IACP Conference Report: Dispatches from the front lines

For those of you not yet hipped to the big foodie news in Denver this week, the International Association of Culinary Professionals is in town -- a kind of traveling circus show of food writers, food editors, food pimps, chefs, authors, wine gurus and associated tradesmen. And, of course, Jason Sheehan is embedded right in the middle of all the action, causing trouble, sponging up free drinks and generally comporting himself in as disreputable a way as possible. His reports from inside the convention will be running throughout the week.

Thursday night: Had we stopped after the scotch and Guinness, it would've been a waste of a night. Had we stopped after cabbing it over to Sketch, we might've been disappointed--an evening out brought to too premature an end. Had we gathered our things at Mezcal and made for home after the dollar tacos, the high-end tequila, the bottle of mezcal and the margaritas, no one would've called us anything but wise.  But continuing on to karaoke night at Rockbar -- for PBRs and gin and tonics and cigarettes out on the street with wobbly-drunk party girls--was maybe one stop too many. Maggie was handling it like the pro that she is. Lisa was still swinging by the end of the night. I could've sworn I heard Kathleen belting out some karaoke in the side room.  But I was a wreck--stripped down to my shirtsleeves, telling humiliating stories about the days when I was still somebody, a contender. You'd think I would've learned my lesson long ago about going out drinking with girls, but I'm a sucker for it every time...

Friday I nursed a hangover through the morning while, at the conference, the experts talked Colorado cheese and organic beef and how to blog your way to financial solvency.  By noon, I was ensconced behind a plate of chicken enchiladas at the Rio Grande, far from the conference, reading Dispatches by Michael Herr because I wanted to hear about anything but food, and the horrors of the Vietnam war did me just fine.  By dinner, I was back at the bar--back at Katie Mullen's--and nodding along as my friends decided that perhaps a quiet night in might be a welcome break. "Absolutely," I agreed, but I was already cutting my eyes towards the door.  I was hungry again.  When am I not?

My gang cut out for home, but I wasn't done yet.  There was a vibe on the street--a certain electric passion.  I could feel it like summer lightning.  Hundreds of serious food people in town, all adding to the regular Friday night count in the city's best neighborhoods?  Yeah, there was the potential for having some fun.

Tyler was out with me.  I'd made a couple of calls, looking to gather a few more wayward IACP-ers since my previous night's manhunting had netted me a wealth of business cards.  Spurning a cab, Tyler and I walked through the pissing rain, making our way down 15th Street, passing by the tight knots of bums and drunks, the club kids huddled in doorways sucking down cigarettes and bleeding hair dye into their collars, the panhandlers and sign-flyers, dealers, meatheads and the girls dressed like Miami Beach in June. 

It reminded me that there was still a city outside my weird little bubble of foodie indulgence--outside the stage-managed mess of the conference--and that these were my people more than any wine-tipsy scrum of overserved scribblers waxing poetic about Ligurian olive oil or cheese. But as soon as Tyler and I crossed onto Larimer Street, it was like sneaking back under the veil.  The Square was a riot of excess.

Two hour wait at Rioja -- madness. Granted,  Armandino Batali  (Mario's dad, founder of  Salumi in Seattle)  was allegedly in residence and probably rolling with a pretty serious posse, but still...  The crowds were spilling out of the place like shipwreck survivors, and most of them had that glaze in their eyes of out-of-towners gone hog-wild on Spanish wine and artichoke tortelloni.  On the street, traffic was at a standstill, cabs standing cross-ways across two lanes, dropping off and picking up, while mobs of voracious gastronauts dodged bumpers, running from one house to another to another. I saw at least one woman who hadn't even bothered to put her wineglass down--walking out of one door, knocking it back walking, then disappearing into another, friends in tow.

We ended up at Bistro Vendome. Roasted duck with French lentils, a bottle of Alsatian white, good bread and steak frites (amazing wax-paper tubes of fries in a sugared gastrique) that came with the greatest bearnaise I've tasted in longer than I care to remember.  We stayed late, talking of food and wine and newspapers (Tyler and I had been joined by another friend, married to a newspaper editor, both of them serious about their eats), and when we left--well after closing time--the room was still more than half-full and barely beginning to clear.

Outside, the rain had let up, but the streets were still swarming with people and cars and people jumping out of cars.  The action was banging all up and down the street, spilling around corners, draining away towards LoDo and the hotel bars. Me? I was finally beat. I bummed a ride in towards the city, back towards the bar at Katie Mullen's for a last drink, a last moment of quiet, and then headed for home. Tomorrow was going to be another busy day.

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