Organizers work to diversify this year’s Classic presenters

Former “Top Chef” Carla Hall interacts with Food & Wine Classic attendees Friday while signing books during the first Grand Tasting event in Aspen. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The lineup of presenters at the Food & Wine Classic has always featured a healthy mix of tried and true audience favorites and new on the scene culinary stars. Apparent in the 2021 list of talent is not only the amount of first-time seminar presenters, but also the number of diverse voices represented.

It’s been a tumultuous and eye-opening more than 800 days across the globe since the last Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. And it seems that Food & Wine magazine and its Classic planning committee has been paying attention to all that has been going on in the world and are recommitting to make sure their “core values” are in the forefront of the institution.

“Diversity and inclusion are core values of Food & Wine. They’re a big priority in our culture,” Hunter Lewis, editor in chief for Food & Wine magazine, said Friday afternoon during a break in Day 1.

“As we were putting together the roster of talent, we had several planning meetings and conversations and wanted to be very intentional in the lead up to this event that the folks that are here and that are cooking and that are appearing on behalf of Food & Wine are people that have also graced our pages.”

One of those people is Carla Hall, a fan-favorite on “Top Chef” and a joy-filled cookbook author and culinary personality, who returned to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen this year with her seminar “So you think you know biscuits?” on Friday and will be featured in the November issue of the magazine for, again, biscuits.

“The reason that I came back (to the Classic in Aspen) is I knew that was the intention this year,” Hall said about the added diversity at the event. “I have said no to Aspen (in the past), because I said, ‘I don’t see enough people who look like me.’ It’s one thing to have a diverse set of chefs, but I want to see a diverse audience.

“I want to spend my time talking to people who look like me. I don’t want there to be a barrier of entry for the cost or whatever. And I think that Food & Wine did a really great job this year in reaching out to people, different people who don’t normally come, to come up this year.”

Not only is it important for presenters to see their communities represented in the audience at what could be seen as an exclusive event, but also for the audience to see presenters who look like them.

“We want when we walk into a restaurant, when we walk into a room, we feel more comfortable when we see people who look like us,” said restaurateur and Master Sommelier Alpana Singh, a first-time presenter at this year’s Classic. “People like to have a good time, and food and wine is certainly something that I think is colorblind and it doesn’t discriminate as far as who catches the bug.”

Master Sommelier Alpana Singh answers questions at the end of her seminar during the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Singh is hosting two new seminars over the weekend, “The New Spain,” (Saturday at 10 a.m.) in partnership with the Wines of Spain group and “Scent & Sensibility: Understanding the Aroma of Wine” on Sunday at 10 a.m., which is a topic she was excited to develop with the Food & Wine team on how important scent is to tasting and enjoying wine.

Singh, who is one of only 28 women to earn the Master Sommelier title and the only South Asian in the world to ever do so, said the “Scent & Sensibility” seminar was inspired by COVID and the science of smell.

“One of the symptoms of COVID was losing your sense of taste and smell,” she said. “I discovered that we really don’t know much about how we actually smell or taste, and it’s something that I’ve devoted my entire career to smelling and tasting things. I just became fascinated by this gift that we have to smell and taste and perceive things.”

Through her seminars, Singh hopes she is able to break down some of the intimidation when it comes to the wine world and make talking about and tasting wines more accessible.

“It’s really presenting my ethos on wine, that wine can be fun, it shouldn’t be intimidating,” she said.

Alba Huerta, another first-time presenter at the 2021 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, also shared her excitement to be able to dive into a broad category with an engaged audience and help people navigate it.

Huerta, an award-winning bartender who’s flagship bar Julep was named one of the Top Five Bars in the U.S. by Bon Appetit, is presenting two seminars, both on Saturday, called “Winning Whiskey,” where the audience will have a chance to taste both cocktails and the spirit individually and learn more about the history and styles of whiskey.

For Huerta, who was born in Mexico and raised in Texas, it’s not just about the seminars, it’s also about seeing the doors open to diversity on such a prestigious stage.

“It’s spectacular for someone like me, that is definitely a huge door opening to welcome diversity,” she said, “and not just gender, for all kinds of non-gender and different backgrounds and racial backgrounds.

“I also feel like the conversation has gotten interesting, which I love and there is diversity in food and also beverage. … It’s my first year, but I do agree that it has that feel of inclusivity.”

That feel of being a space for all is something that Lewis said Food & Wine is looking forward to continuing and something he hopes people can start to conceptualize outside the culinary world and outside of the Classic in Aspen.

“I hope we’re all evolving, we’re all listening,” Lewis said. “I hope we’re all being more intentional about the choices we make and thinking about representation.”

But in the meantime, it’s important to set the tone for change and inclusivity here and within the organization, he said.

“I certainly know we’re working on it at Food & Wine, and we’ve got more work to do. We want to continue to make this event even more reflective of the conversation happening around food in the country,” Lewis said. “It’s been a leader for 38 years as the premier culinary festival, and, you know, my job as the editor, our team’s job as representatives of Food & Wine is to be stewards of this event, and make sure that it continues to grow and remains dynamic and reflective of what’s happening in the country.”


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