer dresses are always bright and light and emblematic of the summer season. Sigh.
Heat on Ice — The Smell of the Cooking Tent
Whether you have a ticket or not, if you are in town for the Classic you experience it. That’s because the aromas of the dishes cooking through the weekend waft into the mountain air and envelope the downtown core. This is especially true when a seminar is going on in The Cooking Tent. This is the tent that is erected on what, in winter, is the Aspen Ice Rink opposite the bus station. My wife’s favorite venue, it takes on a life of its own for the weekend as presenting chefs demonstrate their talents and delicacies for the senses. Especially the sense of smell.
Best New Chefs
A rite of the Classic is the introduction of Food & Wine Magazine’s 10 Best New Chefs. Started in 1988, the alumni list of BNCs, as they are called, reads like a who’s-who of American cooking over the past three decades. But during that time our little ski town has had three chefs make the list. Gordon Naccarato was on the first year’s list in 1988 for his work at Gordon’s (where Jimmy’s is now), then in 1995 Charles Dale made the Top 10 at Renaissance. He was followed in 1996 by Nick Morfogen, who was honored as the chef at Ajax Tavern. All three are scattered to the winds (Morfogen is in Del Rey, Dale in Santa Fe, and Naccararto in Tacoma), but there was local pride when each was honored.
Let’s face it, the whole point of the Classic is to have a great party and the after-parties are epic affairs. Whether it’s a gathering of tribes put on by visiting Aussie winemakers, corporate get-togethers or impromptu barbecues that linger long past midnight, Classic parties are legendary. Perhaps none more so than the rotating Magnum Party, where sommeliers, winemakers and others are encouraged to bring their biggest and baddest bottles of wine. The bigger the bottle the bigger the hangover the next day.
It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally there is enough late-season snow that Aspen Skiing Co. opens Ajax for turns on Food & Wine weekend. It happened last year and the conditions were great. Visiting chefs and winemakers love the novelty of summer skiing and there is a rush at the ski shops for last-minute rentals. Last June, I escorted the team from Kendall Jackson, including winemaker Randy Ullom, for a few laps on Chair 3 first thing in the morning. Then it was a trip down the mountain directly to the 10 a.m. Shayn Bjornholm Vintage Champagne seminar. Some days are just better than others.
One thing this town can boast about is our reputation as the best little wine town in America. And much of that has to do with our being “the cradle of master sommeliers.” Jay and Bobby and Betts and Carlton and Jonathan … it is an impressive list of Aspen based wine professionals who have passed the Court of Master Sommeliers top exam. As they walk around town, present seminars and pour in their restaurants, the attending wine aficionados acknowledge them with the kind of reverence that fans in Cooperstown give Hall of Famers. Deservedly.
The Opening of the Farmers Market
One thing that will happen this year is the opening of the Aspen Saturday Market on Saturday, June 20, on schedule. It is always kismet to have the farmers market — the best source for fresh local food in any town — debut in conjunction with the Classic. The visiting chefs get up early to walk the stalls and see what high-altitude produce from the Rockies looks like. They are in their element.
Julia in Paradise
No one appreciated a farmers market more than Julia Child. She was a celebrity chef before there was such a thing and her devotion to the freshest of ingredients was a hallmark. During the 1990s Julia would come to Aspen and really helped put the Classic on the map, as she gave informal restaurant kitchen-based seminars before the tents became a thing. Her fried chicken lunches on the patio at the Hotel Jerome, hosted by Tony DiLucia, are still legendary for those who attended.
Slices at New York PIZZA Between Seminars
Sometimes enough is enough. Like Saturday afternoon, when you have had your fill of foie gras and Sauternes. Sometimes you just need a cleanse with a root beer and a slice. You think you can get away from it all for a bit. But when you walk in you likely find a line of chefs and somms — some famous, some not-so — all looking for a little break with a slice of Earl’s thin crust pizza.
Wine On the Water
I have been to many seminars where star power is the draw, but I always have been partial to the quiet, under-the-radar Saturday afternoon tastings in the tents by the old Aspen Art Museum on the Rio Grande River. Up-and-comers frequently are scheduled there rather than the headliners, and on those afternoons, post-Grand Tasting, the events can be sparsely attended. So a half-full tent, six glasses of wines from, say, Argentina, and the sound of the rushing river serve up a relaxing respite far from the madding crowds.
Under/Over–Dressed at the Publisher’s Party
For years the toughest ticket in the culinary world has been for the Publisher’s Party at the Sundeck atop Aspen Mountain. The party was always too crowded, too loud and featured long lines at food stations for small bites and short pours. It had a city feel and most folks dressed like they were headed for dinner on the Upper East Side. Women in sleeveless dresses and absurdly high heels could be seen shivering in line as they waited in 20-degree temps for the gondola ride down the hill.
Still, the party had its charms. The sunset on the Maroon Bells always seemed semi-psychedelic and those gondola rides were well known for hosting carnal pleasures, inciting Sunday morning gossip.
The Wine at the Mine
While the Publisher’s Party was the place to be for out-of-towners and the tourists, the Wine at the Mine event was the People’s Party. Taking place on Smuggler, just across the valley from the Sundeck soiree but a whole generation away, a younger crowd in boots and down vests partied hearty as they toured the old Smuggler Mine. If you took a mining car into the heart of silver mountain you never forgot it. You also likely never forgot your first can, yes can, of winemaker Ben Parson’s Infinite Monkey Theorem wines made in Denver. Rain or shine, it was a major happening.
A cat from Atlanta brought a much-needed breath of smoky air to the affair with his much-loved but unofficial Cochon event. I used to tell Brady Lowe, the mercurial founder of the pigfest, that my favorite days of the year were opening day of ski season, Super Bowl Sunday and whatever day Cochon was. The original concept, five chefs, five pigs and five wines with a cooking championship on the line, packed the Jerome to overflow so they had to move it outdoors at Snowmass. Yes, it is that big a deal. We’ll have to see what happens to the ultimate bacchanal in the future, but my best Food & Wine memories were made at Cochon. (Note: Heritage Fire is still currently on the Snowmass calender for Aug. 29.)
Devin Padgett Closing It Down
If Aspen were Oz, then its wizard would undoubtedly be Devin Padgett. Listed on the masthead of Food & Wine magazine as ”special projects producer,” the title is totally inadequate in describing his influence on the Classic. Based in Basalt, Devin is the heart and soul of the Classic because, over the past 30 years, he has literally poured his own heart and soul (and prodigious biceps) into making it the best food and wine event on the planet. During the Grand Tastings, he mans an elevated perch in the West tent and runs the show like a conductor runs an orchestra. On his microphone he welcomes guests, occasionally barks instructions and extinguishes all figurative fires. He is in charge.
So it was that at 2 p.m. on the Sunday of last year’s Classic, Padgett’s voice came booming over the loud speaker as the throngs were filling their glasses for the final time in the Grand Tasting tents. “Thank you for coming! Please move to the exits,” he commanded. “That’ll do it for this year’s Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. We’ll see you next year, in 2020.”
Or in this case, in 2021.