A race to fill the tummy
BEAVER CREEK – At 7:25 p.m., the crowd was getting restless. Nicely dressed elbows bumped nicely dressed elbows, waiting for the hostess at Beaver Creek’s Grand Tasting to lift the velvet rope. There was as much adrenaline in the air as at the top of a World Cup course. Then the hostess motioned to the ticket collectors, and her voice rang out like a starting gunshot: “You can all come up now!”Saturday’s Grand Tasting at the Park Hyatt resort in Beaver Creek was the culmination of the Beaver Creek Culinary Classic, a five-day food festival sponsored by Bon Appetit. Twenty-eight chefs – 10 visiting celebrities, four pastry chefs and 14 Beaver Creek locals – gathered in the Village Hall to put their best food forward. After three days of competing with each other in events ranging from cook-offs to ski races, the chefs had only one job tonight: pleasing palates.If there was any competition taking place, it was between the diners. The crowd rushed to claim tables and get in line at the most popular booths. My dining companion and I entered with no particular strategy, browsing the front booths, and then heading toward the back. We had eaten lightly all day, but hunger had gotten the better of us at around 6:30 p.m., and we made the mistake of eating bar snacks at the Hyatt while waiting for the doors to open. Potato chips sounded a lot less interesting when presented with Tim McCaw (of Zach’s Cabin)’s porcini crusted Kobe beef tataki.Whether we’d planned it or not, we started the evening with a smattering of selections from four local chefs. McCaw’s spicy tataki, served in two jewel-like strips on a bed of shaved golden beets, was quickly followed by equally rich selections from Charles Hays of Toscanini and Pascal Coudouy of the Park Hyatt. Mushrooms emerged as a theme for the locals: Hays’s polenta was overwhelmed by a thick shitake cream sauce, but Coudouy’s walleye swam happily in a light bath of porcini and sage. My dining companion took this moment to live by my favorite adage of “Eat Dessert First,” sampling what looked like a chocolate madeleine from the Hyatt’s pastry chef, Andrew Fox.After a quick taste of a pleasant Chilean Bordeaux, we concluded that tasting wines involved more conversation than we had time for. It was time for some culinary star power. I dragged my companion over to Eric Ripert’s station. For those living under logs, Ripert’s Le Bernadin in New York is currently one of the top-rated restaurants in the world. Ripert was there in person, ladling golden-pink lobster bisque and topping it with a dollop of whipped cream and little black sprinkles.”Those are truffles?” I asked, pointing to the sprinkles.
“Of course, yes,” replied Ripert, whipping back to his ladle. The bisque was luxuriously smooth, with earthy bits of truffle and small sweet chunks of lobster.It seemed almost unfair to return to a local chef after that, but sticking with seafood, we snapped up two of Juan Cruz Anon’s South American Shrimp cocktails on our way toward the other stars. We weren’t disappointed. Anon of BC’s The Charter served his shrimp on a bearnaise-coated bed of chopped apple, red onion, celery and dill, with a generous clump of black caviar. The result: a shrimp cocktail both innovative and familiar.As we rounded the corner toward Laurent Tourondel, the crowd got thicker and pushier. Tourondel, whose cleverly named Manhattan bistros (BLT Steak and BLT Fish) have been racking up hip crowds and good reviews, was the clear hit of the night. With two assistants sauteing furiously behind him, Tourondel plated breaded scallops atop white sunchoke puree, drizzling butter sauce in a half moon on the side. It was all we could do to push past the adoring fans and grab one small plate. The crispy sweet scallop played perfectly against the puree. Tourondel may have been hosting a madhouse, but you could see what got the nutcases going.We sighted the next star station, Ming Tsai’s of Blue Ginger, around the corner, but decided we needed some refueling before a mad dash through another crowd. If Ripert, Anon and Tourondel were any indication, we’d entered the seafood section of the room. Enticed by baskets brimming with marine life, we picked up two plates of Dustin Aipperspach of Foxnut’s freshly rolled Firecracker Roll: spicy tuna with avocado and cucumber, topped with wasabi tobiko. We swung by Mirabelle’s table, sampling Daniel Joly’s Yellow Fin Tuna “Bamboo,” chunks of tuna and pineapple separated by thin strips of cucumber, served atop three stripes of potato, red pepper and herb sauce.By this point, I couldn’t see Tsai’s table through the swarms, so I staked out a corner on the floor by the RoC skincare station and sent my intrepid dining companion back into the fray. There were lovely tables with white tablecloths, white roses and small tea candles right in front of me, but when I tried to get closer, the elbows came out. I stuck to my floor. The RoC attendant kept asking if I needed samples.My companion returned shortly with Tsai’s soba noodle sushi on tea-smoked salmon carpaccio. Tsai had nested sesame seeds and thin slices of ginger in the otherwise ordinary noodles, and the salmon opened with a delightfully sweet note before returning to the standard smoky flavor. It was the most creative dish of the evening.My companion dashed off again, and the RoC attendant resumed her pitch. I was just starting to wonder whether RoC’s promise that its creams would take 10 years off my skin meant that I would look like a thirteen-year-old if I sampled them – and would I really want that? – when my companion returned, plates in hand. We were on to the carnivorous portion of the evening. My companion had brought me a plate of grilled ribeye from BC’s Chophouse.
