I left the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colo., like so much of the food-media corps, fatter, sadder and wiser about a number of topics. The fatness is self-explanatory. The sadness comes from leaving Aspen. (Remind me to join the transnational leisure class; I see the appeal of being a billionaire now.) The wisdom, such as it is, comes from having learned a number of interesting things at Food & Wine's annual event, which are as follows:
John Besh Can Flat-Out Cook
Besh, the suspiciously handsome New Orleans chef, has earned much fame in recent years, and I have to admit I always thought some of it had to do with Katrina, some with his menschy, affable nature and at least some with his outdoorsy good looks. (I still think that Paul Prudhomme is what a chef should look like.) Anyway, as usual, I was wrong on all three counts. Besh is brilliant. To launch his new show, he cooked an eight-course crayfish menu that was far and away the best thing I've ever eaten at a festival. Cooking the most perishable ingredients imaginable in a foreign kitchen 1,300 miles from and two miles above his home base and working away with his staff rather than schmoozing with the VIPs, Besh produced miracle after miracle better New Orleans food than I ever had in New Orleans. A crawfish boil en gelée inside an eggshell was the most elevated New OrleansCreole fusion dish I ever saw. In a more conventional crawfish boil served afterward, the immense, bayou-fresh little mudbugs poured out rich orange roe on a scale I'd never seen before. His soft-shell crawfish (!) slider was itself worth the trip. He may not be fat or have an accent, but Besh may be the best chef to ever come out of New Orleans.
Tim Love Is a Star
I never really took Tim Love that seriously, to tell you the truth. His cowboy-hatted shtick always seemed a bit much, and his New York City outpost of Lonesome Dove, his Fort Worth "western bistro," was like an experiment from The Island of Dr. Moreau performed in the world's ugliest Radisson. But I watched Love do a steak demo, and the crowd simply adored him. They bellowed at his every joke and hung intently on his every instruction. He had them in the palm of his hand in a way few food personalities ever do, and was obviously enjoying it. He was a true star, and if he isn't the star of a hugely successful TV show in the next six months, I'll eat his ten-gallon hat.
What the French Laundry and Red Lobster Have in Common
Hint: they're both businesses. The most bizarre moment of the event, and one I may never see repeated, was an American Express panel on the restaurant business that featured both Thomas Keller, the nation's high priest of gastronomy, and J.J. Buettgen, the senior vice president of Darden Restaurants, the vast corporation that owns the Olive Garden, Red Lobster and various other chains that no foodie would ever be caught dead in. Keller, though, had a lot to talk to Buettgen about how the economic revival affects dining decisions (neither the Olive Garden nor the French Laundry were hurt by the downturn), how the industry would deal with health care reform (a big question mark) and the wisdom of hiring from the outside (at both Per Se and Red Lobster, they hire from within). While none of the insights were earth-shattering, the panel provided a stark and pointed reminder that, beyond the idolatrous haze that surrounds the consumer side of cookery, it's finance and revenue and cost-benefit analysis, more than butter or bread, that makes the restaurant world go round. Every foodie should attend one of these panels at least once a year.
Caffeinated Beef Jerky
Yes, it exists. Say hello to Perky Jerky, "the world's first all-natural performance-enhancing meat snack." And you thought America had lost its edge.
Best New Chefs
The centerpiece of the event is the Best New Chefs dinner, the second such unveiling of the newly anointed stars of tomorrow this year. It's hard for even the most experienced chefs to show their stuff at this kind of event, where they are called upon to make 1,000 portions of something that will represent their entire life's work in one bite, without a real kitchen. That said, the future seems bright on the whole, but if you could abstract a culinary mood from it, you are a deeper seer than I am. The dishes ranged from in-your-face hot stuff (Roy Choi's spicy meatball) to masterfully executed, slightly modernized classics (Clayton Miller's country pork terrine with smoked mayo and rye crumbs) to the far-out (Michael Sheerin's sepia noodles with fried chocolate). The most common theme, though, is the kind of immaculate, seasonal tweezers food that's been dubbed the new naturalism. Of those dishes, the best and most representative was, I thought, Missy Robbins' stracciatella cheese with lamb pancetta and pickled ramps. But there were a number of offerings in that vein, all brilliant, and from cities as far afield as Oakland, Calif.; Cleveland; and Clifton, Va. All in all, I consider this year's crop even greater proof of the Universal March of American Food Progress. Any country that can give us both Perky Jerky and John Shields' scrambled-egg mousse can't have a completely bleak future.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.