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Reporting Back From The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen

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First of all, I just want to say that the indisputable star of this weekend was José Andrés. Besides having the most inventive and exciting food at his restaurants Jaleo, minibar, Café Atlantico, Zaytinya, and Oyamel in DC and Bazaar in LA, he is potentially the most charming man alive. And--from my initial post--the idea that anything could top him throwing pork in my mouth was completely ridiculous. But we'll get back to him--just wanted to throw that out there.

The only thing worth reporting from Friday, which was otherwise uneventful, was the Stella Artois press lunch, Tales and Ales: Where Belgium Beers meet Louisiana Crawfish, hosted by John Besh and Beer Sommelier Marc Stroobandt. The slideshow of the meal is below and the food was actually delicious.

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Tales and Ales: Where Belgian Beers meet Louisiana Crawfish
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Moving on...

The grand tasting tents were kind of a disappointment. The event should be called "Wine and Food Classic" based on the ratio of wine to food booths. It was overwhelmingly wine-focused, with not-that-exciting food booths. I suppose some people are thrilled to see a million different wine booths, and its not that I don't like wine--I love it--but I was really looking forward to the food tasting--which was seriously lacking.

Surprisingly, I thought the best thing at the tasting, food or drink, was the Patrón Bloody Maria (recipe below in slide). I've done extensive Bloody Mary recon and this was by far the best I've ever had. I think it was the touch of olive oil that made it so special, it turned it into more of a delicious gazpacho--with tequila. Top Chef Season 1 winner Harold Dieterle agreed--responding with the Bloody Mary when I asked what the best thing he had tried today was. There was also a delicious meatball in the Spain tent (there was a Spain tent--see pictures below), but otherwise none of the food really stood out. The crawfish lunch was definitely the best food I had during the day.

Even so, the tents were still a lot of fun, filled with exciting sightings. See for yourself:

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The most surprising thing for me was the crowd that this event draws in. Apparently other people knew about this, but I was expecting a much more serious 'foodie' group. The event turned out to bring in an odd mix of industry insiders and food network enthusiasts, who have never heard of superstar chefs José Andres and Thomas Keller, but flock to see Giada De Laurentiis and Gail Simmons. Nothing against Giada or Gail, I'm big fans of both of them, but lets be honest, they're not the real stars of this event--or so you would think. The line to get into the food demonstration to see both Giada and Tom and Gail were around the block, while José's event was barely half full.

The other amusing thing was the serious security surrounding the event's celebrities. Standing in the middle of the grand tasting in Aspen's Wagner Park, there were 6 security guards standing in a circle surrounding Thomas Keller, Giada De Laurentiis and Gail Simmons. 6? Really? What exactly do they think is going to happen in the middle of the park in Aspen? The best part was that in the crowd standing around watching (probably partly generated by all the security), I overheard multiple people watching and going, "who's Thomas Keller?" who is, of course, the true star of the three as the chef of two of the best restaurants in the country, French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York -- each with three Michelin stars.

Very excited by Thomas Keller myself, I went up to ask him some questions on video. This is a huge moment for me, and just as he says hello, my flip camera dies! Obviously this happens. I had been waiting for him to finish up with someone else, desperate to interrupt and say HELLO I'M ON LOW BATTERY HERE but respectfully, I didn't and.... It died. So, I did the only thing I could do -- held up the camera, pretended it was on, and continued asking questions. Pretty horrible. Unfortunately, I couldn't get anything good out of him. I told him I knew he was the best, but who did he think was the best? He said he couldn't answer that -- so then who's your favorite? Much too PC to get anything fun, he just said they were all his friends and he couldn't decide. So, Per Se or French laundry? He said he feels close to both and can't pick one because it's like asking a parent to pick between his children. That one was actually kind of cute, but come on Tom, give me something!

I did manage to get a fun video with Top Chef Masters winner Marcus Samuelsson, with an unexpected HuffPost shoutout!

So let me tell you about the events I went to:

In the Kitchen with Top Chef with Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons.
This demonstration was okay. Gail is adorable and Tom warmed up by the end but it just wasn't that exciting. For me. The crowd LOVED them. LOVED. Literally, they laughed when Tom breathed. I'm a major Top Chef fan and a fan of them both but was overwhelmed by the extreme enthusiasm. But weirdly--when Gail asked, who watched TV Wednesday night? Referring to the Top Chef premiere, no one seemed to know what she was talking about.

