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Product of Aspen: Meet the homegrown culinary talent

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoDevin Padgett, producer of special projects for Food & Wine magazine.
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ASPEN – Food fanatics coming to Aspen for this week’s Food & Wine Classic will be offered delicacies from Italy’s Liguria region, cheeses from France, and Korean barbecue, and they will wash it down with Spanish whites, Belgian beer and the best of Burgundy.It’s an impressive culinary tour of the world. But in a time when the biggest food trend is about localizing our sources, we shouldn’t overlook the valley’s own culinary stars – chocolate makers who bring top-shelf cacao beans to Aspen to craft their treats; a French-born chef who has imported the art of pastry; a restaurateur full of entrepreneurial ideas, whose latest venture has revived a downtown Aspen corner; and the Basalt resident who directs the Food & Wine Classic and other food events around the country.Let’s lift our glasses and toast all the local talent, from farmers to winemakers, waiters to cheese experts, who keep our plates full and our palates satisfied.

Devin Padgett is quick to point to the elements that have made the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen the premiere event it has become. The partnership between Food & Wine magazine and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, who jointly present the Classic, is in his eyes an ideal pairing. The way the Aspen community has embraced the event has been essential; he calls the 600-plus volunteers who turn out annually the backbone of the event. And there is the setting.”The formula for this festival starts not with food, not with wine, not even with Food & Wine magazine – it’s the location,” Padgett said. “It’s easy to get talent to come to Aspen in June. People say, How do you do this? It’s Aspen itself, the community and whatever it is that’s special about this place.”Not to be left off that list of ingredients that have made the Classic so classic is Padgett himself. The 46-year-old Basalt resident started as a volunteer 20 years ago, when he assisted the three-person team sent out by Food & Wine to erect a few small tents for the fledgling event. Now, Padgett and his Basalt-based DevInc are the directors of the Classic, handling event logistics and working with the magazine to create programs and line up talent.Planning that used to occur in a few months now takes a year and a half, says Padgett; he is already thinking beyond the 2011 Classic (and is pleased to announce that Food & Wine has locked in dates in Aspen through 2025). The team that staged the event in the early ’90s has now become a small army – DevInc’s squad, which has three full-time, year-round employees, swells to 23 people a month before the Classic, and 40 during the event (Friday through Sunday, June 18-20).”The detail behind producing the Classic is amazing,” Padgett said. “We get into detail to the point of how straight the fence lines are, how chilled the wines are, are the chefs comfortable with all their ingredients so they’re stress-free and can find the magic to cook? The details would bore you to death, but we obsess over them.”It sounds like a full plate. But Padgett’s responsibilities extend beyond Aspen to include most of the country’s big-time foodie events. He is managing director of Florida’s massive South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and program director on the culinary side of the big-and-getting-bigger New York City Wine & Food Festival. As producer of special events for Food & Wine magazine, Padgett also helps organize smaller events around the States.Padgett was a foodie before the term was in use. He apprenticed at The Flanders, in Ocean City, N.J., before making the rounds of restaurants in Europe. “This was before cooking was cool,” he noted. “When I told my parents I was going to be a chef, they were disappointed. There were no celebrity chefs, no TV shows. It was blue collar, a hundred-hour weeks.”While working at the Fairmount in San Antonio, Padgett’s boss, Bruce Auden, was picked as one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs of 1988. Padgett attended the awards ceremony at the Classic in Aspen, and was floored by the town and the talent; that year’s class of new chefs included Daniel Boulud, Rick Bayless and Thomas Keller. And he saw what the Classic might become.During the Classic that year, the new hotel in town, the Little Nell, was interviewing for its first chef. Padgett was “hoping against hope” that someone he knew would land the job, and give him a shot at staying in Aspen. He lucked out: the Nell hired Richard Chamberlain from Dallas’ San Simeon, and Padgett became his executive sous chef.In spring 1990, with Chamberlain away for the offseason, Padgett devoted a week to working on the Classic, which for the first year was being produced by Food & Wine. As the event grew, Padgett took on bigger roles; in 1997, he took a full-time position with the magazine, and two years later, he created DevInc.Many things have helped to usher in the foodie age: globalization, the personality of Julia Child, health issues, a backlash against the over-industrialization of food production, and the explosion of cooking shows on TV. But festivals, which allow diner/drinkers to interact with top chefs and winemakers and to consume cutting-edge cuisine in a sublime atmosphere, have also played a role. Meaning Padgett has contributed his share.”All of that awareness about food and eating well, farmers’ markets – that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” Padgett said. “There’s a Food & Wine connection to all of that; that’s what we’ve been talking about all this time.”Even as the universe of culinary festivals expands, Padgett says the Classic remains the ne plus ultra.”Aspen continues to be the – capital ‘t,’ capital ‘h,’ capital ‘e’ – event. We’re the one that started it all; this is where it all came from,” he said. “You get that first glass of wine in everybody and the Zen feeling of being around the best talent, that aura, takes over. It’s the happiest place in the world for a couple of days.”

