In Aspen, an Austin-Flavored Celebration of the Chef
A weekend at the 'Food & Wine' Classic
This was a trip I couldn't pass up. My wife and I were invited to go to Denver and Grand Junction, taste the best of Colorado's wines, and enjoy dishes prepared by the finest chefs in the state. That tour would conveniently end in Aspen on the opening day of the 2005 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, an event during which we would see a number of old friends.
We would also have the opportunity to see a few hometown heroes in action. Kevin Williamson of Ranch 616, Lyndie Clement of Edible Assets, Richard and Bunny Becker from Becker Vineyards, and Tom and Lisa Perini of the Perini Ranch Steakhouse would all be part of the festivities. Most importantly, Tyson Cole of Uchi was being honored as one of the best new chefs of 2005 by Food & Wine magazine.
The Food & Wine Classic is the best-run festival of its type that I've attended. It works smoothly, and the system is flawless. Each morning, you have a choice of nine or 10 classes, offered by the likes of Mario Batali, Jaques Pépin, Steven Raichlen, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, or a host of intelligent, if less well-known, presenters with interesting topics. If you can't get in to see your hero, don't worry: Almost all of the sessions are repeated sometime during the fest.
Everything is within walking distance, and the organizers have been considerate of attendees' time. After the classes, they give you 45 minutes to gather your things and walk to the Grand Tasting tent, where they have 90 minutes of bacchanalia that would embarrass Caesar. I tried to count the wines available and stopped at 1,000. Every style, price, and origin of wine you could possibly imagine was available for tasting.
Food offerings at the Grand Tasting were limited, but that made two of our Texas brethren show up nicely. Austin's own Lyndie Clement was there with her Chimi Some More! Sauce on Texas Gulf shrimp, a nice combination for the Chilean Sauvignon Blancs close by. And Tom and Lisa Perini's Mesquite Smoked Peppered Beef Tenderloin was drawing crowds 20-deep, most of whom then had a chance to taste a perfect partner in Richard and Bunny Becker's Cabernet Sauvignon.
The afternoons bring two more class sessions, and then another Grand Tasting. In every case, there is plenty of time to get from place to place, on foot, and, once you've paid your specific entry fees, no one charges you extra for anything. That's unlike our Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival, where this year some unhappy patrons found out that they would have to buy a beer or a glass of mediocre California wine, even though they had paid a substantial entry fee; at Aspen, once you're in, you can leave your money in your pocket.
Each year, Food & Wine magazine picks the 10 Best New Chefs, and Texas has had its fair share of winners in this category. In fact, a few years ago, Jeffrey Yarbrough, the man most accountable for boosting Deep Ellum in Dallas, and now the brains behind Big Ink PR, along with his buddy Kevin Williamson of Ranch 616 here in Austin, tried to put together a regular part of the Aspen Classic celebrating Texas. Food & Wine nixed the idea, so they went renegade and started the Texas Outlaws Ride Again Party at Kenichi. This is the party to go to on Friday, where the tequila runs like water, non-Texans get a chance to taste some of our best wines (Becker, in this case), and everyone attending gets a straw cowboy hat (courtesy of the Agriculture Department).
The party took on an extra tone of celebration and brought a dose of local pride since Tyson Cole of Uchi was named one of the 10 Best New Chefs of 2005. All 10 gather at the historic Hotel Jerome for a friendly cook-off on Saturday night, attended by a few hundred press, food luminaries, and well-heeled consumers. This is definitely the big-ticket item.
Saturday night, I had a chance to get in early to talk to Cole while he was preparing for his moment in the spotlight. The activity was whirling around him and he looked a little overwhelmed, either by the emotion of the moment or the complex dance going on around him. "This is unbelievably exciting," he told me. "To be on par with these chefs, I'm so proud. This is so great for Austin." Suddenly, Cole got pensive. It felt like a musician who had jitters about going out onstage, but who is bold enough to know he can play. "Can I tell you something? I don't want to sound overconfident, but I ate at Nobu last night, and I think the world is ready for my food." A simple statement that said a lot about a young man who wants to make a lasting mark in his field.
With that, he went back to work. His dish was a small piece of striped bass with just the slightest aroma of strawberry and black pepper, with a gooseberry alongside that had been glacéed with an extraordinarily thin coating of glass-like sugar, a difficult and delicate operation. So, besides the delicious aromas, you had this beautiful yellow marble sitting on your plate, which, when you bit into it, crackled, then gushed gooseberry. The dish was inventive, artistic, and created with the intent of reaching all of your senses. His words might sound a bit brash, but his dish made the words seem understated.
We traveled to each table, experienced the crowds and the excitement as people experienced new tastes and new concepts. As we finished the last chef's creation, we both agreed: The Best New Chefs event might not have the big names or the Food Network credits, but for the real foodies, this is the one event you must not miss. Imagine dishes like Cappuccino of Sea Urchin and Crab, Soup of Wild Mushrooms and Spruce Shots with Duck Tongue Confit, or Duo of Deconstructed Gazpacho With Almonds (my second favorite), and you get an idea of the creativity happening.
While we were enjoying the Deconstructed Gazpacho, a writer from one of the wire services pointedly asked me what we are doing in Texas, and Austin, specifically, to get so many chefs picked by Food & Wine. I thought about it for a second, and the answer that popped into my mind was the fact that we support creativity and we don't try to suppress peculiarity. That's what allows Cole to give free reign to his creative impulses and still keep the restaurant full every night. I think the other writer was hoping for something less upbeat. But I was upbeat, because Cole and all the others made me proud to be from Austin.
The next morning, we bid farewell to Aspen and Snowmass. On the way out, I asked the hotel clerk about a good place for breakfast. He said we had to stop in El Jebel at Breakfast in America. Now, neither the name of the town nor the restaurant filled me with confidence, but we decided to at least stop by. Am I glad we did. It was the best breakfast I've ever had.
It's a small place in a small old strip shopping center. When you walk in, you're blasted with great aromas and the kind of happy buzz you only hear in a restaurant where the patrons and staff are all perfectly satisfied. Eighteen counter seats are in a horseshoe pattern surrounding a big griddle and four burners. Inside the horseshoe, four high school aged girls are taking orders and chatting up the customers, while two Mexican hombres are manning the cooktops like Duane Allman and Dickie Betts used to man the twin lead guitars. One pulls out a pound brick of butter, slices it neatly onto the griddle with the side of his spatula, then carefully spreads about three pounds of grated potatoes on top. Next he pulls out something pink and the size of a softball, drops it on the griddle, takes a weight and smashes it into a 10-inch pancake. I find out from the person next to us that is Breakfast in America's sausage! Meanwhile, the other man is knocking out egg orders with perfect skill in a series of aluminum pans, stacked up and ready to go.
I admit, after all the breathtaking exoticism of the prior week, we might have been anxious for something more down-home. But these two men, who will never get the TV coverage of Emeril or Mario, were providing just as much pleasure, and doing it on just as exalted a level.