Saturday, June 26, 2010

Aspen Food and Wine Festival: The Day Chef Nobu Blew Our Minds

Day two promised to be a clone of day one.  Some demos, some slam dancing in the grand tasting tent,  a good dinner with good beverages.  No signs, omens or portends indicated the course the day would take.  A rapturous dinner was in store for us, our palates graced with a taste of near perfection.  
Copious amounts of caffein washed away the lingering effects of last night’s wine pairings.  Jacques Pepin, the master of classic culinary techniques, was the first event I had scheduled for the day.  The buzz, from both excitement and the coffee, made the 20 minute wait interminable.  Eventually the doors were thrown open and we were allowed in.  Jacques Pepin and his daughter Claudine gave a demo.   using their line of caviar as an ingredient.  If time has diminished Jacques Pepin’s knife skills, it was certainly not noticeable to us mere mortals.  Besides having mad skills, he is consummate educator and entertainer.  The years have honed his stage skills to razor sharp edge.  His blend of wit, wisdom He is also one of the nicest and most gracious people in the culinary world.  His sense of humor had the audience laughing through out the event.  The dynamic between Jacques and Claudine was a little, weird.  Well, to be exact, the dynamic between Claudine and Jacques was a little, weird.  Couldn't tell if it was a forced frustration with Jacques just for show, or if it is their normal relationship.  The champagne bottle not cooperating with Claudine's sabering attempts did nothing for her mood.  
After another trip through the mosh pit of the grand tasting tent, Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons gave a demo.  They seemed to really enjoy cooking together as they whipped up dueling lamb dishes.  Tom cooked a loin of lamb stuffed with homemade merguez sausage, while Gail made a quick dish using store bought merguez.  Chef Colicchio's main message of the demo was for home cooks to learn how to butcher meat themselves to save money and have more flexibility.  

For a change of pace, I left the world of cooking demos and headed over to the spirit world.  The kind of spirits than can be reached with a cocktail shaker, not a Ouija board.  The mixologist Tony Abu-Ganim took us on a historical tour of drinks made with gin.  It was a fun romp through Ramos Gin Fizzes, Aviators and Corpse Revivers.  It was an entertaining presentation.  The cocktails certainly helped boost the amusement factor.

A few hours later, I made my way Matsushisa, Chef Nobu Matsuhisa's Aspen restaurant.  I was prepared for a nice dinner paired with some good Sakes.  I was not prepared for the food we actually ate.  Each course got increasingly wonderful.  Everyone at the table was simply agog as the great was improved upon.  We thought we reached the pinnacle with the black cod cooked with miso butter.  We were wrong.  The Kobe beef course that came next brought us to the summit.  Richly flavorful and tender as a mother's kiss.  It was hard to wrap our minds around the concept of ethereal beef, but chewing it was close to chewing air.

We all floated back to our hotels, buoyed by the culinary afterglow of  a truly supernatural meal.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Aspen Food and Wine Festival: So it Begins

I started the event out in an inauspicious way, waiting in the wrong line.  After correcting that minor error in judgement, due to a really bad night's sleep(or so I can keep telling myself), the event began in earnest.  the first demo I attended was by the Chef Thomas Keller.  His entrance into a room does not generate nervous energy, it produces a silent awe.  He demoed three recipes from his cook book "Ad Hoc at Home."  Well, the current chef at Ad Hoc in Yountville and an ex-sous chef from Ad Hoc did the demoing, Chef Keller handled the edification.  He reiterated some of his favorite themes: learn good techniques, get good tools, get great ingredients.  One really interesting topic he espoused on was the difference between seasoning and flavoring.  Seasoning enhances the flavors that the ingredients themselves have.  Salt and acid are the two main vehicles to achieve this.  If you can taste the salt and/or the acid you are no longer seasoning, you are flavoring.  Under this way of thinking pepper is never used in seasoning, only in flavoring.  He made sure to drive this point home in several humorous exchanges with the audience.

