Days later, still chewing on Aspen Food and Wine

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A few days after my return from Aspen Food and Wine, I'm still digesting the experience. The worst part of the event was listening to everyone's opinion about everything there. Opinions on food (if I heard one more person opine about pork belly I was going to lose it). Opinions on celebrities (I love Mario Batali, I hate Mario Batali). I've always lived by the quote, "Opinions are like assholes, everybody's got them." And boy, were there a lot of assholes at Aspen Food and Wine.

I had very strong opinions about the pea soup prepared by special guest chef David Chang of Momofuku at the Best New Chefs Dinner. Everyone around me was cooing about how great the soup was, how "yummy." (You can read Lori Midson's take on it here). But when I tasted it, I thought, "Wow, the emperor is totally naked." In my opinion, it tasted like feet. Salty feet. Salty feet that had been in hiking boots all day.

Maybe my a-hole opinion was flavored by the fact that I was actually expecting dinner, which, as I understand the term, includes entrées, tables and tablecloths, that sort of thing. This so-called "dinner" was just some hors d'oeuvres. A-hole that I am, I thought that after spending 250 bones for a "dinner" that was supposed to highlight the best food from the best chefs in the country, I would get more than salty foot soup and a little cheese, bacon & pimento sandwich prepared by Linton Hopkins, of Atlanta's Holeman & Finch, that did nothing but add pimento to a standard sandwich. But people raved about that, too.

Still, I had some tremendous food that night. I was pleasantly surprised by the offering from Bryan Caswell of Houston's Reef; I'm not a fan of crab, but his crab cocktail shooter was delicious. (It didn't hurt that he's smokin' hot.) Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook, of LA's Animal, served a good pork belly sandwich that was a crowd favorite, even if it seemed a little pedestrian for a best chef. Nate Appleman, of San Francisco's A16 and SPQR, served tasty A16 pork meatballs.

But for me, the standout dish was from Naomi Pomeroy of Portland's Beast, a charcuterie plate of a foie gras bonbon, steak tartare with a raw quail egg and chicken liver mousse with candied bacon. The foie gras was the lightest and airiest bit of perfection and lusciousness I've ever eaten, and the tartare was classic and straightforward, yet amazingly complex.

That was one dinner, of course, and Aspen Food and Wine is about much more than one dinner. The multiplicity of extraordinary parties every night make you forget about any theoretical recession the global economy is experiencing, and the Grand Tasting Tents were always overflowing with wine, liquor and food. There were also seminars, and while I enjoyed most of the ones I attended (and hated waiting in the long lines to get in), I was confused by the lowbrow nature of a few. If someone is willing to purchase a consumer ticket to Aspen Food and Wine for a minimum of $1,185, he likely has a fairly sophisticated palate -- and if not a love and appreciation of fine cuisine, then at least a very educated palate. "Pizza and Vino" with Danny Meyer and Dan Philips was cute (they dressed up like pizza chefs, complete with large black mustaches), but anyone who's been to any wine pairing would have known the information they imparted. "Burgers, Shakes and Fries" by Bobby Flay gave good suggestions for cooking burgers and fries, but for me, watching someone cook and then not getting to taste his food is like going to a strip bar: a lot of built-up temptation, but no real payoff.

My favorite seminar was "Classic Quickfire Challenge," pitting homeboy Hosea Rosenberg (winner of Top Chef 2009) against Stephanie Izard (winner of Top Chef 2008), though the idol worship for reality food stars at Aspen Food and Wine was completely over the top, as evidenced by a man in the audience who donated 15K to the Susan G. Komen Foundation just to sit on the judging panel and visit the Top Chef set -- an incredibly generous gift, yet somehow kind of creepy. Still, it was very charming to see masters Claude Pepin and Ming Tsai acting as sous-chefs to the reality stars.

In truth, I can't wait to go back to Aspen next year. Because the only thing everyone can agree on is that, even at its very worst, Aspen Food and Wine is fantastic.

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