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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

F&W Classic in Aspen: the Cook-off, Harold vs Jacques

I have a scattering of stories to tell still from the Food & Wine Magazine Classic in Aspen a couple of weeks ago. The most fun, of course, came from the final events, the two rounds Cook-off: the first between the Top Chef winner Harold Dieterle, aided by his ex-judge Tom Colicchio, against Jacques Pépin and his best friend Jean-Claude Szurdak, and the second between the ever hilarious José Andrés, helped out by Jamie-Lynn Sigler against Ming Tsai and an audience member willing to pay top dollar to charity for the honor of cooking next to Ming himself.

The cook-off took place in a huge room, big stage, lights, massive production and all that jazz. The line formed early, and when the room opened every seat in that room was occupied in no time.

I grabbed a seat near the front but toward the side of the stage, which happened to be right next to Jill Davison who runs PR for Amex Publishing. Jill was quite a good cheerleader, urging me to get up near the stage and take more photos. I must say I was a little intimidated by everything, so most of my photos from the first round are from a bit of a distance.

Taking a cue from Iron Chef, the cook-off chefs were surprised with secret ingredients that were supposed to be incorporated into the dishes. The theme here was quite cute, using up leftovers from the other demonstration: pasta from Giada de Laurentis’s session, watermelon from José Andrés, fava beans from Suzanne Goin’s and some liver from, well, frankly I have no idea.

The ever perky Sissy Biggers emceed the event, first introducing Harold, the winner of Bravo’s Top Chef, aided by Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio. Harold showed up wearing an old white t-shirt, with a pen tucked behind one ear, which was, well, pretty much the way he looked on the program. Sissy joked that his dry cleaning items must have failed to show up that morning. I wondered about that too, though Harold protested to me later that the look was absolutely intentional. That was his ‘thing’ he insisted. To further perpetuating his Top Chef image, Harold also carried a minibar-sized liquor bottle with him, to sneak in a swig like he did just before his winning performance on the show. Cute. Really. And despite the unfortunate fashion choice, I must say Harold held his own amazingly well in this illustrious company.

Tom Colicchio was, well, Tom Colicchio, hovering somewhere between being brashly abrasive and a good natured and loveable joker. He was quite charismatic, and certainly enough so that he didn’t need to resort to being the nice guy to win the audience over. Even while poking rather serious fun at the beloved Jacques Pepin, trash talking and intimidating Jacques and his team, Tom still managed to keep the audience laughing with him. That was remarkable.

Jacques Pepin showed up with his best friend, Jean-Claude Szurdak. Food & Wine Magazine just did a story on their vacation and cooking together in Mexico. They were clearly comfortable together, setting about cooking somewhat quietly at first, until Tom’s incessant joking and trash talking finally got to Jacques’s competitive nature and had him trashing talking back. He might be old, that Jacques, you know, but he’s certainly not ready to be put out to pasture. Not quite yet.

At one point Tom declared to the audience that he wanted a pretty lady to come up and help Harold and him. Harold just laughed and shook his head, but Tom was more than serious. He finally found one, perhaps a little less pretty than he wanted but happily she was more than competent. Jacques’s team, not to be outdone, declared they also deserved a helper, and got his son-in-law Rollie Wesen who’s a chef in Denver to come up and help.

The food on Harold and Tom side got a little creative, with Captain Crunch ‘soufflé' and cold sesame noodle (which looked great but lost me with the avocado slices on top!?!) There were also a nice looking seared liver with balsamic glace and some mushroom, and a salad of shaved artichoke, watermelon, asparagus and cilantro vinaigrette. A Chocotini helped to finish that meal.

Jacques’s team stuck to the classics, with liver ‘Venetian’ style deglaced with vinegar and onion. A ‘cake’ of leftover pasta with lima bean and omelette, crèpes flambée with Cointreau and fruits, and two salads, an heirloom tomato and arugula with asparagus. They also made a mojito with Macallan whiskey to wash everything down properly.

The audiences voted, and though things were rather close, Jacques’s team won in the end. And who did I vote for, you asked? Well, that’s for me to know and you to wonder. ;-)

To be continued…
(more photos on Flickr)

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