Next on the agenda was to enter the cornucopia of chaos, The Grand Tasting.  All I could say was wow and I am so glad my pass allowed me early access.  Walking past the blocks of eager foodies ready to snap their jaws shut on whatever in on offer,  I felt a wave of relief flow through my body.  I would have about 45 minutes to make my way around the tasting while it was much less crowded.  There was not much food on offer, but what was there was extraordinary.  One standout was Blackberry Farms from Tennessee.  The salumi made by Michael Sullivan was some of the best I have tasted.  The man is passionate about his craft and it was entirely evident in his products.

The Grand Tasting Tent was awash in a sea of wine.  There were enough areas, varietals, and styles available to keep an oenophile busy for weeks.  I did not have weeks, so I just headed to what looked the most interesting.  I was not disappointed as I discovered some new areas and producers to explore further.  I really like the wines from the Alto Adige,  an area in northern Italy.  Those will receive some further exploring when I get home.

Mario Batali was next on the list.  He cooked some relatively easy dishes from Linguria.  He is very entertaining to watch.  So entertaining in fact that you learn some great things without even noticing.  Mario loves to impart his demoes with the whys and hows of Italian food culture and philosophy. This background gives the audience deeper insight into the whys and hows of Italian cooking.

Morimoto wowed the audiences with his nearly supernatural knife skills.  Cutting paper thin slices of daikon radish or butchering a fish faster than you can tie your shoes resulted in the sounds of hundreds of jaws hitting the ground in unison.

The evening was capped off by an Italian dinner put on by Amex.  The food created by the chef had a hard time competing with the wines presented by Sergio Esposito of the Italian Wine Merchants.  Sergio's discussion of the wines became more, shall we say, spirited, as the night went on.  Don't know what could have caused that, there were only like 7 wines poured with dinner.

The excellent company at the table capped off a stellar night as I made my way back to my hotel.  Those four blocks seemed to have gotten longer during dinner.  

Friday, June 18, 2010

Aspen Food and Wine Festival: The Prelude

June in Aspen brings sun, wild flowers and most of the culinary world.  For the past 28 years people with a passion for cooking, wine making, food growing, or just eating and drinking have gathered in the rarified air of Aspen, CO.  Not rarified in the snooty sense, but rarified in the lack of oxygen at 8,000 feet sense.

The bulk of the program began today, but things got off to a great start last night.  Courtesy of American Express, I attended a meet and greet with Mario Batali.  We were able to taste food created from the recipes  in his latest cook book, while drinking some exquisite Italian wines.

The meet and greet segued into the official opening party featuring food stations manned by Top Chef favorites.  Jennifer, Eli and both Voltaggio brothers were dishing up dishes for the attendees.  I must say, their food was very inventive and ultimately toothsome.

I dragged my jet lagged and sleep deprived body home to get ready for the next days events.   Stay tuned...


Monday, June 14, 2010

BBQ, Burgoo and Bliss

One weekend a year, a change comes over Madison Square Park.  The question "What is that smell?" gets an answer you are delighted, not horrified, to hear.  The ubiquitous pale blue haze hanging invites a deep inhale,  not a call to the EPA.  Out of the cacophony of entwined conversations, you hear more than a few "Y'alls."  The annual Big Apple BBQ Block Party has arrived.  The country's best pit masters hold court for two days of bbq, burgoo and bliss.

I arrived early Saturday morning to take a quick reconnaissance tour around the park.  A crowd was already starting to form for the upcoming pork-a-palooza.  I made my way to Ed Mitchell's and joined the already growing queue.  The line moved quickly and I soon was dining on one of the greatest pleasures of porkdom.  I looked up and saw what I thought was a porcine induced hallucination.  There, clad in heavy rubber gloves, was Michael Pollan chopping pork into tiny pieces for Ed Mitchell.  Yes, the Michael Freakin' Omnivore Dilemma Pollan.  I had no idea of what to make of that, so I continued on my quest for low and slow cooked perfection.

