First-ever Vail James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef Tour brings big names, big flavors
VAIL — Walking into Larkspur for the James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef Tour, held Friday evening, it’s easy to imagine that you’re in New York, Chicago or San Francisco, based on the quality and creativity of the food being passed and devoured. However, the view of the half-pipe from the windows and the mountain casual vibe of the guests quickly establish a sense of place — you’re definitely in Vail.
The Celebrity Chef Tour brings a taste of the James Beard House, which hosts legendary chefs and events at farmhouses, museums, hotels, beaches and now Vail. The Tour has been uniting chefs and foodies since 2004, giving guests a chance to experience the passion for food and wine that emanates from those hallowed halls in New York City without buying a plane ticket to the Big Apple.
The evening starts with a cocktail reception and passed hors d’oeuvres. Servers are whisking brightly colored canapes around the room while Shigoku oysters from Taylor Farms in Washington are decadently displayed on a bed of ice.
“These are two days out of the water,” said Chef Kelly Whitaker, chef-owner of Basta in Boulder and Cart-Driver in Denver. The Shigokus are rich and buttery — a good “beginner” oyster, according to Whitaker.
Whitaker also presented geoduck (pronounced “gooey-duck”) from Taylor Farms in a crudo. This giant clam was pleasantly spicy with flavors of chili and lime, the citrus rendering the meat tender and flavorful. It’s truly one of those items that looks intimidating, but tastes divine.
There are surprises, too. Chef Hosea Rosenberg, who is known for raising his own pigs, lambs, chickens and other animals for his restaurant, Blackbelly Market in Boulder, presented beet “tartare,” a vegetarian dish, for his passed hors d’oeuvre. He said that people are often shocked at how much flavor can be found in the vegetables.
“I like to keep it simple, but flavorful and impactful,” he said. “But always delicious.”
He brought it back to his protein passion with his entree: a salmon, lardo and potato terrine. This layered dish alternated salmon with cured pork fat (lardo) and potatoes. A cured meat and radish salad, salmon creme fraiche, Meyer lemon peel and spring onion vinaigrette each sat at the four corners of the terrine, creating cardinal points that directed each bite and combination of flavors.
It’s this opportunity to try new and different cuisine that brings people to the Celebrity Chef Tour dinners — and keeps them coming back time and time again. Sarah Benjes and Aaron Ciszak, who live in Avon, have been to five other Celebrity Chef Tour dinners. While the food is always amazing, Benjes said, part of the appeal of the evening is also hearing directly from the chefs, who not only speak about the dish, but mingle with guests.
“The chefs are so excited about getting a chance to work with each other,” Benjes said. “There are always really neat presentations; half of the things I have to ask for translations.”
In the kitchen, the sense of unity is readily apparent. Each chef is helping the other and plating is a well-choreographed dance, with one person layering a sauce before passing the plate for someone else to arrange duck confit or smoked potato skin puree. Over the clink and clank, servers are calling table numbers like bookies with a hot lead.
“It’s always so much fun,” said Kelly Liken, chef and owner of Vail’s Restaurant Kelly Liken, who provided the evening’s dessert: a almond financier with rhubarb conserve and sorbet that provided the promise of spring on the tongue. “As much as we’re cooking delicious food and drinking wine, the camaraderie is the best part.”
The guests, too, become part of this culinary consortium. Dishes are discussed and dissected; favorites are claimed and defended after each course arrives. One guest declared that this was the “most culinary” she’ll be all year.
And why not? When the opportunity presents itself, carpe the Celebrity Chef Tour.
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