For Franck Thirion, the idea of serving a day-old croissant is out of the question. Not even at a discount, not even with the warning that it is cut-rate goods. Offering customers day-old goods is not the way things are done in his native France, and it is not a practice that Thirion, as owner of Aspen’s French Pastry & Cafe, is about to implement in the States.”All my pastries, I sell only fresh,” the 33-year-old Thirion said. “The day after, you lose 25 percent of the quality. You can’t sell that, because it’s dry.”But Thirion takes things a step further. If a customer buys pastries in some quantity, they will be given a warning: “I tell people, if you take a pastry for a friend, don’t give it to them the next day. That’s not a good advertisement for me,” he said. Similarly, customers buying the lavish cakes Thirion creates will be given instructions as they leave the small shop at the Aspen Airport Business Center: Do keep it flat and level; don’t let it get hot. “I want the cake to be on your table perfectly,” Thirion said.Business partners, too, see in Thirion the caricature of the exacting French chef. Those who deal with him behind the scenes know that deliveries need to happen at a certain time, in a precise way.Thirion, then, is not merely French-born, a native of Nancy, in the northeastern province of Lorraine. He is French through and through, with the quintessential Frenchman’s belief that food should be prepared perfectly, and then given a place of highest prominence in daily life.”Good coffee, good pastry – that’s a perfect morning,” he said.Thirion’s grandfather was a baker, but Thirion is quick to point out that he himself has not followed in those footsteps. In France, a baker makes bread, while sweets – tarts, croissants, chocolates, cakes – are in the domain of the pastry chef. (And cakes are never – never – topped with American-style frosting, but with mousse, jams or butter cream.) Thirion’s father started out as a baker, got bored with bread, and turned to pastries, opening the now highly regarded Bernard Thirion patisserie. Franck put in time at his father’s shop, and studied at Cepal, a school for food professionals, and two of the top French chocolate makers. He then spent seven years making pastries in St. Barths, where he met plenty of people who also had Aspen on their itinerary. Most of them told Thirion the same thing: Aspen lacked a pastry chef like him. Thirion and his wife, Marilyn, also from Nancy, traveled Colorado looking for the perfect spot, and found it in Aspen. Three years ago, the couple took over the Wild Rose, at the Airport Business Center, and continued to run it in its old guise, as a Mexican cafe. (One can only imagine what Thirion thought of that.) Within a few months, the Thirions had transformed the spot into the French Pastry.It is not only the approach that Thirion brought with him from France, but many of the ingredients. Glazes, espressos and the bread that he uses for lunch-time sandwiches are imported, as is pearl sugar, a miraculous substance that is the crowning touch on his sugar brioche. “Because I can’t find better here,” he said of the French products.Those who have most appreciated Thirion’s high standards are the experts – Aspen’s contingent of chefs, who are known to gather at French Pastry to start their Saturdays with espresso and a pastry. They seem to recognize that when it comes to croissants and tarts, it’s best to go to the source.”Are they the best in the world? Of course, of course,” Thirion said of French pastries generally. “And this is 100 percent French.”The only French characteristic missing is the air of superiority and condescension. Thirion may have learned perfectionism from his countrymen, but he learned the value of friendliness from his mother.”My mother, even if it’s a bad day, she’s smiling,” he said. “If you have a business and nobody says, Hi, how are you? – that’s a bad thing.”

