The official first day of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen started a bit different for me than many of the other food and wine festivals I’ve attended. Uniquely, Aspen offers opportunities for restaurateurs, chefs, managers, and owners to attend sessions dedicated to furthering business operations through their American Express Restaurant Trade Program. Now in its 21st year, I sat in on the program’s first session of the weekend, ‘Meet The Masters’, featuring chefs and restaurateurs Tom Colicchio, Jose Andres, Barbara Lynch, and Rick Bayless discussing everything from food cost to sustainability.
Highlights from the session, hosted by Chicago food journalist Steve Dolinsky:
- Always a topic of discussion amongst restaurateurs, Barbara Lynch and Tom Colicchio both chimed in on the future of fine dining, with Colicchio stating that he thinks fine dining “will never die.” On the subject of food cost for their fine dining operations, Colicchio revealed that he spends an average of 32% on food. Lynch noted her fine dining food cost is much the same, though a bit higher at 35%.
- Rick Bayless explained that every July, he takes nearly forty staff members on a trip to Mexico where they engage in local culinary activities, including cooking classes, in order to gain a greater understanding of the Mexican food culture. Jose Andres said that he does something similar, taking staff to smaller, more intimate locations throughout Spain for food immersion.
- A question from the crowd involved time management, with Colicchio suggesting that you have to actually schedule time to cook when you’re a restaurateur. “It’s hard to promote [your restaurant] and still keep your feet in the kitchen,” he said. “I feel like when I spend too much time on the business side, my creative side almost completely shuts off.”
- On the topic of restaurant evolution and the economy: “We’ve had to make changes. We may change concepts in the markets outside New York City,” said Colicchio. “[In this economy] I think there’s a great opportunity to grow at the mid-price level.”
- Jose Andres, who recently joined 400 other chefs at the White House to promote healthier school lunches, had much to say about food legislation. “Why don’t we have a powerful lobby for the small farms of America?” he asked. “If you go to the White House website, and you look under their list of issues, not one has the word ‘food’ in it.”
- On supporting local farms and sustainability: “The essence of being a good restaurant is about reaching out, partnering with community farms and producers,” said Bayless. “For us, sustainability is important in every aspect of the business.”
- The four essentials of running a great restaurant? “Food, wine, service, hospitality,” said Colicchio.
After the trade session, I hightailed it over to the Sky Hotel pool patio for a delicious Tails and Ales luncheon. Featuring an an all-crawfish menu from Louisiana chef John Besh, each dish was paired with beers from Stella Artois, presented by master beer sommelier Marc Stroobrandt. Besh, who is now appearing in the new TLC show, “Inedible to Incredible”, offered a whole host of rich crawfish dishes, including a crawfish po’boy, a crawfish bisque, and pork belly with crawfish.
Stroobrandt kept the luncheon crowd entertained, performing what he referred to as ‘beer magic tricks’ while teaching diners how to properly pour and enjoy their beers alongside their favorite dishes. “Next time you go for a meal, have a beer first. It will stimulate your appetite,” says he explained. The beer meister also reminded everyone to engage in ‘beer pilates’ – swirling the bottle before pouring in order to mix all of the luscious ingredients – when enjoying our favorite brews.
The afternoon offered a whole selection of culinary demos, but I made my way to demonstrations led by chefs David Chang, who noted in our interview last year that he rarely cooks in the kitchen these days, and the great Masaharu Morimoto. Under the white Cooking Tent, Chang presented his tips for creating a fantastic Korean marinade, with recommendations to use only light soy sauce as well as steeping herbs like a tea in order to gain the true essence, while on the lower level of the St. Regis Aspen, Morimoto wowed the crowd with his extensive knife skills, filleting fish with the ease of a true kitchen master.
Chef Morimoto spoke animatedly about the upcoming opening of his Morimoto Napa when I had a chance to chat with him during the weekend. Be sure to stay tuned to Daily Blender in July for my exclusive interview with the Iron Chef himself!
*Photo credits: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender