The Food & Wine Classic is just around the corner (June 16–18, 2017), 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?
The Aspen Food and Wine festival is all about coming together to celebrate a common passion which is eating great food and drinking incredible wine.
AFW gives us the opportunity to show off our gorgeous little valley to the who’s who of the industry!
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 enjoy the opportunity to network with all the chefs that come into town and it’s a good excuse for my chef friends from all over the country to get together. Besides the events focused around the Classic It’s a great chance to show off our valley and all we do day in and out.
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 Saturday afternoon our executive chef Chef Andrew Helsley will be serving some delicious farm-to-table treats. And the two of us will be cooking at the Heritage Fire event at Snowmass later that afternoon. You've got to stop by — it is a great event.
I think the tent is a must. This is where the greatest energy is during the day. I would attend a couple seminars/cooking demos and follow up with lunch at Ajax Tavern.
Give yourself a little break before dinner to hydrate and relax.
Then head off for a great dining experience. For us at the Little Nell, we host two incredible dinners, one with Opus One and one with the greatest domains of the world with three Master Sommeliers!
After dinner I would head over to Chair 9 to pop some champagne! And yes, definitely pace yourself. It’s a long weekend.