Jose Andres and Elvis Costello

An Oral History of the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen at 40

Editors, organizers, celebrity chefs, and other insiders reflect on the history and evolution of the most influential food festival in America.

Ask 30 participants about the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and you’ll get 30 wildly varying, occasionally intersecting accounts of what it’s like to be a part of this legendary 40-year-old food festival. And we do mean legendary. Since 1983, hundreds of the biggest names in the food, wine, and hospitality business have converged at this annual event to celebrate, network, commingle, educate, and serve the thousands of lucky attendees who find themselves in the rarefied Colorado air of Snowmass and Aspen Mountain for the culinary adventure of a lifetime. Do shenanigans ensue? Oh yes, they do — along with memories and relationships that last a lifetime. Here are stories (well, the PG-rated ones) only the insiders can tell.

Produced by Kat Kinsman and edited by Karen Shimizu, with interviews by Hunter Lewis, Amelia Schwartz, Lucy Simon, Maria Yagoda, and Kat Kinsman

How it started

Menu for BNC party
Program from a dinner menu featuring recipes from Best New Chefs.

Matt Taylor-Gross

Colman Andrews (Writer and Editor): The first time I participated in the Classic was in 1986. It was the kind of place where you could see a famous winemaker or a famous chef standing up there in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, very casually. There was not a great distance between the audience and the people who were doing the presentations, which was nice. Especially coming from Los Angeles or New York, when you’d go to a wine event, there’d be somebody very pompous on stage, being very formal or very serious. The Classic had a whole different feeling. It was very easygoing. 

Hubert Keller (Chef): The first year I went was 1988. If it’s in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, you would do the event and then disappear, and then the next day maybe you’ll show up again for a book signing. But being in Aspen, the big difference was you walk in the little street, from the hotel to the event. People see you in the street and say, “Oh my God, are you chef so-and-so?” It creates the uniqueness of the event, that we are all in the same little town all together. 

Devin Padgett (Classic Event Producer): The Classic is part of my heartbeat. 1989 was my first. It was still in Snowmass that year. I had just gotten a job at The Little Nell and moved to Aspen. The Little Nell hosted the Food & Wine Classic team that next spring. Back then, the team would come out in March or April to put together the Classic because it was off season, and the team was three people — [Food & Wine Entertainment Editor] W. Peter Prestcott, [American Express New Product Development Director] Caryn Englander, and [Food & Wine Event Marketing Manager] Lisette Cifaldi. They asked me if I could help them, and one thing led to another. I volunteered that first year and helped them organize all the incoming chefs, the food, and the logistics around the food. And that was my entry into working for Food & Wine. This year will be my 34th Classic. We grew with the wave of restaurant culture. Right as food media came online, as chefs became rock stars, as restaurants became the hottest properties — all of that stuff that happened in the ’90s and continues to this day. All that attention, we grew right along with it. The Classic was one of those major spokes in that wheel from a live-event standpoint. All the smart people in our world together in one place at one time, right? A weekend in Aspen is not a hard sell.

Dana Cowin (Food & Wine Executive Editor, 1994–95; Editor in Chief 1995–2016): At my first Classic, I’m looking around and saying, I don’t know who any of these people are, and how do I even begin? I just shoved my hand in everyone's face, and I was like, “Hi, I’m Dana Cowin. I’m the editor of Food & Wine.” That first year allowed me the time to incognito do everything that the Classic had to offer. I went to a lot of wine tastings and demos and got to know the town a bit. That was good because for the next 21 years, I never sat through a full demo or had more than a sip at a wine tasting. The second year, I moderated a panel with Jacques Pépin, Marcella Hazan, Victor Hazan, and Patricia Wells. They were all icons, the most important people in food. That original group, I would say, was a little more self-serious than the way the Classic has evolved — the fun that we tried to bring to the Classic and the consumer. We moved to more experiences. One of my favorite classic seminars was Justin Warner and Belinda Chang doing the Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Justin came out wearing papal robes and literally rapped all about like, what is Châteauneuf, what is the grape, what is the wine? It was hip-hop, it was hysterical and informative, and I was like, oh, this is it. 

Justin Warner and Belinda Chang for Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Justin Warner and Belinda Chang for Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Food & Wine Archives

Christina Grdovic (Food & Wine Publisher, 2007–17): My first job at Food & Wine in 1996 was the event manager for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen. At the time, it was a very DIY event. Devin Padgett was running it from Aspen. He had some volunteers. But little by little, we just kept adding things. Before that, it had been a little bit more church and state between editorial and publishing and events and merchandising or marketing, but then we all started working together. Simultaneously, from the Aspen side, Devin was making everything much more professional. The biggest change was that brands would decide to advertise in the magazine because they wanted to be at the event. That’s a nuance, but it’s a really big difference because usually people want to advertise with you, and then they get the event as a bonus. At my first Food & Wine Classic, a lot of the presenters were cookbook authors. Later, because of the Food Network, we started introducing TV stars like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay. I remember sitting in Dana Cowin's office trying to figure out who to invite. You want the big names, but you also want the people who give a good demo, and you want people who are engaged and want to be there for the entire weekend. What we didn’t want was the chef who flies in, does the demo, and flies out. And we wanted people that felt like they were part of our family. I think that was a lot of the magic.

