Yes, we did wake up hungry on Saturday, for those of you keeping track (and yes, we were as surprised as you are). But after a light breakfast (fruit, cereal, coffee – all the food groups), we were ready to jump from the fire right back into the frying pan.
10:00 am: Texas-based Chef Tim Love wows with folksy charm and loads of BBQ tips at his ‘High Steaks Grilling’ demo. ‘We like to grill a lot of food and have a lot of fun,’ Love says of Ft. Worth, where he’s known for ‘urban Western cuisine’ at his Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. Love, a former Iron Chef contender, wastes no time grilling or having fun – sipping from a glass of wine and poking fun at chefs Mario Batali and Jose Andres while imparting such wisdom as: Only use peanut oil on your grill (high flash point); Get that grill super hot; and cook the meat partway through before your guests arrive. Hours before, in fact. Just before mealtime, Love says, put the steaks back on the grill, but on the warming rack. We leave with a new appreciation for skirt steak, peanut oil and, of course, Love.
10:15 am: A roomful of Pepin devotees want to help Jacques and Claudine ‘Celebrate Caviar’. As no celebration is complete without Champagne (certainly no Pépin celebration), Claudine gives a lesson on sabering, or cleanly severing the top off a bottle of bubbly. Even the French can have a bad day, though, so Dad steps in to happily lend a hand. The bottle is uncorked, the Champagne flows, and the lively kitchen demo is on. Affectionate father/daughter banter never lets up. When Jacques talks fondly of Julia Child, Claudine imitates Julia calling on the telephone. When Jacques deviates from his planned menu, Claudine rolls her eyes in feigned embarrassment. All the while Jacques cooks with his trademark grace, mounding caviar on velvety scrambled eggs, potato pancakes, and salmon. When he’s finished, he holds up his artful platter and says, ‘This will cost you $65 at Charlie Trotter. And it will cost you $75 at Thomas Keller’s.’ Today, it’s priceless.
11:00 am: By a stroke of luck (and some fortuitous introductions), we’re having coffee with two of the doyennes of the New Orleans restaurant scene in the sunshine outside Aspen’s Paradise Bakery. Ti Martin and Lally Brennan, owners of the renowned, 130-year-old Commander’s Palace among other NOLA eateries, epitomize Southern hospitality, even 1,100 miles from home and 8,200 feet above sea level. After comparing a few family notes (one of us is, after all, also a Brennan and does, in fact, have a daughter with the same name as Ti Adelaide Martin), we get down to the business of, well, business. “There are signs up in New York restaurants saying, ‘We do not serve Louisiana seafood,’ Martin says. “Talk about breaking our hearts. We didn’t not go to New York after 9/11. This industry isn’t usually like that.” These women want all to know they’re still serving Gulf seafood, and so are their local compatriots. “Last night, we had maybe four different kinds of fish instead of seven,” Brennan says. “This has just cranked up the creativity.” Could they get more creative in the Bayou?
12:00 pm: We must be living right because we’ve scored an invite to a lunch hosted by Williams-Sonoma and cooked by the Brothers Voltaggio. Former Top Chef contender Bryan and sib/winner, Michael, are a flurry of activity behind the line when we arrive at N9NE, a subterranean steakhouse in the heart of town. The Williams-Sonoma sommelier is pouring amazing wines; and these boys are talking sustainable fish (Arctic char), sous vide (wow), Vita-Prepped lemon sauce (mmmm), and liquid-nitrogen-frozen cream cheese ‘snow.’ There are no words. Who knew lamb with harissa and olive oil could transport us? That cauliflower could be transformed into the texture of couscous? That a soda siphon could turn ‘strawberry shortcake’ into something otherworldly? But their final words of wisdom were far more earthbound. Says Michael: “The microwave is the most underused technology there is today.” That may be so, but we’re more interested in taking their Smoking Gun for a test drive and channeling some of that Voltaggio kitchen magic.
2:00 pm: We’re barely recovered from lunch when we arrive at a tent outside The Little Nell for a reserve wine tasting, ‘Tuscany’s Timeless Antinori Tignanello.’ Listening to Antinori scion, winemaker, and expectant mom Alessia Antinori wax rhapsodic about her family’s commitment to these age-old vines gives us a bigger buzz than even these lovely wines (it feels almost sacrilege to spit, but we’d have to sleep over if we didn’t). Antinori’s reverence for her Florentine family’s 26-generation commitment to wine is catching. We feel transported back to the 14th century, when her forebears first joined the Guild of Wine Merchants. Antinori awes us with her knowledge of soil and weather and their effects on wine. But we think it must be something historically Italian that makes these wines so incredible.
