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Dining with the stars 

Aspen's Food & Wine Classic pairs the rich and famous with the rich and flavorful

Clapping for Bobby Flay when he blends a milkshake is like applauding for Tim Geithner when he balances his personal checkbook, or Dale Earnhardt Jr. when he parallel parks.

But that didn't stop a few hundred people crammed under a tent at last weekend's Food & Wine Classic in Aspen from doing so, or from festively oohing and aahing each time the star of Iron Chef America and Throwdown with Bobby Flay offered the most basic burger and fry advice. (In short: Don't mash the burger down with your spatula and press out all the fat — that's your flavoring; flip it once and basically leave it alone; and pre-blanch your fries to get them crispy, then toss 'em in a bowl with garlic salt and herbs.)

Flay probably could have gotten away with standing silent for his 45-minute "Burgers, Shakes & Fries" seminar and still endured a booksigning onslaught. He needn't have even told the anecdote about his last-minute invite to cook with President Obama at the White House the day prior, which had forced him to cancel his first scheduled seminar.

Because beyond the thousands of bottles of premier vino to be sipped, the multitude of rich food samples to nosh and the gastronomy tutorials to absorb, this pricey weekend reduces to one thing: good old-fashioned celebrity worship.

Super Mario's druthers

Fortunately, the Food Network stars actually do impart simple kitchen wisdom while entertaining with cooking demos ranging from perfect Italian pastas and salads to Asian tapas and dainty summer martinis.

"Look for the geo-specific catch of your town," advises Italian food icon Mario Batali during his Saturday morning seminar. "Try to find the ultimate expression of the earth at the perfect time — that's what Italian cooking is all about."

Of course, if you're Batali, it's also about plugging your new jar of supermarket tomato sauce. And bringing the audience to roaring laughter with a bawdy comment likening the pestle used by co-presenter Nancy Silverton to a similarly shaped something that many women enjoy outside the kitchen.

This is what $1,200 buys you: access to an exclusive, fleeting alternate reality where your favorite Food Network show comes alive before you, the stars ready to unpack their magic and answer your questions. But rather than glean the food methodology — doable at home for the price of basic cable — most attendees angle for behind-the-scenes secrets of the television programs and food philosophies of the chefs. The man or woman, more than his or her pasta.

In the near-capacity, 400-seat ballroom inside the St. Regis Aspen Resort, where many of the biggest-name chefs present throughout the weekend, it's not difficult to throw out a question, or to slink quietly forward for a picture from the aisles. Even off-stage, many of the stars are fairly accessible outside cavernous tasting tents and at special events like the Best New Chefs Dinner. For instance, Saturday evening, a handful of revelers standing in the central tasting area at the right spot at the right time squeal with delight: PBS legend Jacques Pépin and his daughter and co-star Claudine have appeared, sandwiching Food Network favorite Giada De Laurentiis for a photo.

This is the exclusive world of haute cuisine, and if you're a fan, this is the place to be right now.

The finest hours

Food & Wine magazine has hosted this Aspen event for 27 years and grown it into one of the most prestigious culinary happenings in the nation. Though you'll find a few Colorado beers and wines and an occasional shout-out to a Colorado-based chef, the state is otherwise just a picturesque backdrop for foodies' fantasies and participants' self-promotion.

Somewhere amid downing a hunk of Maytag Blue cheese, a lamb meatball, mussels, a generous shaving of artisan prosciutto, half a dozen wine samples, chocolate, wine-filled chocolate and a disgusting amount more, I sampled a cucumber-foam-garnished kimchi tuna tartare from an eight-location (New York, Las Vegas and Tel Aviv included), tri-fusion (Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian) restaurant named SushiSamba.

The bite was so good that I shamelessly looped around for another taste half-an-hour later. That's when I heard a fellow reporter comment that he already had anniversary reservations in Vegas in July; he was now resolved to add SushiSamba to his itinerary. It's fair to assume that many of the few thousand other attendees will similarly identify a vacation-spot target, scribble a wine's name for a future liquor store raid, or return to their hotel room (or mountain vacation home) and order some outrageous gourmet pantry item online.

After all, if a product was good enough to make Food & Wine's cut and to hold up to Aspen standards of excess and excellence, it's surely worth snootily patronizing your houseguests with.

"Oh that ... I first discovered it at the Food & Wine Classic — isn't it just to die for?"

Overindulgence

If you are a helpless foodie — Giada crush or not — but can't spend the big bucks for a weekend pass to the Classic, you can consider a scaled-down glimpse of 2010's culinary orgy. To skip the lessons and get right to the feasting, a single-day tasting pass, which buys you access to two 105-minute tasting sessions, runs $250.

Unless you plan to exit on a stretcher, you'll be hard-pressed to drink your money's worth of wine and booze, but that's not the point. Remember: Like the premiums you pay to attend sports playoffs, you're paying to be near the best of the best. The tastings are the pinnacle of sampling indulgence, topped only by the aforementioned Best New Chefs Dinner.

There, your $250 yields an open bar at the opulent Aspen Meadows Resort and the chance to sample the work of nearly a dozen rising chefs from around the country. The dishes are absurdly chic, delicious and innovative: a crab cocktail shooter; roasted corn custard over popcorn and truffles; and a charcuterie plate of paté, steak tartare over quail egg toast and a foie gras bon-bon.

The whole affair captures beautifully the excitement of pushing food boundaries and maintaining the surge of American kitchen creativity. This same spirit launched Flay, Batali and their cohorts to fame, and it's a big part of what compels people to turn on food programs at home and to dine at innovative local restaurants.

At least that's what you might tell yourself, anyway, if the idea of Candy Land for the elite gives you a stomachache.

matthew@csindy.com

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