Danny Meyer (Restaurateur): The Classic got bigger, and because it got bigger, it meant there were more consumers to reach. There were more wineries who wanted to show their stuff. There were more book signings. Every year, they would pair two authors, so whenever I had a cookbook in the early days, for some reason they would always pair me with Marcella Hazan. She would have a line of people going all the way to Snowmass. And I would generally have like four people, maybe five at a time. I learned the art of the slowest possible signature with the longest possible inscription to see if I could get my line up to eight people. The one year I didn't get Marcella, I got Jacques Pépin. His line went all the way to Denver. I quit doing it after a while because I said, I can't look like I don't sell books. 

The trip

Private Bombardier jet
For several years, a Bombardier jet flew some of the biggest names in food to the Classic.

Food & Wine Archives

Bobby Flay (Chef and TV Host): The f—ing plane ride from Denver to Aspen is the most harrowing hour of your life. It’s a brutal flight, and they get canceled.

Ti Adelaide Martin (Restaurateur): I’ve been to the Classic maybe 20 times. We drove one time, in the ’90s, and Richard Shakespeare, who worked for us, went over Independence Pass. Our late chef, Jamie Shannon, was a big man, but his fingers were driving into my thigh. And I’m like, “Would you stop that? I’m scared, too.” So I don’t do that anymore; I’m not gonna drive that way. So we just fly and pray — least it’s short torture, you know? 

Danny Meyer: I would always arrive late Thursday morning. I’d take the earliest possible flight out of New York. In the early days, it was a pretty small airplane, like one seat on each side. The guy to my left on the other side of the aisle was the comedian David Brenner, who lived next door to Union Square Cafe. The thing is going this way, that way — we were all so green. They were circling because they couldn’t find an easy path to land in Aspen. And it was just like, I would rather die than feel the way I feel right now. The plane finally lands, and David Brenner turns to me and says, “Can I just tell you what a pleasure it’s been to survive with you.”

Mark Oldman (Wine Expert): I'm lucky to have been on the Bombardier private jet several times. [Editors’ note: Bombardier provided Food & Wine with private jets for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen in exchange for advertisements and other opportunities.] It’s casual, and it’s fun, and people are allowed to bring their own food. Daniel Boulud and Drew Nieporent have unofficially catered it before. As a wine guy, I feel the responsibility to overdeliver. One year, I brought a magnum of Dom Pérignon 1982 Champagne. I even brought ice with it. Midway through the flight, I not only broke out this Champagne — Jacques Pépin was especially excited because his daughter had worked for Dom Pérignon for many years — I also brought a Spanish porrón, which is like a big glass Spanish wine bong. It’s a very communal thing. I was a little afraid of bringing it out with Jacques because, you know, it’s not French. I don’t know if he’ll look down on drinking Dom Pérignon from a porrón. He asked to be the first person to take a hit of it, with this giant beaming, blissful, made-for-fun look on his face. And I’m thinking to myself, this is the coolest guy in the world. If that doesn't make you say, “I wanna party with Jacques,” nothing will.

Jonathan Waxman (Chef): The first year that I rode on the jet, of course there was Drew Nieporent and Jacques Pépin, Dana Cowin and Danny Meyer. It was sort of like the lords and the ladies of the food business. I always felt like, what the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here. But in any case, they let me come on. And it’s quite an out-of-body, amazing experience to be able to be on a jet with these people. I remember one year Jacques Pépin and I, on the way back, started talking, telling stories. Everybody all of a sudden was just huddled around us. And you know how Jacques is, he’s just the greatest sort of storyteller. And I fed off his energy, and we started talking about what it was like to be in New York in the early ’80s. He of course talked about the ’70s as well, and then talking a little bit about his career in France, working for the president of France, all his appearances on TV back in the day, Julia Child. I wish somebody had recorded it, because Will Guidara was there, and afterwards he goes, “That was the most remarkable thing I've ever heard in my life.”

Jacques Pepin, Jean-Claude, Drew Nieporent, Mark Oldman
Jean-Claude Szurdak, Jacques Pépin, Mark Oldman, and Drew Nieporent aboard the Bombardier private jet.

Food & Wine Archives

David Chang (Chef and TV Host): I’d never been on a private jet before, and then, next thing you know, a guy that I used to work for was whipping up caviar and eggs on a private jet: Daniel Boulud cooking on a private jet. It was ridiculous.

What it means to be there 

Bobby Flay: Food & Wine had two things that every chef wanted: Best New Chef and to be invited to Aspen because it was really the only food and wine festival that had any gravitas at all. Do you know how I got there? I’m in my late twenties, early thirties. There’s no TV me. W. Peter Prestcott calls me up in my kitchen at Mesa Grill one night and says, “I need a favor. I have to make amends with Kings supermarket. I need you to do a cooking class in New Jersey, and if you do this for me, you’ll get invited to Aspen.” I’ll go to events, and now everybody just wants to take pictures; no one cares about the food as much. It drives me crazy. But in Aspen, they really care about the food. 

