6/19/2012 11:03:00 AM

Aspen Food and Wine: Photos, Recap, Hangover

If food fests were like classic cars, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen would be the Mercedes-Benz of munch-outs as 5,000 guests revved up their appetites for a weekend of elegant eating. And at 30 years old, the event still hums like a finely-tuned engine.

It all started with the powerhouse combo of Jose Andres, Wines from Spain and the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, who kicked off the festivities on Thursday night with a Spanish-style barbecue and paella party. Despite the welcoming revelry, a brave contingent of early-risers participated in Friday morning’s charity 5K, led by a fleet-footed Bobby Flay, racing to raise money for Wholesome Wave. Others stoked their stamina at a series of American Express Restaurant Trade Programs, starting off with a Tech Talk about marketing to today’s diner, featuring industry pros Jose Andres, Rick Bayless, Bernardo Hernandez and Danny Meyer. In between the trade talks, book signings and cooking demos primely poised throughout the tony Colorado town, the crowds grazed at the Grand Tasting Pavilion - 8,000 square feet filled with 300 wines and countless bites. Our personal favorite: Harold Dieterle’s duck tamales.

The top of Mount Ajax was the place to be on Friday night, with gondolas whisking VIPs up to the Publisher’s Party. Waiting guests were plied with Stella Artois before boarding. While the wait was short, it was apparently long enough to give Mario Batali cold feet, so he opted to stay on lower ground for the night. A wise man, he likely has had some past experience with a hangover at 9,000 feet. We enjoyed the ride up with Anita Lo, who reminisced about her last time in Aspen, when she was named a best new chef in 2001. At the top of the mountain, the scenic festivities awaited: a New Orleans themed romp with local boys Emeril Lagasse and John Besh providing Big Easy eats like soft shell crab Po'-boys, turtle soup and a gorgeous roasted suckling pig.

Even CafĂ© du Monde got in on the act, serving fresh beignets with a dab of praline tucked inside. Cocktails flowed, the blues band played, and Texan Tim Love tore up the dance floor among a sea of boldface names: Gail Simmons, Michael Chiarello, Tom Colicchio, Jonathan Waxman, Marcus Samuelsson, Marc Murphy, Giada de Laurentiis and Best New Chefs galore, including NYC’s Dan Kluger.

Thanks to the gondola service, revelers didn’t have to stagger down the mountain for Gail Simmons’ Last-Bite Late-Night Dessert Party, with sweet selections by her Top Chef Just Desserts co-host Johnny Iuzzini - sans trademark sideburns. He debuted his new look along with sweets like apricot pannacotta. As the wee hours approached, the well-fed and generously lubricated posed for pictures astride a giant Harry & David moose.

A fishy face-off eased in Saturday events, where host John Besh led a competition of Whole Foods’ top regional fishmongers in a salmon-filleting competition and round of trivia. Later on, Michael Symon hosted a lovely mountain chalet party, where he cooked up a storm while extolling the virtues of Knob Creek whiskey and Rye. But the real Rocky Mountain high of the weekend was the 30th Anniversary party and concert, with al fresco eats by Jose Andres, Mario Batali and Michel Nischan. Nischan’s mac and cheese, laced with bacon, was a fan favorite, while Elvis Costello took the stage for an intimate concert. Spotted pumpin’ it up: Geoffrey Zakarian, Bobby Flay, Tom Colicchio, Sue Feniger, Jacques Pepin, Marcus Samuelsson, and Jennifer Carroll, who hinted at her Concrete Blonde restaurant concept coming to NYC soon.

The annual Classic Cook-Off closed out Sunday morning, with Bobby Flay and Michael Symon competing against kitchen vets Jacques Pepin and Jean-Claude Szurdak. The chefs pulled out all the stops, making meals of Lousiana shrimp, fava beans, lentils, coconuts, elk, and squab. The vets won it, while Flay and Simon literally burned up the set when flames from a buttermilk bourbon sabayon reached so high it melted the Kitchen Aid overhead mirror.

A true pig-out capped the weekend: the Grand Cochon, where swine-loving chefs from all over the country vied for the title of pork king or queen. Contestants included Marc Forgione, Naomi Pomeroy, Jamie Bissonette and Michelle Bernstein. Though we were crazy about Bissonette’s pork curry, Chicago’s Jason Vincent of Nightwood captured the crown with an ingenious Sunday brunch theme of eggs, bacon butterscotch doughnuts and bloody Mary “on the bone.”

And the only appropriate way to end the weekend: dinner at the brand-spanking-new Chef’s Club by Food & Wine, a restaurant in the luxe St. Regis Hotel that features a rotating menu by the magazine’s past Best New Chefs. The current round-up includes George Mendes of NYC’s Aldea; James Lewis of Bettola in Birmingham, Alabama; Alex Seidel of Fruition in Denver; and Sue Zemanick of Gautreau’s in New Orleans. Cocktails by Jim Meehan, like the “rose-tinted glass,” a gin and rose wine combo, provided a fitting, and filling, end to the ride.


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