I soon ran into my friend Kat who was busy working the Big Apple BBQ for work.  After a chance encounter with a friend of hers, we found ourselves immersed in  a wonderful conversation with Ed Mitchell.  Ed has hogs raised to his own standards to be used for his bbq.  The hogs are raised on pasture and given a high quality feed that Ed devised himself.  He works closely with several organizations concerned with the living conditions of farm animals.  The pork that Ed uses in his bbq has a superior taste to what is available commercially.  Mr. Mitchell believes that the better you treat the animal, the better the animal will treat you.  Now I know why Michael Pollan was up to his elbows in hog.  He was getting a hands on lesson in sustainably raised pork.

Most of the pit masters at the Big Apple BBQ served up the usual offerings.  Whole hogs, ribs, beef brisket and a sausage or two were the staples.  Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn from Kentucky was serving up more of a regional specialty, mutton.  Along with the mutton, they were serving another local Kentucky dish, burgoo.  I was snapping a few photos when I was ushered into their cooking area to get a full lesson on how they cook their mutton and how they prepare burgoo.  Burgoo is a thick soup of mutton and vegetables cooked for 6 hours, while being stirred every 15 minutes.  The restaurant freely gives away their recipe because so few people are willing to stand around and stir a pot for that long.  The mutton and burgoo were a nice counterpoint to the more usual being offered. a

While the consumption of bbq is the main attraction to the event, abundant other activities were there to keep one entertained while you digested your grub.  A full slate of seminars and cooking demos kept one's mind fed.  Beer and wine were ion tap to help wash down all that food.

The organizers of the event thoughtfully book many live music acts to help you dance off some of that food.  The two bands I watched on Saturday were incredible.  The first band was called Secret Country from Newark, NJ.  Newark is about as far away from rural as one could possibly get.  In fact, I just looked up rural in the dictionary and the definition was not Newark, NJ.  This probably helped form their unique style of playing.  Try to imagine the love child of Hank Williams Jr. and The Ramones.  Country music played with breakneck speed and a punk aesthetic.

The other artist I really enjoyed was Carolyn Wonderland from Austin, TX.  She possesses an incredible voice, amazing guitar chops, and a very droll sense of humor.  The audience wouldn't let her leave the stage.  She had to sing an a cappella number while the roadies set up the stage for the next band to keep the audience satisfied.

I always have a good time at this event, but I had an extraordinary time this year.  It could have been the bands.  The food certainly was great.  The icy sauvignon blanc provided a welcome respite from the heat.  But I think the moment that pushed this year to its apex  was when I asked Michael Pollan why he was working at Ed Mitchell's.  "I have to have a day job." was his reply as he want back to chopping.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's Been How Many Years Since I Graduated? Better Hand Me a Beer.

Saturday I had to grapple with a difficult concept, it's been 25 years since I graduated college.  Stevens Institute of Technology having untold empathy for its alumni, scheduled both a wine tasting and a beer seminar for Alumni Weekend to help them in their transition to dotage.

Last year's wine tasting left me a little parched, so I opted for the beer seminar to celebrate, make that mourn, the fact that it's been 25 years since I was a carefree frat boy.  Well, as carefree as 20 credits and a major league senior project regarding a dual crystal x-ray crystallography  examination of microplastic deformations in 440 stainless steel could be.

I so made the correct choice.  The audience and the presenters were in full on let's have fun mode.  The theme of the seminar was beer made in breweries that are at least as old as Stevens, 140 years.  The main presenter, Neil, was both informative and entertaining.  The host, Dave Manhas, kept everyone in a festive mood with his entertaining banter and his best game show host skills during the trivia question sections.

Everyone was getting into the seminar.  I'm not suggesting that the beer had acted as a social lubricant, but the audience participation did seem to pick up as the event progressed.  We did get to taste a gamut of beers from around the world, representing many of the styles that exist.  My two personal favorites were the Chimay Red and the double chocolate stout. Both were far cries from the usual mass produced domestic beers.  The double chocolate stout could possible recruit a whole new demographic to beer drinking with its chocolate and espresso flavors.

I left the seminar entertained, informed, and a bit relaxed.  I was also toting the new bottle opener I won by answering a trivia question.  If only my undergrad classes here were like this.