Kristen Kish (Chef and TV Host): My most memorable Classic was the first one after winning Top Chef. It’s memorable and overwhelming at the same time because I came from a relatively secondary place in all of these food festivals. I was Barbara's [Lynch] assistant who would go along with her. For me to finally have a place in which it was me, that’s a huge deal — especially since I was 28 or something. The second one was very memorable because it was over Father’s Day weekend. My parents were in the audience at the demo, and I brought them up because why not? The next day, Sunday morning, on the front cover of The Aspen Times was a picture of me and my dad at the demo. And I was like, well, this is just the cutest Father’s Day ever. It’s a really cool thing to be able to invite them into my world in that way. 

Susan Feniger (Chef): Back in the ’90s, there wasn’t a ton of high-end Mexican stuff happening. [Mary Sue Milliken] and I had been introducing people to ingredients from Mexico because the Classic wasn’t particularly eclectic at that point. We always brought a lot of ingredients so that we could teach people about things like achiote and epazote and hoja santa and all the different chiles. I would go into the audience and have them taste different ingredients. That was in the days of Too Hot Tamales; we tried to bring some of that to this group that maybe was more used to Jonathan Waxman or Emeril and things that were a little bit more mainstream. We tried to push them into learning about ingredients from around the world.

Guy Fieri and Brooke Williamson
Guy Fieri and Brooke Williamson at the Classic.

Gamma Nine

Brooke Williamson (Chef): I have terrible stage fright. And I’ve always been really caught up in my head about that, especially at a demo as important as Aspen. And then two years ago, I got put in one of the big tents right next to Guy Fieri. Guy and I are friends, and he was like, “Oh, that’s fun.” I was like, “Why is that fun? We don’t get to even see each other’s demos.” They started at the same time. I came in, I said hi, and my crowd cheered. And then all of a sudden, I heard Guy’s crowd cheer even louder. And I was like, “Guys, I don't want you to feel like you're missing out on something next door. So let’s make Guy feel that way.” And every time his crowd cheered, I was like, “All right, guys, cheer even louder.” And we had this cheering competition. I found out later on that he was doing the same thing. He was like, Give Brooke our cheers. And it was just such a lively, wonderful vibe in the room that it made me feel comfortable. I will always remember that as just one of the best demo experiences of my career.

JJ Johnson, Jonathan Waxman, Michel Nischan, Jacques Pepin, Hunter Lewis, Marcus Samuelsson toasting on the mountain
JJ Johnson, Jonathan Waxman, Michel Nischan, Jacques Pépin, Hunter Lewis, and Marcus Samuelsson toast at the top of Aspen Mountain.

Huge Galdones

Hubert Keller: Coming from France, I was never trained to teach a cooking class. Food & Wine magazine invites me to the Classic, and they say part of it will be to teach a cooking class. I was afraid that in Snowmass or in Aspen, nobody knows who I am. They said, “Oh, your class is sold out. You have almost 300 people in your class.” And I think from that phone call until I made it to Aspen, I didn’t sleep well because I could not imagine talking to so many people at once. It was so long ago, but I remember everything in detail. I had two banquet tables, three cassette burners. When I started teaching, suddenly there was silence in the room. I thought, I think they’re listening to what I’m saying — I got their attention. It was really an amazing experience that I will never forget.

Marcus Samuelsson (Chef): For me, relationships, opportunity, being able to give back, and being able to learn has happened in the mountains of Aspen. There’s also been moments of deep sorrow. I remember when Anthony Bourdain died, chefs were crying on each other’s shoulders, but we had Aspen where we could talk about it, and it was a safe place for us, where we could talk about Tony. It was also a place where we could talk about mental health. We needed to see each other and have trusted conversations where it wasn’t public. When he passed, we needed to talk about a lot of things that were good about our industry, but also what was bad about it. We need moments to talk, we need moments to gather, and Aspen does that.

Brother Luck (Chef): I always think back to while we were filming Top Chef in Aspen. We were all in the shuttle, and we were passing the airport, and Fatima Ali goes, “Hey guys, one day when I get big and famous after the show comes out, I’m gonna fly you all here on my private jet.” I’m gonna get emotional, but we were laughing about it because she was dead serious, and then, you know, she got sick. The next year, Joe Flamm, Joe Sasto, and Fatima were all cooking together for the reception and just getting to hang out with Fati as she was battling her cancer. I have the picture on my wall at my house of all of us in Aspen. It was powerful because it was one of the first times she had cooked after she had gone through her chemo treatments. I’ll always treasure that weekend of getting to watch her just unwind and have fun in the last year of her life. That’s Aspen.

Jonathan Waxman at Wonderland-themed Publisher's Party
Jonathan Waxman at Wonderland-themed Publisher's Party on Aspen Mountain.

