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Arts & Culture

Mountain town restaurateurs shine at Aspen Food & Wine

Dominic Anthony Walsh
Aspen Public Radio
Aspen resident Mawa McQueen, center, chats with Aspen Food & Wine attendees on Saturday.

Every summer, parks around Aspen are overcome by gigantic white tents — from Paepcke park to Wagner Field — signaling a return to a seasoned summer staple, the Aspen Food & Wine Classic.

The three-day festival, now in its 39th year, is where industry professionals put their best food forward.

Each day features dozens of educational seminars — where leading industry figures give cooking demos and talk about trends — and the crowd-favorite “grand tastings,” where the latest food and wine fads take center stage.

Dominic Anthony Walsh
Aspen Public Radio
Wine and appetizers await people at the "Foods and Wines from Spain" afternoon seminar on Saturday.

Inside tents on Wagner Field, trailblazing chefs and entrepreneurs had the chance to show off displays of wine, spirits and, of course, cutting-edge creations from the kitchen.

For Mawa McQueen, who owns Mawa’s Kitchen in the Aspen Airport Business Center, this year’s Grand Tasting marked the first time she had her own booth.

McQueen said the festival has changed — for the better — since she started coming here two decades ago.

“I see way more diversity, more people of color that are honored,” McQueen said. “So that's what's different — diversity [and] inclusivity. This year is the happiest year ever. Even though the other year was great, it's good to see people like me more.”

A few booths down from Mawa’s Kitchen, local restaurant Bosq put a foraging-to-table concept on full display. Founded by longtime local Barclay Dodge, the chef-and-wife team prepared a salad featuring screaming carrots, turnips, seabuckthorn, wild watercress and a drizzle of Nasturtium vinaigrette.

Dominic Anthony Walsh
Aspen Public Radio
Workers navigate the crowds in the East Pavilion during a "grand tasting" on Saturday.

For Dodge, the best part of the Food & Wine Classic is collaborating with other innovators in the industry.

“I just love seeing our peers because all the foodies around the country and the world are here,” Dodge said. “Chefs and people we read about, we talk to, we collaborate with. It's kind of ground zero here for it.”

The huge crowds make Aspen unrecognizable to visitors who typically come during quieter parts of the year, such as George Tracy of Houston.

He was in town for “networking and pleasure,” not for the Food & Wine Classic, but he attended the Wednesday opening at Limelight ahead of the official kickoff. It was a bit louder than what he was used to.

“It’s a well-organized and wild and crazy event,” he said.

He was taken aback by the sticker price for the main event.

“I was shocked how expensive it is to get a ticket to get into the wine and food festival,” he said. “Oh, my gosh! I mean, somebody said it was thousands of dollars.”

Dominic Anthony Walsh
Aspen Public Radio
Aspen Food & Wine Classic festivities kicked off early, on Jan. 15, at the Limelight Hotel.

Entrance to the Food & Wine Classic this year was $1,800 for consumer and trade passes, and $4,000 for access to VIP events. One-fourth of the revenue from VIP passes was donated to charity, according to the Food & Wine Classic website.

For a local named Paul, winning a pair of tickets to the Food & Wine Classic was like winning the jackpot. The salmon hot dog featuring a wasabi bun was “out of this world.”

But when it came to anything he’d like to see differently for next year, he said it would be the accessibility of the event.

“I really just wish everybody could get in there,” he said. “There's a lot of leftovers. If they opened it up to the public, I think it'd be a great thing.”

Unlike Tracy, Elyse and Aaron Timmons were aware of the nitty-gritty festival details. The couple from Kentucky attended the event for their 10th anniversary after hearing that the winner of Top Chef would be in town.

This was their first time in Colorado.

“We've always been big foodie people, … so this has been a destination for us,” Aaron Timmons said. “We get the magazine and everything, but it's more than what we could have even expected.”

Dominic Anthony Walsh
Aspen Public Radio
Food & Wine Classic attendees gather between the East and West pavilions during a "grand tasting" on Saturday.

The booths for Bosq and Mawa’s Kitchen were busy during the grand tastings, but Aspen wasn’t the only mountain town represented at this year's festival.

Corey Milligan of Jackson Hole, Wyo., is owner and founder of New West Knife Works. He makes fine kitchen cutlery, which was used by chefs throughout the weekend.

As an attendee from another ski town, Milligan had some thoughts about being in Aspen.

“You know, up in Jackson Hole, we kind of looked down upon Colorado with a little bit of a snobbiness,” Milligan said. “But coming to Aspen, you see it's just a glorious place and fun place to be.”

At the end of the day, it’s a celebration of what these chefs and business owners know and love best.

“Food and Wine means celebration,” McQueen said. “We celebrate culture, we celebrate food, we celebrate wine [and] festivity.”