“Welcome to Aspen East!” one of the publicists for the Foxwoods second annual Food & Wine Festival said as she greeted people on Friday.
You gotta love plucky marketing.
The event, like Aspen, was something of a reunion, and I had yet to put down my bags when I ran into Steve Shipley from Johnson & Wales and minor celebrity chef Michel Nischan (minor but as warm and good-natured as any chef I know).
Here he is (on the right), with chef Jean-Pierre Vuillermet.
But Aspen’s Food & Wine Magazine Classic is the mother of American food and wine festivals, and the town itself is a luxurious resort in the beautiful Rocky Mountains.
Foxwoods is a gigantic casino for the masses. It’s in the pretty countryside of the Mashantucket-Pequot nation’s section of Connecticut, and it was the largest casino in the world until recently, when a bigger one opened in Macao, but it ain’t Aspen.
Still, the turnout wasn’t bad. Exhibitors in the banquet hall where the “grand tasting” was held said attenance was way up from last year. And the event did draw some big-name celebrities in the food world.
I heard two things over and over again: “Mutton Man!” from Grub Street’s Josh Ozersky, who calls me that for reasons lost to history; and “This is off the record!” from chef agent Scott Feldman.
Scott is my networking role model. He’s a genius and, it turns out, old high school friends with my freshman year college roommate, Michael Yudell, who now is a professor of public health at Drexel. Roslyn, N.Y., raised some good people. Better than you’d expect, really.
Not off the record and from Scott: Rocco Laterzo no longer works for American Express.
I had my first dinner of the festival at Al Dente, an old school American-style Italianish restaurant, with journalists, mostly travel writers, whom I hadn’t met before, except for Andrew Linick of The Practical Gourmet, whom I’m pretty sure I met many years ago at the opening of Lundy’s in Times Square (which closed shortly thereafter).
I had arugula salad with endive, lemon and olive oil topped with Parmesan cheese, followed by halibut sautéed with lemon, capers and shaved fennel, while sharing life stories with Los Angeles-based freelance writer Earl Heath and his wife (I think wife; I don't really know) Rita. He’s from nearby Waterford, Conn., and she’s from Wyoming, so we had amusing high-altitude stories to share.
Then at the afterparty that night I reconnected with some more New England chefs, like Andy Husbands, the chef of Tremont 647 in Boston, whom I’d met some years ago when he was one of the “celebrated chefs” of the National Pork Producers Council, a year-long gig that by all accounts is a lot of fun.
Here’s Andy (on the right) with restaurant consultant Ed Doyle
Michael Schlow, one of the featured celebrity chefs of the event, was there and confirmed a rumor that he was opening a restaurant in Foxwoods. It will be an incarnation of Alta Strada, his Italian restaurant in Wellesley, Mass., and will be at Foxwoods’ MGM Grand, which is slated to open in May.
I was wondering why Michael Schlow was listed as a celebrity chef and Michael Symon, whom I think enjoys about similar celebrity, was just listed as a chef, but the Foxwoods connection kind of explains it I think. And Mr. Schlow probably is more of a celebrity in New England, since Michael Symon is based in Cleveland and his New York venture, Parea, didn’t last too long.
New York Restaurateur Jimmy Bradley was there, too, and I learned that he and Danny Abrams were no longer partners — something I apparently should have known a long time ago.
In fact, it was reported in The New York Times in May of 2006. But hey, you can’t remember everything.
One of the very nice things about the Foxwoods festival is that nothing much was scheduled before noon. So I slept in until it was time to go to the Grand Tasting, which mostly featured wine and spirits, and beer, including a gluten-free sorghum beer which Ming Tsai’s chefs found interesting.
Ming Tsai’s big on catering to customers with allergies, because his son has many of them. I learned this later in the afternoon when I wandered into the press room while he was being interviewed. What else I learned: Iron Chef provides contestants with three possible mystery items, so they have some warning of what they might have to work with. When Ming Tsai had to cook duck on the show, he knew it would be duck, chicken or squab.
Squab. I used to see squab on a lot of menus, I really did, just a few years ago. These days, not so much. I wonder why.
Speaking of Iron Chef, I sat in on Morimoto’s demonstration, because he’ll be cooking at the Nation’s Restaurant News Culinary R&D conference in a couple of weeks. (The conference is September 28 and 29 at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles and is free to restaurant operators. Register now).
Dinner that night was a gala masquerade, and then there was an afterparty on the 24th floor, at Foxwoods’ fine dining restaurant, Paragon.
David Burke was at both of those (he’s opening three restaurants at Foxwoods when the MGM Grand opens). He also participated in the celebrity chef poker game on Sunday, which New York chef Franklin Becker of Brasserie won — and so $15,000 will go to a charity to treat autism. Ming Tsai came in second.
Here’s Franklin (on the left), with his agent, Scott Feldman.
At Saturday’s afterparty I met Junior’s owner Alan Rosen (Junior’s is opening a restaurant off of the MGM lobby and a coffee bar on the casino floor), and Top Chef’s Sam Talbot.
I’m going to have to start watching that show. I hate reality TV, and I don’t like to watch food TV because I like to turn off my brain when I watch TV, and if food’s involved I feel like I have to pay attention. But the show’s stars are becoming part of my world, and they seem to be good people. I could take being-nice lessons from Sam Talbot.
Harold Dieterle, formerly of Top Chef and now of Perilla restaurant in New York, was at Foxwoods, too. I saw him posing for a picture with fans at the Grand Tasting and I asked him if that happens a lot.
“Yeah, man, where’s my security?” he said (he was joking).
Following the afterparty, which ended promptly at 1 a.m. as that’s last call in Connecticut (I was told that last call was 2 a.m. on weekends, but it isn’t at Foxwoods), we went downstairs and...
“This is off the record!”