Huge Galdones

Jonathan Waxman: The Classic sort of changes people’s lives. When you’re a restaurateur, you like having a routine. When you go to Aspen, you’re asked to get out of that comfort zone into something special. You’re expected to perform better, you’re expected to think better, you’re expected to converse better, you’re expected to be a better version of yourself — because you’re on the pedestal. Everybody’s looking at everybody. While it’s not a competitive thing, there is a certain sensibility that this is as good as it gets. Don’t screw it up.

Top of the mountain

Dwyane Wade and Marcus Samuelsson take a selfie on the mountain
Dwyane Wade and Marcus Samuelsson take a selfie on Aspen Mountain.

Marc Fiorito

[Editors’ note: The 16-minute ski gondola ride to the top of Aspen Mountain is a rite of passage for Best New Chefs, invited talent, and other attendees of the annual Publisher’s Party, outside of which that iconic shot of assembled chefs and wine pros is taken most years.]

Huge Galdones (Classic Photographer): The culmination for me is that big chef shot at the top of the mountain. We had 25, 30 talent plus the Food & Wine staff, and certain years chef Pépin would saber a bottle and just spray it all over. It’s kind of iconic. For everyone — or mostly everyone — to be a good sport about getting wet with Champagne. 

Jacques Pepin, Jean-Claude, and Cesare Casella play bocce
Jacques Pépin, Jean-Claude Szurdak, and Cesare Casella play bocce on Aspen Mountain.

Perry Johnson

Ken Goodman (Classic Photographer): Some of my favorite photographs I’ve taken at Aspen have been the B-roll from the saber bottle. I think the only other person able to do that with the carte blanche that Jacques Pépin has is Daniel Boulud. You gotta be a certain caliber of icon to be able to saber the bottle and just spray people who are dressed very nicely. Some of the young guns have tried, and it does not go over the same way. The gondola ride is always epic. It never never gets old, either. It takes longer than you think. Then you finally get up there, and it’s like there’s nothing else like it. It’s an iconic photo every year, and every year the players are different. 

Brooke Williamson: I’m really afraid of heights, and that gondola ride to the top of the mountain totally freaks me out. It’s the longest ride on the face of the earth. It feels like three hours. The first year I rode to the top of the mountain, Danny Meyer and Daniel Boulud were in my car. Danny could see that I was really nervous, and he told me to sit facing him and proceeded to ask me every question about my entire life for the next 20 minutes. And as we got toward the top of the hill, I was like, Oh my God, I’ve been OK this whole time. And I looked at him, and I was like, “I see what you just did there.” That was a really great way to get to know Danny Meyer. And then we got to the top, and Daniel got out of the gondola and noticed everybody was wearing jackets, and he just had like a sweater tied around his neck, and he felt really underdressed for the photo. And my husband gave him his coat to wear. To this day my husband is like, “I can’t believe Daniel’s wearing my jacket in that photo.”

Stephanie Izard (Chef): One year we were up there at the top of the mountain doing an event, and we all did a “Cheers!” and took a picture. I took one sip of wine and suddenly that level of dehydration hit. Someone went over to the corner with the oxygen tank, and I was able to recover for sure. But it’s very important to drink lots of water before you head to Aspen so that when you’re there, you are good to go.

Marcus Samuelsson: Back in the early 2000s, I wrote down on a piece of paper every year what I wanted to achieve. Aspen was always on that short list. It was a prestigious opportunity to be around the best, not just your peers but also in the industry. Having the chance to get to know icons like Jacques Pépin, and maybe having the opportunity to ask Danny Meyer a question that I just couldn’t in New York because everyone had just a little bit more time to ask that secondary question. For me, as a young buck coming up, that was the golden opportunity to be part of that. I don’t think I felt like I belonged for the first five years, but somewhere along the way, I’m like, “Yeah, I’m here.” It’s humbling, and once you jump on that gondola, it’s out of your hands. I love nothing more than to see how that mountaintop image has shifted a little. Who’s new here? And how excited that new person is. And that new chef always inspires [me]: “Marcus, you should be just as excited as this chef. ’Cause she or he has worked so hard to get there, and don’t ever forget that level of joy.” 

Brother Luck: In 2021, I ended up at the Top-of-the-Mountain Party, and I felt like such an imposter. I was so insecure about being up there. I had a ticket; it wasn’t like I had snuck up there. It wasn’t until I ran into Marcus Samuelsson, and I was like, “I just don't feel like I belong here.” He told me, “Brother, look around. We’re standing on the top of a mountain right now, and it doesn’t matter how you climb this mountain. It’s the fact that you’re here. You’ve worked your own way up this mountain. We all have. Get past that.” I think it’s so special to have a chef validate you.

Andrew Zimmern (Chef and TV Host): I’ve been sober 32 years, and my sobriety started because I tried to kill myself, and it didn’t work. We go and do those pictures that the magazine has used traditionally to promote the next year’s event, and my eyes tear up every time they’re taking that picture because I’ve had beyond my wildest dreams. If you were there 30 years ago and told me to write down on a piece of paper, “What do you want your life in food to look like?” and that dream came true, it would’ve paled in comparison to what’s actually happened. That’s a very heavy-duty emotional thing.