They started with cocktails. Gail made a gin cocktail with iced mint tea and lemon, and Tom took out a Stella. They each made a different form of lamb merguez (sausage). Tom used the sausage meat as filling and wrapped it in lamb loin with green (fresh) chickpeas, tomato and jus, while Gail sautéed premade merguez served with mint greek yogurt and harissa. Tom explained if you don't want to make the sausage, you could cut a premade one out of the casing and wrap it in lamb to make the same dish. It was definitely fun to watch them, but nothing life-changing.

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In the Kitchen with Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons
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Celebrate Caviar! with Jacques Pépin and his daughter Claudine Pépin.

Now this was a lot of fun. They were a great duo with a very cute father-daughter rapport going on. He was the expert and as he was showing her, he showed the audience. She'd scream out "mines not working!" And he'd say, "oh move over, I will show you -- do it like this -- ". She rolls her eyes at the audience and takes a sip of champagne. It worked. She assisted getting bowls, pouring cream, while asking him questions to move it along.

Informative/Worthwhile Q&A

How long can you keep caviar once its opened?
Claudine: "How long can it last? It never lasts in my house, usually 20-30 minutes", Jacques says he keeps it for a week.

What's the difference between caviar and roe?
Caviar is made from roe. Roe is the egg and then the roe is salted and made into caviar.

Not a question just advice -- but Jacques tells the audience, always crack an egg on a flat surface -- on an edge the shell can go inside the egg and bring bacteria with it.

The proper way to make melba toast: cut off crust and then cut horizontally from the edge to make one slice into two very thing slices. To do this, start at the corner and then move the toast around as you would cut a cake.

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Now...back to José. Secrets of Salt with José Andrés

José's demonstration on a seemingly boring subject, salt, was by far the best -- the most fun, the most useful, the most well thought out. He emanates charm as he playfully jokes around with the audience, and teases his three adorable daughters as they help him cook and run around the room delivering gifts (cookbooks, aprons, t-shirts) to audience members with answers to his questions. Instructing the girls to do most steps of the cooking process, he makes his demo even more accessible because -- hey, if they can do it, I can do it! (Though in reality these girls of 11, 9, and 6 have definitely had more experience at the stove than I've had). He immediately gets the room screaming by telling us that he made a bet with Gail before the show that his room would be louder than hers (his demo shared a wall with Tom and Gail's), so we needed to cheer to help him out. He then engages the topic, "Salt is the beginning of life. Too little -- no life, too much -- no life, just the right amount -- wow!" and proceeds to make seemingly advanced versions of seabass, pork, salmon and prawns using almost only salt, water, and spices. He made it seem so easy that I even wrote down the instructions with the feeling that I could actually try and succeed -- shared in the slides.

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Its pretty clear how obsessed with him I am -- as I detail his performance. Even down to the colors of his plates, his presentation was just on a higher level.

Even more advanced was his cocktail -- a salt air margarita, which I didn't get a picture of because he gave all three of them away. The girls delivered two to audience members and one to Gail, with the message to Tom: "No margarita for you!"

Saying how much he hated sipping a salt-rimmed glass, he created "salt air," like foam in the sea.

For the margarita: liberal amounts of Patrón and Cointreau ("recipes are overrated") lemon, sugar, ice, shake.

Makes the salt air by blending water, salt, lemon, and pure lecithin, a natural emulsifier -- it actually turns into foam and he puts it on top...a salt-air margarita!

Enough said.

The 2010 Food & Wine Best New Chefs Dinner was fun. It kind of felt like you were in a Top Chef event, but the food wasn't that amazing.

Heres the food:

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The best two things were Jonathon Sawyer's raviolini and Missy Robin's stracciatella, with Roy Choi's meatball coming in as a close third. The rest were unremarkable. The raviolini was the winner (my winner--but I also believe the real winner of the text voting) because the stracciatella, though amazing, was less impressive as a dish--it was just fabulous cheese with olive oil and bread which is hard to miss with.

In the end, none of it really mattered that much, just to be around all these people was exciting enough. Plus, I was drunk from the Bloody Marias.

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