The Food & Wine Classic is coming up, June 20-22, and it is easily the most prestigious annual event for foodies and wine connoisseurs in the United States.
More importantly, it’s the most fun.
We talked to two insiders — Carlton McCoy (Master Sommelier at The Little Nell) and Jim Butchart (Executive Chef at Aspen Skiing Company) — to find out the best way to experience this world-class event.
It’s safe to say this is one of the biggest annual events in the restaurant industry, pretty much anywhere in the country. How did that come to be?
Jim Butchart: Well, for one, Aspen has always been a food town. I know, personally — when I was considering moving to a ski town — there were only so many that took food and beverage seriously, and Aspen is still king of the crop.
The Classic has such a long rich history, and again, because of these high-profile chefs who come, they want to be a part of it. I mean, who doesn’t want to come to Aspen? The town just turns it on: there’s a buzz in the air about 10 or 12 days out when the tents get put up in Wagner Park, and you feel it coming. All the local chefs start talking about it, because, after all, we’re hosting the out-of-town chefs at our restaurants. They need space to work out of. There’s just a great buzz around town and it really kicks off our summer.
From your unique perspectives, as a chef and a master sommelier, what do you look forward to about the event?
Carlton McCoy: We have a very forward-thinking and vibrant wine program at the Little Nell, and while that is something we like to champion every day, the Food & Wine Classic gives us the chance to showcase it on the national level. Given where Aspen is located, its not every day that sommeliers come to us … we normally go to them. During the Classic, we get to do what we do for our everyday guest — only now for the who’s-who of the food and beverage industry, and that’s exciting.
Jim Butchart: A lot of it is networking. At this stage of my career, I’m most excited about hosting a great chef and helping our young cooks by having them cook for them. I remember when I was at Ajax Tavern, having someone like Mario Batali or Thomas Keller sitting outside for lunch and calling the guys on the line and being like “do you know who you are cooking for right now?” It pumps them up. They’re going to call their mom. They’re going to post it to Facebook. “I just cooked for so-and-so…” or “I just got to watch Daniel Boulud dice up an onion.” That kind of thing is enough to carry these young chefs for a year.
It’s always a heavy-hitting roster of chefs who come to town. Carlton, are there certain “rock stars” of the wine world that you look forward to seeing every year?
Carlton McCoy: Yes, and they’ll all be at the Little Nell. Every night we have guest sommeliers on the floor, people who are friends and that I look up to — mentors who I truly enjoy learning from during that weekend. People like the Jay Fletcher, Bobby Stuckey, Richard Betts, Rajat Parr, Michael Madrigale … These are all people I look up to in the industry, and all of them will be on the floor, so it is a very exciting event for me personally.
How would you recommend a visitor approach the event?
Jim Butchart: Well, No 1: it’s a marathon, not a race. There are so many people who come into Aspen and hit the ground running Thursday, and they’re spent come Friday night. So remember: slow down, pace yourself, because it’s a long weekend.
I would say, get your calendar out and decide what’s really important to you, and plan around that. Get a little exercise in every day. I think it is important to get some oxygen in your lungs, and drink lots of water. Other than that, you have to hit the Cochon at the Hotel Jerome to get your pork fix. The Sunday Grand Tasting is something that I really look forward to every year. And over the last three years, we have hosted the industry party on Monday — “Mary Had a Little Lamb” — in which we do a pop-up, roast a couple of whole lambs, usually at a local park in town. It is kind of an invite only, but we usually tell people to bring friends and we end up with a couple hundred people.
Carlton McCoy: The first thing I would do is come find me and beg me for an invite to the opening party at The Little Nell (laughs). And you’ve got to dine at element 47 during the event, at least once or twice.
Obviously, you’ll want to hit the tent everyday. It’s a big tent, so if you hit all of it in a single day, you’ve been too aggressive! (laughs). Take one corner, or one side of it, and take your time. Sit outside, have a margarita, relax, and then you will definitely want to come to the Nell for the late-night parties. From 10pm to 2am, there is really no better place to be during the event. The Living Room area is so much fun. This year, we are going to continue our tradition of our champagne cart which will have its own sommelier.
And yes, definitely pace yourself. It’s a long weekend.