Only at the Classic

Morimoto kisses a fish
Masaharu Morimoto and a fish at the Food & Wine Classic.

David Sawyer

Dana Cowin: For my 10-year anniversary at Food & Wine in 2004, at the big party on the mountain, they created a cake for me that was 15 feet tall, and Drew Nieporent and Danny Meyer dragged the cake out in the middle of the party, and Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud popped out of the top of the cake and said, “Happy anniversary.”

Marc Oldman Jordan Cellars
Marc Oldman taps a 'Goliath' bottle of Jordan Cellars wine.

Marc Fiorito

Mark Oldman: In my wine seminars, I’ll saber not just a regular bottle, but a three-liter bottle. I beg the producers to not only provide their best wines, but in beautiful bottles, because their visual impressiveness and relative scarcity make them kind of like the extroverts of oenophilia. They’re objects of fascination and flamboyance, and they make for great selfie magnets, too. So I’ve had big bottles from Schrader, like Old Sparky — you know, one of the world’s best Cabernet Sauvignons — or the finest Burgundy in Bordeaux. I have fortunately been able to beg and convince wineries to bottle not only a never-seen melchior, which is 18 liters, 24 bottles. One even bottled in a 27 liter — that’s 36 bottles in one. [Editors’ note: It was the 2016 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Beaulieu’s 80th anniversary vintage, which we poured in 2021.] These wineries have never bottled this large, so they’re doing it just for my Aspen classes. Many of these wineries have shipped these bottles with extra care. Some have sent pictures where these giant bottles are strapped in like a child with a seatbelt in a seat. Jordan flew it on their private jet to Aspen. It just adds to the specialness. I’m always trying to think, how can you up the ante on that? Only at the Aspen Classic.

Ray Isle on horseback in front of Kemo Sabe
Ray Isle on horseback in front of Kemo Sabe, a western-wear shop in Aspen.

Luis Zepeda

Ray Isle (Food & Wine Executive Wine Editor): The owners of Kemo Sabe [a western-wear store in Aspen] have a horse, and they asked me if I wanted to ride the horse into the store. And because I’m an idiot, I said sure. Carrying a glass of wine while riding made for a great social media photo, but I realized once we got into the store that while I was fine being on a horse in the store, the horse was not all that fine with being in the store with a whole lot of people around and was getting kind of skittish. And since the store was full of glass cabinets full of western wear, and at any moment I could be tossed into one of those glass cabinets, I got off the horse fairly quickly.

Danny Meyer: I would try to teach people that as you try to learn about the wine and what you’re supposed to like, what really matters is that you figure out that you like yourself. I came up with this idea to do a tasting matrix where I would come up with a kind of food that you eat every day that was not fancy. We did hot dogs, delicatessen, barbecue, tacos. I dressed up like a hot dog one year. Pat Miller would come every year — she had a radio show in Denver called the Gabby Gourmet — and she had met this guy who was a hot dog specialist, who sold his hot dogs in a parking lot. She introduced us. I got him to come to Aspen, and he brought five different kinds of hot dogs: bison, elk, who the hell knows? That would come down the left side of the page, and across the top would be five different wines that I thought would go well with hot dogs. There would always be Champagne, a couple white wines, a couple red wines. Each person ended up doing 25 different tastings because they would taste each wine with each food. 

A mime entertains David Chang and other guests
A mime entertains David Chang and other guests at a party during the Classic.

AMEX Trade Program

David Chang: Food & Wine asked me to do a barbecue dinner. I was able to get Wylie Dufresne, and they gave us carte blanche. We tried to make it the least corporate-friendly thing ever made in Aspen. The food was great, but the best thing that ever happened in Aspen, in my opinion, was that I said that the only other way that this will happen is if we get mimes. They were able to secure three mimes. So in this cocktail party with a lot of corporate people, around the second hour, all of a sudden, you had people going around the party in mime costumes, with mime makeup, pantomiming. It was the most surreal, amazing thing I’ve ever seen. 

Christina Grdovic: For the 30th anniversary, we had Elvis Costello perform, and we had Michel Nischan and José Andrés cook the food. That’s a lifetime highlight, never mind an Aspen highlight.

Gail Simmons (TV Judge, Food & Wine Special Projects Director, 2004–19): Wines From Spain always threw this momentous party on Thursday night after the welcome reception. They would rent some outlandish home just outside of town and have all the industry there. José Andrés always hosted, and he just went over the top. This is pre-José’s current mission; I’m talking 15 years ago. He was always the most generous human in the world and always the biggest cheerleader for his homeland of Spain. The wine, the food, the generosity of spirit, the vibe. You would show up at this house, and out in this crazy backyard that overlooked the Rocky Mountains, José was roasting a whole pig, simultaneously slicing jamón Ibérico, dolloping it with quenelles of caviar, and shoving it in your face with his own hands, and pouring Cava. On the other side of the backyard was a five-foot-wide paella pan with langoustines and other seafood. It just was the most delicious, outrageous party that went far into the night. 

