As inspirational YouTube videos and TED talks continue to go viral, it’s no wonder that the Food & Wine Classic finally jumped on the panel train. This year, the festival introduces Classic Conversations, which put Food & Wine Editor-in-Chief Dana Cowin in the moderator’s seat for daily discussions at Theatre Aspen’s newly renovated tent in Rio Grande Park.
For 45 minutes some of the most innovative people in the food industry won’t do anything with their hands at all — it will be their mouths that do the talking.
“People are very serious when it comes to learning about food,” says Cowin. “They’re serious about learning how to cook and about understanding where their food comes from. These chefs are one way to understand.”
There are conversations at 10 a.m. on both Friday and Saturday.
On Friday, Cowin is joined by Anya Fernald, Mario Batali and Chris Consentino for a chat about “The Chef & the Rancher.” As sourcing local and sustainable food becomes more important to consumers and chefs, the relationship between those providing the food and those preparing it has changed.
“This gets to the heart and the American food culture today,” she says. “People are obsessed with eating meat and people are obsessed with vegetarian. … There’s an enormous conversation about should you eat meat, what is the best meat to eat, and what does sustainably raise mean?”
Fernald is a slow-food activist and proponent of Old World cooking, which emphasizes basic cooking styles and traditional recipes, like bread-making. She’s a voice for a group of innovative agricultural companies in California, Belize and Uruguay and wants to see more artisanal food-makers in the business.
Her perspective balances well with Chris Consentino, a celebrated salumeria and proponent of offal cooking (using the internal organs of butchered animals). And then Italian chef Mario Batali, who owns 22 restaurants and has produced nine cookbooks, helps to tie it all together by representing a culture that embraces both vegetarianism and meat-eating.
The second conversation, “BNC All-Stars,” is a semi-retrospective about the Best New Chefs program, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year at the Classic. Panelists include Wylie Dufresne, Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert.
“If you think about when we started that program, chefs were talented and people loved going to restaurants, but it has changed so much over the last 25 years,” Cowin says.
By that, she means the nature of celebrity chefs and the constantly evolving need to move forward or transform one’s style.
“Each of these three chefs (panelists) have signature dishes that are loved, but even for themselves they need to think through their dishes and move forward,” says Cowin. “None of them are trendy, but they also need to take the temperature of what people want right now.”
While the Best New Chefs talk is almost a “history lesson” in how the cooking world has changed, “The Chef & The Rancher” offers some insight into how the industry is changing and the “challenges that we’re facing right now,” she adds.
Though the Classic’s seamless schedule is already jam-packed, according to Cowin, the panel series complements it with something different: “incredibly interesting people talking about incredibly interesting topics.”