Aspen Food and Wine Classic: eating with the rich and famous

Where can you hop on an elevator and find you are sharing the small space with larger-than-life Emeril Lagasse?  And, better yet,  moments later, the doors part and on your way out, you cross paths with Bobby Flay.

The celebrity chefs shake hands and greet each other. Emeril proceeds to ask a trim Flay how he's managing to stay so thin.  Flay, who sponsored and ran a 5k the day before, naturally replies he has been running a lot.

It's all in Aspen, at the swanky St. Regis Hotel, nerve center for the famed Food & Wine Classic.

A total of 5,000 attendees snapped up tickets to the sold out Food & Wine Classic on June 15-17.  Prices started at a whopping $1,225 each.  For that, the privileged could sit in on demonstrations led by household names.  There were several Grand Tasting sessions where one could wander massive tents to sample exotic cuisine.  For example, Chef Cheng flew from Hong Kong to the U.S. for the first time, to prep golden prawns with supreme sauce for Korean Air's table.  To wash it all down, cocktails and wines galore. Grand Tastings included 300 wine exhibitors, pouring anywhere from four to seven wines each.

It's meant to be an intimate experience for the consumers;  media truly takes a back seat.  Christina Grdovic, publisher of Food & Wine said, "Our goal is to make sure that the people who have come here and they've paid the money to buy the tickets, that they get the opportunity to mix and mingle and see the chefs up-close. Sure, you can wait on line to get your book signed, but we also want to create an atmosphere where you're walking down the street and maybe you're standing behind Bobby Flay when you're buying your coffee or sitting next to Jacques Pepin at the Main Street Bakery.  And that is why we control the numbers so tightly because that's a really important part of the success here."

And she's right.  Andrew Zimmern sauntered past me to fill up on morning coffee, allowing me to ask him a follow-up question about his seminar on game meats.  Bobby Flay's demo revealed a surprise guest: Giada De Laurentiis had quietly snuck into the back of the room, taking a seat with the general audience.  Meat master Tim Love tiptoed right past me and yelled out to Mario Batali during his show.  Cookbook lovers seeking signatures greeted authors such as Gail Simmons, Michael Symon and Tom Colicchio.

For those who wanted to kick it up a notch, Saturday night offered a first: the 30th Anniversary Party and concert by Elvis Costello & The Blue Beguilers.  Beforehand, well-heeled guests who paid $350 a head (yes, that's in addition to the base package cost) wandered the grounds, plucking up plates from Andrés, Mario Batali and Michel Nischan.  Lagasse was spotted chatting in Batali's kitchen area. Bales of hay, blankets and pillows were strewn about for easy picnic lounging.  Afterwards, restaurateur and Food Network star Susan Feniger hopped the bus and chatted with a fan on the return ride to downtown.

Grdovic said organizers invited more chefs and wine experts than ever before. "The Food & Wine classic started this food and wine festival mania because we have been around for 30 years and we are really, really committed to making sure we keep it fresh."

Back at the St. Regis, lobby fireplaces were flickering even during the warm days, to evoke that cozy ski town feeling.  Freebie bottles of coconut water were at the ready in the lobby for the dehydrated (and hung over).

The hotel which hosted the press room and some of the bigger seminars, also offered its own fancy touches.  I attended a champagne sabering ritual where sommelier LeeAnn Kaufman used a sword to slice the cork right off the bottle.  Chorizo paired with pickled peppers as well as duck crostini with fig jam were passed with bubbly in the courtyard.

The first night of the festival, the hotel had the grand opening of Chefs Club. Four of Food & Wine's previous "Best New Chefs" collaboratively designed the menu of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients.

Brian Abel of Starwood Hotels explained the impact of the exclusive festival. "We have (visitors from) around the world, bringing together the chefs and the foodies and the people who really know about food and wine to Aspen and they get to experience this restaurant this weekend."