Mishaps and shenanigans

Ken Goodman with porron
Photographer Ken Goodman drinks from a porron.

Huge Galdones

Pam Blanton (Former PR Manager for the Classic): We had pitched a summer barbecue story to Good Morning America with Julia Child doing the barbecue and Danny Meyer doing the accompanying wine, and it was gonna be on Red Mountain. Julia was doing fried chicken, potato salad, and a tart. We had, of course, the publisher, the editor, the director of marketing, a whole slew of Food & Wine [people] up there as well as all of Good Morning America. They’ve done the whole thing, and then Julia raises her glass, and she says, “Bon appétit!” And they call me over and they’re like, “She has to close with ‘Food & Wine.’” I’m like, OK. I go over, and I’m whispering to her, “Miss Child, this is the Food & Wine magazine Classic. You’ve got to say Food —” OK, OK. So they get back to it, she raises her glass, and she looks at Danny, and he’s got that twinkle in his eye. She raises her glass, and she says, “And Danny, bon appétit!” four times, and they are just like, cut, cut, cut. And finally I’m like, “Guys, it’s gonna be f—ing bon appétit.” Food & Wine was not happy with me.

Andrew Zimmern dips Dana Cowin at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen
Andrew Zimmern dips Dana Cowin at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

Huge Galdones

Dean Fearing (Chef): Coming out of Texas into the mountain area was just so new for us. The camaraderie was unbelievable from Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, all of our chef buddies who were relatively young and new in our positions. We were still in the takeover of the French, so to speak. Daniel Boulud said, “I want to go to a bar. I want to go to a real western-style bar.” We just finished cooking, prepping for the day, and we went over in our chef coats. Then a barroom brawl happened. It was a shotgun bar, and the bar was way up in the front, tables all the way to the door. I was like, Oh my God. Twelve guys started this fight up front, and it was heading straight to us. I remember grabbing Daniel on the back of his chef coat and pulling him back. I was trying to get him out as he’s struggling, like, “No, no, I want to see this. I’ve never seen this before.” Like, a real American bar brawl. All of a sudden, cop cars are right up in front, lights on, coming in, arresting everybody. We’re sneaking out of there as fast as we could. 

Daniel Boulud (Chef): That was my first big event in the Midwest or in the mountains in cowboy land. Dean, knowing well these kinds of places and bars, grabbed me and pulled me out and took me outside and said, “Don’t get involved in the middle. Don’t think it’s funny.”

Shota Nakajima (Chef): The first year, I was doing the mountaintop event, and I was cooking for 500 people or something like that, and my curry was warmed up. I saw it bubbling, so I turned it off, but it wasn’t warm; it was just bubbling. And I realized that 10 minutes before the event, and I was like, Oh my God, my curry is so cold. And we have a line outside. So I ran around as fast as I could and split it into seven different pots and just cranked it and warmed it up. But we’re all the way up there. And I ran up the stairs, I grabbed pots, and ran downstairs and moved as fast as I could for 10 minutes, completely out of breath. Go to my station, and the line does not stop, and I’m just like, what is happening? So near the end, I’m just … throwing microgreens and dancing, and having a great time.

Ray Isle: I was at a downstairs performance and, oh God, it was like being in the worst version of someone’s high school den. It was a band performance by Tom Colicchio, Joe Bastianich, Michel Nischan, and one or two other people in someone’s basement. David Lynch was a sommelier who was an Aspen speaker. It was quite crowded, and he didn’t realize that his back was to a candle, and he managed to set himself on fire. So I have helped put out a burning sommelier. He was not injured; we got to him very quickly. 

Devin Padgett: One of our partners, Singapore, had a big pavilion in Wagner Park, and lots of chefs and food and drink. It was Friday morning, and we were just getting ready to kick off the first grand tasting of the day. And the sprinklers all came on. People were running around, getting soaked. Singapore was so smart, they grabbed big stainless steel mixing bowls. I ran in there, and these bowls were on top of the sprinkler heads with chefs sitting on top of the bowls. They were the only ones perfectly dry … And there may or may not have been a few times when we had shopping cart races up and down the streets of Durant and Aspen at two o’clock in the morning, post-party. 

Justin Chapple (Food & Wine Culinary Director at Large): When we still had the Classic Cook-Off on Sundays, where two top-chef folks would compete with surprise celebrity guests, one of the traditions was that somebody from the team would go and buy Egg McMuffins for everybody. [Editors’ note: The Classic Cook-Off, a 25-minute competition, was hosted by Sissy Biggers.] This was back when there was still a McDonald’s in downtown Aspen. You would order them in advance and go pick ’em up. I woke up one morning, and somebody was like, where is [name redacted]? He’s supposed to pick up the Egg McMuffins. And I happened to be sharing a condo with [name redacted], and he had slept through an alarm. And so I jumped out of bed, I went to McDonald’s, and I ordered 200 Egg McMuffins, and they hated me. I put them on my credit card, went back, and was like, I’ll figure out how to get reimbursed for these Egg McMuffins later.

