Mouthing Off

Food and whine: It's easy to point out all the negatives at the Aspen Food & Wine Magazine Classic held in the resort town last month. There were the cooking seminars packed with hundreds of people, some of whom brought their wailing newborns and some of whom asked really irritating questions. (One woman went to every class I did, and at the end of each posed the same query: "Can I substitute something for the pancetta?" Or the butter, or whatever other ingredient was crucial to the dish.) Then there was the unbelievable pretentiousness of many of the attendees, who told everyone in earshot that they'd signed up only to support the event, because they already knew all there was to know about food and wine; it was almost impossible for most people to meet the likes of Julia Child or Jacques Pepin, because the pretentious types stuck to the stars like glue. Add the miserable weather and the fact that Aspenites drive their BMWs like kamikaze planes, and you'd think the whole deal was a bust.

But it wasn't. Somehow, the overall event managed to be a good time, and there was a lot to be gained from the cooking and wine classes. I was surprised and delighted to see quite a few Denver chefs in attendance, including Bradford Heap of Boulder's Full Moon Grill and Radek Cerny from Papillon. Heap had come to check out some wines, and Cerny was keeping his eyes open to almost anything. "You never know what you'll come across here," he said. "Last year I found the plates I use at the restaurant."

The Aspen affair always holds some surprises. At the "grand tastings" held twice a day, a Canadian chef flipped beautiful flapjacks and served them with real maple syrup; a California company called Stolt Sea Farm pushed samples of its Sterling Caviar, the first caviar to be produced from farm-raised white sturgeon--it was delicious, if milder than the Caspian Sea wild variety; and I discovered a wonderful goat cheese that's made in Niwot, of all places, at the Haystack Mountain Goat airy. This stuff is fresher than anything you'll ever get from France, and although it's less tangy, it's great for recipes and priced right: I later found a half-pound at Alfalfa's for $7.99.

In addition to the smorgasbord of new products, wines and recipes to try, there was also the snappy repartee of celebrity chefs, most of whom were entertaining and informative. From Julia ("This would be very nice cat food," she said of the trimmings from a fillet of salmon) to Emeril Lagasse of New Orleans's Emeril's, who's sort of the Joe Pesci of the food world--when the ubiquitous questioner asked if she could substitute something for the boudin sausage, he replied, "Hey, grind up your mother-in-law if you want to"--the emphasis was on keeping things light while still passing on useful information.

Some of which I will now share with you. For those who responded angrily to my earlier comments about the Mexican food served in Denver, I note that at Aspen's "Real Mexican Food" seminar led by chef and Mexican native Zarela Martinez, there wasn't one recipe for burritos, tacos, tostadas or enchiladas smothered in cheap cheese and greasy green chile. Instead, Martinez assembled a salad of grilled chicken with mangoes and a chipotle vinaigrette, a carne con chile dish with potatoes, and zucchini sauteed with tomatoes, corn and poblanos. Call me if you ever see any of that in a Mexican joint around here.

--Kyle Wagner


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