What makes dining in Aspen so special? According to chef Mario Batali, it’s because of a “kind of hippy, laid back approach to local and serious food.” Known for colorful television appearances, best-selling books, signature Orange Crocs, and a sophisticated coterie of Italian eateries in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, I caught up with Batali via e-mail before touching down in Aspen to attend the 27th Annual Food & Wine Classic.
“I love the general vibe in Aspen,” the James Beard-award winning chef professed digitally. A Food & Wine Classic veteran of 11 years, Batali has witnessed the festival evolve into a family-friendly luxury lifestyle event. “It has gone from a pure party event to a real multi-tiered platform with chefs, winemakers, service Profs, consumers and now all of their families as well.”
Over the weekend, Batali will showcase and mingle with an elite group of culinary rock stars like Bobby Flay, Ming Tsai, Tom Colicchio, Danny Meyer, Giada De Laurentiis, and Jacques Pépin. This fraternity of hard working, PR-savvy celebrity chefs, authors, and restaurateurs have garnered significant buzz in the food-centric media circus, particularly when a new restaurant opens, a meet-and-greet is scheduled, a show primers on the Food Network, or whatever food-book du jour tops the New York Times best seller list. In recent years, ambitious dining blogs and successful food reality shows like Bravo’s Top Chef, Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, the Food Network’s Iron Chef, and Gordon Ramsay’s Hells Kitchen have caused an explosion in interest about the epicurean culture. To a degree, the televised restaurant kitchen has become the setting of a melodramatic pop culture phenomenon, unveiling the curtain on the mystique of fine dining while diminishing its pretentiousness. If you’ve never worked in the hot-tempered, adrenaline-fueled environment of a commercial kitchen, watching these chefs plan, cook, and delegate is like getting a glimpse of Oz, the mysterious wizard behind the controls of Emerald City, without having to wear the ruby slippers.
In certain social circles of gastronomes, aspiring restaurateurs, and artisan kitchen workers, the chefs showcased at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen have been elevated into the household-name department, much like other brand-associated iconoclasts: Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, Angelina Jolie, Jay-Z, etc. Heralded on Top Chef and in the glossy pages of Food & Wine magazine, a pilgrimage to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen for a serious foodie is much like a trip to the Super Bowl for a die-hard sports fan. At the Grand Tasting in Wagner Park, food lovers and wine connoisseurs swarm to sample unparalleled flavors and creative culinary fare while fawning over industry superstars. This exclusive experience is what makes the weekend-long extravaganza so special.
I asked Batali what sets the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen apart from other annual A-list culinary gathering like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in February or the New York City Wine & Food Festival in October. His answer is surprisingly simple: size matters. “I like the size. Aspen is defiantly the smallest of the three and that means better access for everybody to everyone. Chefs, consumers, and everyone else can really meet.”
Batali’s schedule at this year’s event includes a book signing, a charitable fundraiser, participating in a panel discussion on restaurant ownership titled “The Money Equation: Evaluating Obstacles and Opportunities,” and a live demo showcasing the fare from his Los Angeles eatery “Osteria Mozza” with business partner Nancy Silverton. “Nancy will do stuff from her showcase mozzarella bar and I will do dishes from the hot kitchen in the world of pasta” Despite the jam-packed schedule, Batali claims the event “is the major networking event of the year for me and my friends.” He also mentions it is an occasion to hang out with Aspen locals Jimmy Yeager (the owner of Jimmy’s) and Dena Marino (Chef at D19), as well as “…with my pals in the food and wine world, even friends from New York City that I see less than I’d like.”
Batali’s annual summer excursion into the high altitude Rocky Mountain countryside is not always about food, wine, cooking, and business; in other words - things associated with work. When asked about a favorite memory from a previous festival, Batali revealed an amusing anecdote: “Cycling to Woodys Tavern with my family a few years back, we had a wild ride in a hailstorm followed by a perfect hot sunny afternoon and a damn good ice cold beer.” Those who only know Batali from his televised globetrotting can smirk and chuckle at the image of world-famous chef downing a cold one in the notorious locals watering hole next to the Woody Creek trailer park.
This year Batali may not have as much time in his itinerary for intrepid mountain expeditions. Before the festival gets under way, Batali will sport a sombrero behind the grill while sizzling up a Mexican Machaca Feast on Thursday, June 18th. All proceeds from the Aspen event will benefit the charitable Mario Batali Foundation, an endeavor focused on feeding, educated, and empowering children. Bobby Flay, Tom Colicchio and Nancy Silverton will participate in the fiesta and guests will receive a pair of Signature Batali Bistro Crocs and a signed cookbook, in addition to the food.
When it comes to the local Aspen dining scene, perhaps it is no surprise Batali claims d-19 and Jimmy’s as “perennial faves,” claiming association with the chef and owner, respectively. Aspen foodies anxiously awaiting Batali’s foray into the affluent fine dining scene with a bona fide celebrity-run eatery to patronize in January after après ski at the Sky Hotel, don’t get your hopes up. He may grill for charity and dazzle food-loving spectators for one June weekend a year, but for Batali, Aspen is about the pursuit of pleasure. “I come to Aspen to relax, not to work.”