Christina Grdovic: At the end of the weekend, we used to do the Classic Cook-Off, which was hands down my favorite thing. It was always so fun and so energetic, and we would get the most random sous chefs. One year we had P!nk and Kevin Costner and Allison Janney and NBA player John Salley. I’m pretty sure Bobby Flay was the one who lit the mirror on fire — not on fire because it’s not actually a mirror  — and almost melted it. I think that incident is why we don’t do the Cook-Off anymore. [Editors’ note: It was Michael Symon, who was partnered with Flay.]

Michael Symon does a cooking demo
Michael Symon burns a hole in the mirror above the stage at the Classic Cook-Off.

Huge Galdones

The Aspen effect

Hunter Lewis (F&W Editor in Chief, 2017–Present): You can’t overstate how important Aspen is for the restaurant and wine and hospitality industries for networking, business, and commerce. There’s so many deals that get done behind the scenes during the middle of the day or late at night at The Little Nell. I have a friend who sold a huge deal to Target for a proprietary line of wine, and that was over casual conversation and a burger. That happens all day long. Of course people are coming for work meetings and to make deals, but also, it just happens naturally.

Jimmy Yeager (Owner of Jimmy’s restaurant and bar in Aspen): Aspen was how Del Maguey mezcal got launched. I opened up the restaurant in ’97 [during the Classic weekend] with the four basic village mezcals, and by February of ’98, I got a call from Ron Cooper. He wanted to know what I was doing with the mezcal because I had sold more than anybody else in two and a half years, even though I was only open seven months, and I sold more than all the accounts in Colorado combined. In May of ’98, I introduced Steve Olson to Ron Cooper, and we all went down to Oaxaca for the first time. When I got back, I called Ron, and I said, “Why don’t you fill your car up with as much mezcal as you can and come on up to Aspen. I’m going to show spirits in the grand tasting tent, and let’s show you off, too.” And for the following 20-plus years, Ron would stay at my house, and we would show Del Maguey to the world. So in a weird way, the epicenter of the mezcal movement began in Aspen and was grown out of Aspen in the connections that Ron made and the people who tasted mezcal at the Classic. Now mezcal is so well known and widely enjoyed, but it all started at Jimmy’s in Aspen. It’s crazy.

Ti Adelaide Martin: I have this vivid memory at the Amex Trade panel at the Classic. I was walking out, and Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio came up and said hi. They were talking about tipping. And they’re like, “We’re gonna eliminate it.” I’m like, “Well, I might be a second flank. Let’s see how this goes.” We all appreciated and understood the thinking, but I mean, that was huge. That had to be seven, eight years ago. [Editors’ note: Meyer later reintroduced tipping at Union Square Hospitality Group.] Those are the conversations you get to have with your colleagues, walking down the street or coming out of a panel. It’s just unbelievable. 

Danny Meyer: In 1992, I was helping Michael Romano with his dish, which was porcini gnocchi. I wanna say Tom Colicchio was doing squab. We had a great time talking in the kitchen. After that, Tom said, “Let’s have breakfast one morning at a café across the street from the drugstore that’s next to the [Hotel] Jerome, toward Paepcke Park.” Everybody hangs there in the morning. There’s a backyard. That’s where Tom and I hatched the plan to open Gramercy Tavern. He told me confidentially that his restaurant Mondrian was about to go out of business, and he knew I was a fan, and we had had fun cooking together. My wife, Audrey, saw us talking. Neither one of us wanted to get to the point. We both wanted to do something. I was never gonna have a second restaurant, but she said, “Why don’t you guys just do what you want to do and open a new restaurant?” That became Gramercy Tavern.

Dana Cowin: Babies were made in Aspen, marriages are made in Aspen, partnerships are made in Aspen, deals are made in Aspen. Part of it is the proximity. Everyone’s traversing the same 10 blocks and eating in the same, whatever, 20 restaurants. It is like the best set for a play where the most famous actors are just hanging out and living on the set with you, and you can go up and talk to them. My kids went to the Classic a lot. Dave Chang, back in the day, came over and shopped at the grocery store in town and then did prep at The Little Nell and cooked ramen for my kids in the condo. It’s not everyone’s experience, but I’m just saying there was something about the casualness and the intimacy, and all the pretense drops ’cause you’re in this place. Like, I would never ask Dave Chang to come make my kids ramen in New York City, I promise you. 

Gail Simmons: The very first season of Top Chef, I was standing in the courtyard of the grand tasting tent, and Bobby Flay came up to me, and we started chatting. “Tell me about the show. What was it like?” And I remember asking him for advice about doing television, like, “What do I do now? I don't really know if I wanna do this. And what if there’s a next season?” And I remember him saying, “Don’t get ahead of yourself. Just take each day. But know that if you ever have questions or you ever need help navigating, you can always just give me a call.” I remember his genuine excitement that there was something new and different that we were doing, and the respect he had for it, and his help. And that led to a friendship between us. Years later, he actually ended up helping me a lot with my job. I’ll always remember that conversation standing in Aspen with him. 

