The Food and Wine Classic in Aspen is Still Everything All at Once

Over the weekend of June 17 to 19, The Food and Wine Classic returned to Aspen for its 39th year. Dubbed “The Summit of Innovation,” the event continued its tradition of bringing together a downright obscene amount of talent from across the worlds of cooking, winemaking, distilling and entrepreneurship. While officially centered around multiple daily Grand Tastings and a lengthy list of cooking seminars, panels and sip-centered presentations, the festival effectively transformed the entire town into a bacchanal of endless possibility — as basically every bar, restaurant and hotel played host to peripheral parties presented and sponsored by some of the biggest names in food and beverage. Attendees could be found careening from the bustle of Wagner Park’s two tremendous pavilions to dinners, pairings and festivities of every description. Institutions like the Hotel Jerome provided some stellar programming — with a blend of ticketed and free events supplying fodder for what amounted to nothing short of a labyrinthine choose-your-own-adventure. More than a few members of the crowd survived solely on a diet of ancillary soirees.

With an endless stream of hooch of every ilk, it’d be easy to characterize the festival simply by the debauch, grandeur and reverie. Though to do so would be missing the ever-present nuance, that organizers have been careful to cultivate despite everything being turned up to 11. For many of the participants, the weekend is not only a party but a victory lap and a chance to present to tastemakers, diehard fans and sophisticates from across the globe. Byron Gomez — an Eleven Madison Park alumni who competed on Top Chef season 18 and most recently helmed the kitchen at the celebrated and now-shuttered local hotspot 7908 — opened the whole weekend, using the welcome luncheon as an opportunity to honor his Costa Rican roots. “I was telling my story and giving these people something they hadn’t seen before. At the Coachella of food festivals in the United States,” grinned the chef as he discussed the cheers that greeted his spin on chifrijo — a dish of chicharrones, beans and pico de gallo. “Again this was a very humbling experience. Melo, Dwayne Wayde — the who’s who was eating Costa Rican food,” he continued, noting that he proudly sported an I AM AN IMMIGRANT tee-shirt as the spotlight shone on.

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While Aspen routinely serves as the hub for a disproportionate level of talent and celebrity, The Food and Wine Classic generates a culture where ticket-holding devotees, home cooks and admirers can hardly help but rub elbows with their idols. This is one of the festival’s strongest segments — the carefully curated structure makes intimacy essentially inevitable. “The overall vibe and energy level was warm and inviting, and we added some new elements to the programming this year as we continually work to create compelling experiences and set the table for the 40th anniversary in 2023,” said Food and Wine’s Editor in Chief Hunter Lewis. “We called the Food and Wine Classic the Summit of Innovation because during the four days of the Classic, we brought together a remarkable concentration of innovators in the food, beverage, and hospitality industries to the small town of Aspen — a concentration that would rival just about anywhere in the world,” he continued.

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Spread across a total of five grand tastings, the sheer volume of exhibitors meant that even the most ambitious diners would only wind up experiencing a fraction of all the represented delights. “Some standouts this year included… bringing the July issue to life in the Grand Tasting Pavilion by featuring PogiBoy’s Tocino burger and its creators in celebration of the cover story about the rise of Filipino chefs and cuisine in America which celebrates,” said Lewis. Other highlighted chefs and restaurants from the edition were also on the scene, including Claudette Zepeda and New York’s Indian fried chicken sensation Rowdy Rooster. Locals came out in force, with the likes of Mawa McQueen — the James Beard semi-finalist for Best Chef Mountain Region who runs Mawa’s Kitchen — serving up multiple small plates at each two-hour session.

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The weekend attracted culinary enthusiasts of every kind. Neatly-dressed home cook couples could be seen hastily darting from one cooking demo to the next, bemoaning their younger cohorts who spent more time digging up details as to where to find the after-after-after-party. Presentations started bright and early, with pockets of the town still visibly abuzz well after 3 a.m.

The outlying parties indeed pulled out all the stops, culminating with an invite-only Busta Rhymes show taking place Saturday afternoon at a palatial, five-story residence in the hills overlooking downtown. A Thursday night welcome party put on by Boisson — a growing purveyor of non-alcoholic spirits with multiple brick-and-mortars in New York — tapped Roy Choi and Michelin Sommelier of the Year Award-recipient and James Beard Award-winning journalist Miguel de Leon for a five-course paired meal that incorporated non-alcoholic wines, proxies and de Leon’s own creations.

The pinnacle of the whole weekend may have been the Aspen Meadows Juneteenth Celebration hosted by Food and Wine Executive Producer and epicurean darling Kwame Onwuachi, McBride Sisters Wine Company co-founder Robin McBride and Salamander Hotels CEO and BET co-founder Sheila Johnson. Various expressions from McBride’s Black Girl Magic line flowed freely and paired beautifully with Onwuachi’s small and large plates. Chickpea eggrolls, kampachi escabeche, and spicy chicken and waffles preceded hearty plates of thinly-sliced steak and quail eggs. A house band featuring Eugene Kiing and Caleb Minter played moving renditions of Stevie Wonder, H.E.R. and Daniel Caeser and Earth, Wind and Fire.

“We’re celebrating Juneteenth on the side of a fucking mountain,” beamed Onwuachi. While the whole weekend was full of exuberance and abandon, the closing party at Aspen Meadows was a hotbed of unmasked sincerity. The combined vision of the three hosts was dwarfed only by the fullness of their expert execution. “We had the pleasure of teaming up with Chef Kwame and the Salamander team last year for the inaugural family reunion event in Virginia. We also partnered with Chef Kwame on his book tour which was a blast,” said McBride, who has been producing top-tier juice since 2009. “With these wines, we strive to celebrate the magic of Black women and create a community and wine industry, that is diverse and welcoming to all wine lovers,” she continued. “I always have Black Girl Magic in my hand,” chuckled Onwuachi.

It’s no wonder The Food and Wine Classic attracts so many return customers. While the fundamentals remain largely the same, the unique variety ceaselessly entices those who are ready to cast themselves into the current of overwhelming potential.

The Food and Wine Classic in Aspen will return June 16 – 18, 2023. Stay up to date at Food and Wine’s website.