The Food & Wine Classic is just around the corner (June 17–19, 2016), and while it is easily the most prestigious annual event for foodies and wine connoisseurs in the United States, it is also the most fun. For three days, downtown Aspen is flush with celebrity chefs, food-and-beverage insiders, and gourmands with insatiable appetites.
If you are among those attending, you are in for a real treat. We talked to two local insiders — Carlton McCoy (Master Sommelier and Wine Director at The Little Nell) and Jim Butchart (Culinary Director Mountain Dining with Aspen Skiing Company) — to find out the best way to experience this world-class event.
Wine Director at The Little Nell
Carlton McCoy is a Master Sommelier and the Wine Director of The Little Nell's famous wine program. He discovered his love for wine and food early, and attended the Culinary Institute of America before serving in the esteemed restaurants of Thomas Keller (Per Se), Marcus Samuelsson (Aquavit), Tom Colicchio (Craft Steak) and Eric Zeibold (CityZen at The Mandarin Oriental). He joined The Little Nell in 2011 and earned his Master Sommelier designation in 2013.
Culinary Director Mountain Dining at Aspen Skiing Company
Jim Butchart is the Culinary Director Mountain Dining of Aspen Skiing Company, a role that gives him oversight of the on-mountain restaurants at Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk. Trained in classical French cuisine, Jim's career has taken him across America to serve in some of the country's best kitchens, including Coyote Café (Santa Fe, NM); the Inn at Little Washington (Shenandoah Valley, VA); The French Laundry (Napa, CA) and Charlie Trotter's (Chicago, IL). Jim came to Aspen to oversee the Ajax Tavern at The Little Nell, before moving into his current role with Aspen Skiing Company.
It’s safe to say this is among of the biggest annual food events in the country. It is certainly one of the most prestigious. How did that come to be?
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 master sommelier and a Chef — what do you look forward to about the event?
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.
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.
How would you recommend a visitor approach the event?
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. The Grand Tasting is something that I really look forward to every year. In fact, you should swing by the Grand Tasting on Friday afternoon and see my friend Chef Andrew Helsley from ASC Catering. He'll be setting up and serving some delicious farm-to-table treats. And the two of us will be cooking at Heritage Fire the night before the Classic kicks off. You've got to stop by — it is a great event.
The first thing I would do is come to The Champagne Party we’re throwing with Dom Perignon at Chair 9 on Thursday. Historically, The Nell has hosted a late-night kick-off party open to industry guests only, but this year, we’re welcoming all for a three-night sweep starting on Thursday. There will be late-night parties from 10pm to 1:30am with no cover and we’ll be offering a cash bar and a la carte menu. Friday night’s theme is A Mexican Revolution with Grand Marnier & Don Julio Margaritas and a taco bar. Saturday night’s our Shaken, Not Stirred party with Belvedere Martinis, an ice-carved luge and a New York-style bagel bar.
And you’ve got to dine at element 47 during the event — at least once or twice. We have an incredible culinary team across the board here with Matt Zubrod (Executive Chef), Keith Theodore (Executive Sous-Chef), Patrick Dunn (Chef de Cuisine) and JD Baldridge (Chef de Cuisine at Ajax Tavern).
And obviously, you’ll want to hit the tent every day. It’s a big tent, so if you hit all of it in a single day, you’ve been too aggressive! Take one corner, or one side of it, and take your time. The Nell will be there on Friday with our pastry chef serving dessert with St. Germaine and Sunday Chef Matt and team will be there Sunday with a surprise from element 47. Be sure to visit them! And yes, definitely pace yourself. It’s a long weekend.