2:15 pm: It’s an odd feeling to see Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons on the other side of the table, cooking like one of the TV contestants they’re usually judging. Maybe it’s odd for them too, because not two minutes into ‘In the Kitchen with Top Chef,’ Gail cries “Let’s make some cocktails!” Gin-and-iced-teas in hand, they are decidedly less serious than the TV personas we’ve come to know. Funny and clearly comfortable with each other, they’re quick to offer opinions and kitchen wisdom. Tom: “Home cooks should learn how to butcher.” Gail: “Cooking is about hearing, as much as tasting and seeing.” Both: “Don’t follow recipes too closely.” The laughfest heats up when José Andrés (who is giving a seminar on salt in the next room) sends over his two young daughters with margaritas for Gail and Tom. In exchange, Gail and Tom send back an iced tea with Bombay Sapphire, pouring a splash of tea into a tall glass and filling it to the top with a debilitating amount of gin. Moments later we hear Andrés roar from the next room as he tastes it. We think: ‘It’s on.
3:30 pm: How can we resist? After that banter, we feel we have to check out Chef José Andrés’ next ‘Secrets of Salt’ seminar. We can’t help but sit back and enjoy the joyful ride as Andrés and his three young daughters whip up “wrinkled potatoes” with a mojo verde sauce (“If you don’t like someone you’ve invited to dinner, put them in the corner with a mortar and pestle,” the chef advises. “You won’t see them for an hour.”), as well as sea bass, pork loin, and whole shrimp baked in salt (“Always with the head on,” he insists of the salmon and shrimp. “Heads are important. You can’t establish a relationship without the head.”) When asked about different salts, he tells the crowd, “I wanted to do a class not on what kind of salt to use, but on empowering you with salt. I want to free you from the tyranny of recipes.” Perhaps the best cultural ambassador Spain has ever had, the ebullient Andrés uses salt in, not on the rim of, a margarita (his best recipe yet?) and sends one over to Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis in the adjoining room. Before wrapping up his wild ride, Andrés helps KitchenAid raise $18,000 for breast-cancer research by auctioning off two evenings at his acclaimed minibar restaurant in Washington, DC. “People of America, I love you!” Andrés bellows. And we kind of believe him.
3:45 pm: Back at the cooking tent, master of Mexican cooking Rick Bayless arrives to a packed house (tent). ‘Spicy Mexican Flavors’ is a lesson in molé, the iconic sauce that Americans seem to only understand with chicken. Bayless wants us to dismiss the notion that a sophisticated eater is one who can identify properties and ingredients found in a dish. “It would be offensive to a Mexican grandmother if someone could isolate a flavor in a mole,” Bayless says. “It’s about blending, richness, and representing something ancient and cultural.” And this is a culture he clearly loves. “They’re incredibly generous”, he says of Mexicans. “They love sharing, and that’s what cooking is all about.”
6:30 pm: We barely have time to shower and change before we’re off to local eatery Jimmy’s for a book party for those Commander’s Palace gals. Ti Martin and Lally Brennan are celebrating their latest book release, In the Land of Cocktails. The book came out in 2008, but why let pesky details spoil a good party? And this is a good one, with bartenders pouring a magic elixir of Limoncelo and tequila that goes down way too easily. We could circle in the orbit of those buoyant Brennans for hours, but those cocktails are dangerous, and the Best Chefs dinner awaits. Reluctantly, we tear ourselves away.
8:00 pm: We arrive at the Aspen Meadows resort trying hard to remain impartial. We’re here to taste (and to vote for) dishes cooked up by Food & Wine magazine’s ten ‘Best New Chefs.’ Earlier today we ran into former
Top Chef contender Eli Kirshstein, who implored us to vote for his choice: Ray Choi. By coincidence (REALLY), it’s Choi’s table we hit first. We have to admit, we’re suckers for that chipotle sauce on his meatball wrapped in sesame leaf; but we have miles to go before we vote. We make the rounds of nine other up-and-coming chefs – elbowing through the (dazzling) throngs to do so. The glitterati of the food world surround us, all sampling the same incredible eats that we are. Despite a decadent display of talent in dishes such as Fromage Blanc Raviolini, Parmesan Financier, and Sepia Noodles with Fried Chocolate, we find we’re still stuck on that meatball from Choi’s homebase in L.A., Kogi (“No dish cost more than $10,” Choi tells us.).
Tired, full, and maybe the tiniest bit overserved (really!), we stagger (we mean saunter) back to our hotel to rest up for our final Food & Wine foray. While we hate to think of Food & Wine Classic ending, we know it’s a good thing we’ll be heading out late Sunday. We could get used to eating like this. In fact, we already are.