“You can’t go wrong with truffled mash and filet,” he said, exuberantly devouring John Westerhaus’s creation. It wasn’t technically filet, but otherwise, he was right. We followed the ribeye with spiced elk carpaccio from Remington’s of Beaver Creek, and strips of duck prosciutto with cipollini marmalade by Govind Armstrong of LA’s Table 8.It was my turn to venture from our wall. After much weaving and strategic elbow use, I picked up Richard Sandoval’s lush pork arepas, and SaddleRidge’s disappointingly dry buffalo short rib. I returned to find my dining companion chatting with a ski instructor-slash-aspiring chef, drinking sparkling white Sofia Blancs de Blancs out of a can with a straw. To make things even more interesting, Ryan Sutter of “The Bachelorette” fame – you remember: firefighter, poetry – walked by.It was now 9 p.m., and things had cleared out enough for me to make the next trip, for the last of our main courses. I checked Tourondel’s now empty stand to see if I couldn’t grab a second helping of those wonderful scallops, but he’d sold out nearly 20 minutes beforehand. Instead, I balanced Grouse Mountain Grill’s short rib tart with two plates of Allie’s Cabin’s red curry shrimp, and made the mistake of trying to add a mini mango ‘tini to the mix. Half of the tiny ‘tini ended up on the tart, which tasted good in spite of the mishap. The shrimp were a nice reminder of the lighter seafood portion of our evening, and we patted ourselves on our very full tummies for making it this far.But congratulations weren’t in store just yet. We worked through Elizabeth Falkner’s delightful shortbread cookies, which came served with saffrony Indian Rose Milk. We demolished Mike McCarey’s chocolate cake with cherries, and Donald Wressell’s champagne flute filled with apple gelatin, applesauce, finely chopped apples, and an apple cream.I was just lying back to relax when I spotted Alex Malmborg, one of Tsai’s sous chefs and winner of Friday’s Celebrity Chef Ski Race, picking up sushi from Foxnut. Malmborg declared Ripert’s bisque to be one of the best dishes of the evening, and said he’d heard great things about Foxnut’s sushi, as well. I asked where he’d learned how to ski so well, and he informed me that he’d been skiing at Sunday River, Maine, since he was a boy.I went after another mini-martini, and, courage boosted, bumped into Ryan Sutter and former Bachelorette Trista Rehn and asked them for their favorites of the evening.”We really loved the desserts,” said Ryan.
“Keegan Gerhard’s was the best,” added Trista, “although I liked the Chophouse with the truffled mashed potatoes, myself. I’m really a meat-and-potatoes type of girl.”I went back to the Chophouse for one last view of those meat-and-potatoes. They, too, were wrapping up for the evening, but I got one last celebrity introduction: to Larry the Lobster. Larry weighed fourteen pounds, which, since lobsters grow approximately one pound every four years, plus three, made him an ancient 59 years old. With Larry’s sweet little eyes staring at me from beyond the grave, I decided I’d had my fill of eating.As my companion and I dragged ourselves to the exit, we were handed a gift bag containing a martini shaker, a beer glass, a tube of RoC anti-aging cream and the latest issue of Bon Appétit. I mentally catalogued all our other encounters: a ski instructor who was an aspiring chef; a chef who was a talented skier; surreality; mushrooms; seafood; game meat; and canned wine from a straw. I wasn’t sure what we’d been racing for, exactly, but was pretty sure that, whatever it was, we’d won.Margot Kaminski is freelance writer based in the Vail Valley.Vail, Colorado