Monday, June 16, 2008

Champagne, chefs and Seamus

June 16

On Saturday afternoon, with the trade seminars done, the Cognac drunk, the blog updated, I headed to a restaurant called Dish, where I sipped iced coffee and met chef Jason Rogers of the St. Julien in Boulder. He was in town to cook a special dinner that evening. He had worked in Aspen for awhile, but he said he was enjoying the year-round business of the Front Range (that’s the mostly flat eastern slice of Colorado that includes all of the state’s major population centers, unless you count Grand Junction, which only people in Grand Junction do).
Incidentally, on Thursday I also met with Best New Chef Jeremy Fox of Ubuntu in Napa, a very soft-spoken young man, as many chefs are. In fact, shyness and/or hatred of people are two common personality traits in chefs, which is why they’ve chosen lives in the kitchen and why the kitchen is called a restaurant’s back-of-the-house.
Anyway, I skeedaddled from the interview to head up to the St. Regis, where a van was taking me to a tasting of Piper-Heidsieck’s Rare line of Champagne. Christian Holthausen, who’s that Champagne’s international communications director or something, and I go way back and it was good to see him. He clearly loves his job.
Even wine tastings sometimes have a little informal chatting period, like a cocktail hour except with wine, and I spent it mostly finding philosophical common ground with a right-wing journalist from Texas (we both favor free trade) and then settled in to sampling the 1999, 1998 (bottled only in Magnums) and the 1988 Rares. I sat next to former Nation’s Restaurant News columnist Ed McCarthy (whom Christian introduced as one of the world’s foremost Champagne experts, which he might be), who took copious notes with the gold pens we were given (it made sense, the tasting sheets they’d handed us were made of black paper).
Soon our car was ready to take us to the next stop of the evening, the Best New Chefs party. Our driver, who took us to the Piper-Heidsieck party as well as from it, was not your typical driver. She had a second home in the area and was driving to help out her friend who owned the company. Aspen’s a strange place. I suppose I should have tipped her anyway. It’s only fair.
Media — and I suppose VIPs; there are always VIPs — get into the Best New Chefs party early, and so I walked right past the long line of people waiting to get in (including former Best New Chef Randy Lewis — a great guy; I would have liked to have spent more time with him at the classic) and ducked inside. It’s awkward to walk to the front of a line like it’s your right to do so. It just is. But I did it all the same.
I caught up with other journalists, chatted with Jeremy Fox about his dish of peas on a spoon (it was much more complex than that, obviously, and delicious) and hit as many tables as I could before the hordes were let in.
Thomas John was at the party. He owned critically acclaimed Indian-accented restaurants in Boston before he became the corporate chef for the Au Bon Pain chain. We exchanged notes on the food at the party and generally caught up. He seemed well.
Soon after I bumped into Steve Dolinsky. I’d seen a lot of Steve because he was moderating the trade panels at the Classic. I’d met him years before at the Beard Awards, for which he is perennially nominated for a broadcasting award — he’s won 12 of them, yes 12. Steve’s an extremely nice guy, exemplified by the fact that he remembers a shrimp like me. He hasn’t been nominated for a Beard Award in, like, two years, but I’m sure that drought will end soon.
He suggested we hop on the bus to the next event, a pig roast and crab-and-beer fest at The Hickory House, where David Chang and Wylie Dufresne were dishing up pork products. I settled in at a table with Steve and his wife Amy, as well as Seamus Mullen, the chef of Boqueria in New York. I’d met Seamus once or twice, but not really, and so it was a pleasure to finally get to know him.
He’s a charming, laid-back raconteur who told me the tale of how he came to truly understand ripe, seasonal fruit when he was in Mexico (if I remember correctly this was during a bike trip he took to Panama; he took a bike trip to Panama). He was visiting a strange and remote island built by Aztecs that looked exactly like the Aztec calendar. His father had visited it years before and had encouraged him to go.
That’s how Seamus seems to tell anecdotes — long and rich in detail, but in a good way that keeps the story going.
Anyway, there was a mango tree, burdened with fruit. One dislodged itself as Seamus touched it, because it was that ripe. We also talked about Southeast Asia and how good the food is in Thailand, so naturally I recommended he eat at Rhong-Tiam in New York, where a lot of the food tastes like it does in Bangkok (Rhong-tiam recently changed its menu, removing the Thai writing in what looks like an attempt to make it appeal to white people; we’ll see how that works).
I chatted with assorted other people until the party was dead, which meant it was tricky getting cars back into downtown Aspen (Lexus was providing that service for free, but none of us had the phone number with us). But before too long I managed to get into a car that was going to the 212 House, Chef agent Scott Feldman’s annual after-hours party (his company’s named for the boiling point of water, not New York City’s area code, in case you were wondering), which was close enough to the middle of town. I figured I’d pop into the party, but the bouncer was disinclined to let me in and I wasn’t about to ask him “don’t you know who I am?” because I’m not that guy. Besides I was tired and, as I’d realized last year, disinclined to hang out with celebrity chefs and their groupies.
So I headed back to my hotel. Or tried to. At first I went the wrong way, so I doubled back, and as I walked past the 212 House again, Steve Dolinsky and Amy walked out, so we chatted about the trade seminars as we headed back into town.

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