Having grown up in a family of confectioners, Heather Morrow knows well the difference between a candy-maker (think sticky, sugary, bright colors) and a chocolate-maker (dark brown, obsessed with cacao percentages).Since launching Morrow Chocolate of Aspen in 2006, she has been proud, even snobbish, about her status as a chocolate-maker, and in the process, breaking with a family tradition that extends back four generations. Morrow doesn’t know from nougat, caramel and that mysterious gooey substance that passes for fruit in a cherry-filled chocolate candy. She knows cacao content and the differences between Guatemalan and Dominican cacao beans.”It was about pure chocolate,” the 38-year-old Aspenite said of her company. “I wanted to make pure chocolate and make it the best I could. I was such a snob. All I made was dark chocolate, and that’s all I wanted to do.”Over the last year, Morrow has loosened up a bit. She still finds it weird that the New Jersey family business she opted not to join, Morrow’s Nut House – like most big candy-makers – buys, rather than makes, their own chocolate. But her company has expanded its line to include ingredients beside cacao mass, sugar and cocoa butter – the stuff of a purist’s chocolate. Morrow Chocolate of Aspen now makes truffles in seasonal flavors that range from sea salt and smoked bacon to parmesan olive oil to ginger lemongrass. Aside from chocolate-oriented foods, there are also spiced wafers with flavors including red wine walnut and mint. The big innovation, however, is a citrus garnish, made from lemon, lime or orange, to be served as an accompaniment to cocktails.None of the new products take Morrow far from her choco-centric roots. All of the products are centered around chocolate, and her chocolate is still made in small batches with high cacao content and cream from a local organic creamery. And she still proselytizes about the emotional benefits of pure chocolate: “Phenylethylamine – that’s the stuff in chocolate that gives you the sense of being in love, that makes you happy,” she said.The step away from bare-bones chocolate bars was prompted by the arrival of a partner. Lindsey Hubbard had specialized in cooking – not desserts – at the Culinary Institute of America, and took an internship in the kitchen of Ajax Tavern. But she didn’t see herself in the standard restaurant job, and was interested in Morrow’s chocolate. In early 2009, when Morrow went to Florida for two weeks and needed someone to oversee the operation, the 23-year-old Hubbard took over – and even invented a new flavor of chocolate while the boss was away.”I figured, Lindsey has a degree in creativity with food, so it was time to start experimenting,” Morrow said. At last year’s Food & Wine Classic, Morrow and Hubbard launched their first product that wasn’t entirely chocolate – miniature bottles made of chocolate and filled with tequila.Along with expanding the repertoire, Morrow Chocolate has expanded its presence. Guests at the Viceroy and Dancing Bear are finding Morrow truffles on their pillows, and the full line will be available at Clark’s Market this week. For the Middle Eastern deli Sabra’s, she is making chocolate-covered figs and dates. Attendees at the Grand Tasting Tent at this year’s Classic can sample Morrow’s truffles and chocolates at the Jimmy’s Restaurant booth, and on Saturday, June 19, there will be a tasting at the Harmony Scott jewelry boutique.Morrow is considering introducing caramel into her chocolates – a notion that she is just getting used to.”This source from Venezuela said, ‘Oh, you’re making these bon-bons now,'” Morrow said. “And the tone in his voice hurt me. Because I still think of myself as a purist.”Her eating, though, tells a different tale.”I eat a lot of truffles,” Morrow said. “But my current favorite is the citrus slices. Oh, my … candied citrus slices!”

