Day two at the Classic was all about the seminars. I imagine if you go to many industry-related conferences these types of things are very commonplace. Four forty-five minute periods during the day in which authorities on a topic discuss their specific expertise with those gathered for the convention, the difference here being that the skill-set of these pundits is one everyone, or at least someone in every family, should to some extent have experience in: the preparation of sustenance. So the crowd consists more of people with a passion, than people with an obligation. When doctors get together they do so either to write off a vacation or because they need to learn new aspects of their chosen profession. People come to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen because they are passionate about food, some of them for no other reason. I am sure there are zealous petrochemical engineers at whatever earth-screwing conference oilmen throw, but I doubt many people with no relation to the industry are lining up an hour ahead of time to get a good seat for the opportunity to hear new ways to crack crude. I am at home among these people.
In the 9:00-9:45 a.m. slot I sat down to see José Andrés take on Two Ingredients Ten Ways. Minibar is certainly one of the most innovative places in America and I was not going to miss an opportunity to see the man behind it make ten dishes. Gathered on a raised stage with a heavily product placement-laden kitchen and a cantilevered mirror over the prep and cooking stations were Katsuya (Café Atlantico and it's Minibar's Executive Chef), a student from the CIA, José, and his two daughters (five and seven years old and proudly sporting Spanish soccer jerseys). A hilarious show ensued for the crowd as we watched the two chefs, gracefully aided by the young ladies, make: Watermelon Gazpacho with Tomato Seeds , Watermelon Cones, a Watermelon Flight, Watermelon and Tomato Skewers, Grilled Watermelon Steaks with Pistachios and Micro Greens, Watermelon Gelatin with Spices, Watermelon Granita with Fresh Blossoms and Fruits, Watermelon with Fruit Salad, Watermelon Air with Sea Urchin, Watermelon Spherification, Watermelon Ice Cocktail, and Watermelon Soda.
All this in under forty five minutes, with time left over for one of the girls to teach her father the word was "juice" not "yewce," and for José to spell out s-h-e-e-t-s after the word gelatin, because he gets yelled at when he tries to pronounce it.
In the long run, as far as flavors and concepts go José and Kats had done little ground breaking in the course of their presentation. Most of the components they used are already understood as playing well together - things like mint, citrus, and the simple refreshing pleasure of a cool watermelon's sweetness and tomato's acidity. What is so profound about José, Kats and what they do is their creativity. Once they have done the hard work of conceiving the preparations - removing the seeds whole from their chamber inside a tomato and laying this filet on top of a cube of watermelon - you can do it yourself, rather impressively, in about four minutes. So why didn't you think of that?
A crowd of about 300 walked out of the conference room in the basement of the Aspen St. Regis having laughed for about forty-three minutes straight, each on his or her way home to either freeze little balls of watermelon, put them in a paper cone and top them with micro mint leaves as an amuse, or maybe sear a watermelon steak (a "silly steak" according to Jose's daughters) in Spanish olive oil; each amused and inspired by where applied imagination and some good ingredients can take you.
From 10:30-11:15 a.m. on the same stage in the belly of The St. Regis stood Ming Tsai, of TV and Blue Ginger Restaurant fame, showing another 300 of us that even with an excruciating hangover, if we could pay enough attention to cut a half-pound of butter into 1/16th inch dice, refreeze it and then operate a food processor for about seven minutes, we too could make a shrimp mousse master recipe.
Ming's Shrimp Master Class then went on to show how with this base master ingredient three dishes could be made quite simply. Ming first spread the mousse onto dried crustless squares of white bread and pan fried them in oil (with sesame seeds) to make Shrimp Toasts. Next, he mixed edamame and chervil into the mousse, and folded it into a wonton skin held in the C made by his thumb and forefinger. This, placed on a leaf in a steamer which had had black tea added to its water (a way of compensating for off flavors in tap water), came out as Steamed Shrimp and Edamame Shumai in Lemon Broth (the lemon broth being warmed chicken stock with the juice of half a lemon squeezed in). Lastly, Ming applied the mousse to a filet of halibut, seared it, and then finished it in a hot oven to make Shrimp Crusted Halibut with Spicy Asparagus Salad (the salad was blanched asparagus spears dressed with a sambal and lime vinaigrette).
Ming has been a TV chef personality long enough to have made quite a shtick of product plugging, forgetting to turn burners on and sweating branded vodka from being out the night before. The truth is, his routine is funny enough, and Ming is so good at translating actually interesting fusion food to a home kitchen that these alone would be reasons enough for me to suggest you catch him if you can. The added bonus of seeing him, though, for me is his childlike admiration of fine cuisine. Being his student and listening to Ming regale the crowd with stories of Morimoto brandishing one of his amazing knives and separating the black skin from the white skin of an albino salmon on East Meets West, or Masa teaching him about Maldon sea salt for edamame, his nodding to all made those he has looked up to and learned from a very comfortable place from which to learn.