Ken Goodman: I became Jacques Pépin’s photographer because I got to know him and his family through the Aspen Classic. Aspen created that for me. Jonathan Waxman, one year at Aspen, said, “I’m doing a cookbook, and you’re gonna photograph it.” Didn’t even ask me. Aspen invited those things into our lives. We’re richer for it, we’re better photographers for it, we’re better connected for it. I think anybody who goes to Aspen, whether you’re there as a ticket buyer or in a crew of photographers, you’re gonna come away with moments that you weren’t prepared for, that you couldn’t have imagined in your wildest dreams. 

Publisher's Party at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen
Chris Cosentino, dressed as a gorilla, sits on Andrew Zimmern's lap.

Ken Goodman

Andrew Zimmern: I’m walking down the hall with Marcus Samuelsson because he was in ballroom A. I was in ballroom B, and we were checking our mise en place. We see Jacques and one of his friends cutting vegetables together and talking in French. I was just scared shitless that I would just be the worst father in the world because I wasn’t around my son when he was young. Jacques said, “I was never around Claudine, but now we work together all the time. So you never know when you’re going to have your time with your child.” And it adjusted my mental health. I mean, I was looking through the wrong end of the telescope at my relationship. 

Twenty-five or 26 years ago at the Classic was the first time I saw Thomas Keller when I was sober. The last time I saw him, he was chasing me out of his restaurant in New York City because it was a job I drank myself out of. I was in the back watching [his demo], and he literally stopped. I saw him look at me, and it was like he had seen a ghost. And I knew that he was looking at me. I walked up. I gave him a big hug, and he whispered in my ear, “I thought the next time I see you would be after hearing you were dead,” because I was not a casual drinker and was lucky to be alive. It’s pretty amazing to think about those moments that are so deeply connected to that thing in Aspen. Maybe that’s why I have such a passion for all of these events — Thomas Keller breaks into tears seeing me because he thought I was dead. Where else are you going to have that experience? You’re just not.

José Andrés and Thomas Keller
Thomas Keller and José Andrés celebrate the Classic's 30th anniversary.

Allan Zepeda

Hunter Lewis: I remember having a beautiful bottle of Saint-Joseph at the end of the night one night at The Little Nell with Jonathan Waxman and Carlton McCoy when Carlton was still working there. And that was a full-circle moment for me because I’d cooked for Jonathan and had come up in his kitchens, and he’s the first person I called before the news broke that I had gotten the job [as editor in chief at Food & Wine]. Little did I know that I would see him at a lot of Food & Wine events, but we had that moment to sit down and reflect during the busyness of it all. 

Mark Oldman: People are bringing to the party big, beautiful magnums. They’re not skimping; they want to share. The hospitality community already has this sharing gene where we’re all kind of just afflicted with it, for better or worse, where we love sharing. It brings extra dopamine into our brains when we share food and wine. But I think with wine, whether it’s the big bottles or special bottles or rare bottles, the sharing mixes with the thin mountain air, and you have — what did the ancient Greeks call it? — kind of an ecstatic feeling. Everything feels sublime, and friendships are formed that way. That can’t be emphasized enough that over beautiful wine and in the beautiful scenery in the mountain air and in the general feeling of generosity, new friendships form. I can drink all the grands crus in the world, but the thing that you’re left with that’s so special are these friendships.

Devin Padgett: Nicole Nordling worked at Food & Wine in New York with the marketing team. Chris Grdovic and that whole team back in the mid-’90s worked for Julie McGowan, who was the publisher of Food & Wine. Nicole came out to support Julie for the Classic of 1996, I wanna say. Julie set us up. Julie was like Nicole, Devin; Devin, Nicole. I don’t wanna get gushy and gooey, but we were married two years later. There are lots of those stories — we call it the weekend of love out here in Aspen. 

Diella Allen (Food & Wine Executive Director of Event Marketing, 2018–Present): One year, Two Twelve Management hosted this late-night chef party. No media was allowed; no consumer audience was there. It was in this big, beautiful Aspen mansion. It was amazing. Daniel Boulud was making grilled cheese sandwiches, and Ming Tsai was cooking in the kitchen, and everybody was drinking, and there was fun music. I decided to sneak off and explore the off-limits areas. I’m prowling around on the second floor, and suddenly, the light flips on. And there’s a man standing there, and he’s like, “Can I help you?” And I’m stammering that I was looking for the bathroom, and he said, “Let me give you a tour.” So I said, “OK, great.” So he gives me a tour of the house. And I go back to my friends, and we hang out the rest of the evening. After I got home, I sent him a thank-you note for the tour. It was one of the very long list of thank-you notes that I sent out after the Classic. He thought I was hitting on him, so he wrote me back, and he was funny. After a couple of weeks, he finally asked me out. We’ve now been married for 13 years, and we have a beautiful seven-year-old daughter named Hazel. It's a Classic love story. There are many of them.

Top photo by Allan Zepeda

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