This past February, David Roth was in the process of opening the caf Peach’s, and the location, at the prominent downtown corner of Hopkins and Galena, was receiving a top-to-bottom makeover from its previous existence as Zl. The opening happened to coincide with the annual bash thrown by the development company, Hines Corp. Brazil, at Aspen Highlands, that Roth always caters. The catering gig meant not only cooking Asian-fusion for 200 people at the party, but also taking care of the culinary needs of about 50 people from the Hines group over a two-week period. Somewhat in the background was a full-time business – Grub, the grab-and-go food service that Roth runs out of three convenience stores in the Roaring Fork Valley, including The Aspen Store.”I swear, I didn’t know how I was doing it,” Roth said. “It was a white period – one of those times where you’re not aware of what you’re doing. It just flows.”That Roth handled it all – Grub put its 300 meals a day onto convenience store shelves; Roth is still the go-to caterer for Hines; and Peach’s has become an instant hot-spot for diners and latte-sippers – can probably be chalked up to experience. Roth’s entire career seems like one 30-year white period of opening restaurants, launching businesses – and, oh yes, maintaining a second career that has nothing to do with food.Roth has the food business in his genes: his great-grandfather owned Greenberg’s, the first kosher butcher in Brooklyn, and a distant cousin, Frances Roth, was a founder of the Culinary Institute of America. But also in his genetic material is film-making: his family owned Filmworks, an East Coast company that specialized in commercials.The kitchen was Roth’s favorite place from the time he could turn on the stove in his family’s Long Island home. But by the time he was 18, and studying film at the University of Miami, Roth realized “being in the kitchen wasn’t enough for me.” While on location at a Ft. Lauderdale bar called Durty Nellie’s, working as a production assistant on the Burt Reynolds film “Sharkey’s Machine,” Roth got the idea to create a restaurant. His first venture, Pastabilities, opened inside Durty Nellie’s. It was one of four restaurants Roth would open before he turned 21, but he was still splitting time between food and film. When Roth went on hiatus from the film world, his culinary side heated up: Over a 10-year period, he opened some 20 eateries – mostly nightclubs, but where food was a significant element. Roth squeezed in stints at the cooking schools at Johnson & Wales and the Culinary Institute , but he didn’t last long at either: “I felt stifled. They were showing me techniques I already had embedded in me,” he said.Back in film, and working on the 1989 movie “Tango & Cash,” Roth became particularly fascinated by the film-catering business. On a break from the shoot, he came to Aspen to visit his fiance. During the plane ride, Roth scribbled a logo that incorporated images from food and film; thus was born T.V. Dinners, a Miami-based company that grew to prominence by catering to movie sets. On occasion, T.V. Dinners would do the catering on the same set where Roth was the assistant director, causing a mystifying overlap in roles.When he moved to Aspen, in 1989, Roth was dismayed at the lack of certain essentials – namely, a chicken parmesan sandwich. So Roth, who is part Jewish and part Italian, opened Paesano’s, a tiny takeout spot at the bottom of Mill Street that required ascending a flight of steep, rickety stairs. Four years later, he moved to bigger and more accessible quarters, next to Clark’s Market. But he still had T.V. Dinners too, and had opened two more restaurants – including the Aspen Asian-fusion spot Baang, where he was chef – and took on film projects in and outside of Aspen.Nonetheless he got restless, distracted by the desire to open another place in Florida. He sold Paesano’s, and opened two new spots in Miami’s Coconut Grove.On his travels, Roth noticed that convenience stores had begun to step up their food offerings. He ran an idea by his friends, the Haisfields, who owned convenience stores in the valley, to do fresh takeaway food. “Mike and Tracy thought I was nuts,” said Roth, who put full kitchens in each of three convenience stores to prepare the Grub meals. “But I knew people would appreciate it. I was doing it because it would be fun for town, fun for people to get a good bite to eat for under six bucks.”Even bigger for the community has been the rebirth of the corner at Hopkins and Galena, home to one of downtown Aspen’s bigger outdoor plazas. Zl, which closed in spring 2009, had been a vital part of town, but it was known more for its location and coffeehouse environment than its cuisine. With Peach’s, Roth – along with Tracy Haisfield and her sister-in-law, Lisa – aimed higher. The food is top-notch (the burger, Thursday’s daily special, is made of short-rib meat, and is to die for), and the shelves are stocked with handpicked local products, like Basalt’s KiriDevi granola and Louis Swiss pastries.”I think we’ve created a boutique, a coffee boutique, like boutique hotels, with all these little touches I love,” Roth said. “It’s not another coffee shop; it’s something else. People can sit and hold court here.”Fans of Peach’s have to wonder: How long till Roth moves on to the next thing? And when he does, will the corner go dark again? Roth says, no way: “People have embraced it. Peaches is here to stay.”But that doesn’t necessarily apply to Roth himself. With Peach’s heading full-steam into its first summer, Grub occupying a part of him, and with a new house – bought two months ago but still not moved into – Roth would appear to have his hands full. Maybe not. He hasn’t taken a film project in a year, and he’s starting to get that itch again.”I know that some day I’ll get that phone call,” he said, “and I’ll make it happen.”stewart@aspentimes.com


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