Food Matters: An easy, breezy 2021 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen was just what we needed
That’s a wrap! Smaller crowds in the tents, an overwhelming array of satellite parties around town, pop-ups galore and Indian summer vibes: the 2021 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, postponed since June 2020, closed Sunday as a smashing success. Word on the street: nobody really wants to go back to the way it was pre-pandemic — at least not in the Grand Tasting Pavilion, where attendees once crammed in like sardines, sloshing around beneath the hot, humid tents every June. It may have been in the 80s for this September rendition, but cool fall breezes made for temperate tasting in the tents (and Ullr spared us the headache of an early high country blizzard).
On the food front, a number of “alternative” options showed up: sustainable, cacao-free chocolate; two stations of plant-based ice cream; faux-chicken products; at least two types of nonalcoholic beer and wine; sparkling water everywhere.
Of special note as parties raged around town: Jimmy’s reunited with industry collaborators nightly in the lead up to its last week in business after 24 years. The mood was nostalgic, if bittersweet: The restaurant opened during the 1997 Classic and will close for good Sept. 18.
Seminar highlights from my reporter’s notebook this weekend:
MARTHA, MARTHA, MARTHA
Stewart celebrated the forthcoming publication of her 99th book — “Martha Stewart’s Fruit Desserts: 100+ Delicious Ways to Savor the Best of Every Season: A Baking Book,” due out in October—by demonstrating three recipes to a packed audience in the Paepcke Park seminar tent on Friday morning.
Donning a pink sweater embroidered with a whimsical reminder to keep “Knives on the Right,” the domestic legend proved that she still has the golden touch at 80 years young.
Stewart made quick work of assembling a rustic apple crostada with cheddar cheese crust; red grape cake with whipped crème fraîche; and “Ruffled Pumpkin Milk Pie,” while sharing stories of cooking with Snoop Dogg and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Jude, infused with her signature dry wit. (Butter, it turns out, hydrates dry hands here at altitude in a pinch—”Just don’t touch my upholstery” afterward, she quipped.)
Stewart’s showstopper was the finished pie: Buttery phyllo enrobed in silky, sweet pumpkin custard as a clever spin on the Thanksgiving tradition? It’s a good thing.
GUY ON FIRE
The dude in the crowd who called out “Caddyshack!” to answer chef Guy Fieri and name that quote—he got to attack the towering burger at the end of the demo as the rest of us watched wistfully. Fieri, the Emmy Award-winning Food Network star, bestselling cookbook author, and restaurateur spent his high-octane, hourlong seminar Saturday morning cooking alongside his son, Hunter, a 25-year-old chef and TV personality. They made a master pairing worthy of a road trip on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” especially for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen set: an epic veggie burger loaded with toppings and luscious vegan cashew cheese. Alongside, a Bloody Maria blended from roasted, strained vegetables and Fieri and rocker Sammy Hagar’s new Santo Mezquila.
“I hope to make a dish you probably didn’t expect from me,” the mayor of Flavortown declared at the start. (After hyping the front row with shots of that mezquila and flinging his company’s Knuckle Sandwich T-shirts into the crowd.) By 10:08 a.m., Fieri was out of breath. It was his first visit to Aspen and he was visibly pumped about the invitation to the 2021 Classic.
Fans of Fieri likely knew he would deliver a complex and layered creation with accoutrements stuffed between a charred bun: “Morgan’s Veggie Patty” in honor of his younger sister who died of cancer at age 38. “Most veggie patties suck,” Fieri asserted, as he sautéed mushrooms, onions and garlic in a cast-iron pan and shared stories of cooking nutrient-packed, vegetable-rich meals for her. “It’s a culinary term!”
This one looked like it didn’t suck. It blended charred poblanos, red peppers, and corn; boiled and riced potatoes; cooked brown rice and quinoa; shredded zucchini and carrots; spices, seasonings, fresh thyme and green onion; and a flaxseed “egg” that keeps the burger vegan.
As our tent’s Chosen One sunk his teeth, animal-style, into the massive creation, crunchy onion straws flew askew. He yawned his jaw open for another bite and cashew cheese dripped from his face. Two thumbs up, he’d gone to Flavortown.
DOUBLE THE FUN
How to stoke a crowd so that they look alive and ask tons of questions throughout a Sunday morning cooking seminar? Bring along a surprise special guest. That’s what “Top Chef: Portland” Season 18 “Fan Favorite” Shota Nakajima did, delighting attendees by showing up with fellow “Top Chef” alum Byron Gomez. (The 7908 Aspen executive chef served as Nakajima’s sous chef in the finale episode; Saturday late-night on the fly, the pals decided to team up for the Classic demo.)
Born in Japan and based in Seattle, Nakajima flashed further back with his featured dish, a riff on one he prepared in the first episode’s elimination challenge: seared duck breast braised in soy, mirin, sake, and Szechuan peppercorns with duck-fat and sweet white miso-infused butternut squash purée and quick-pickled red pearl onions.
My neighbor in the fourth row was from Portland, Oregon, where the season was filmed last fall with plenty of precautions during the pandemic. Early on, she leaned over and whispered, “They have such great rapport!” Another audience member praised the pair via shout out: “Your chemistry and friendship (are) so natural!”
So went the funny, fast-paced event, at which audience questions kept coming, quick-fire style. (As a viewer of the Bravo reality cooking competition since its first season in 2006, and a Gomez fangirl myself, I’m biased here, but these two chefs handled the most robust and lively Q&A session I’ve seen at a Classic seminar.)
Nakajima and Gomez have teamed up since the show wrapped, hosting Kokosan pop-ups with fellow contestants Maria Mazon and Jamie Tran (the team’s Latin-Japanese concept won Restaurant Wars) and a guest chef dinner at 7908. A video series featuring the two chefs may be next.
Working in tandem and bantering nonstop, the two chefs plated the duck 10 minutes early, leaving time for more questions, mostly about behind-the-scenes stuff, from the studio audience. Nakajima responded to an inquiry about what appeared a “coin toss” decision at the final Judges’ Table with zero regrets about not being crowned champion in the end.
“Hey,” he quipped, “it gives me an opportunity to go on (‘Top Chef) All-Stars!'”
“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.