Last fall, Dana Cowin stepped down as the longtime editor-in-chief of Food & Wine magazine to become chief creative officer of Chefs Club International, the restaurant that got its start in Aspen and features past winners of the mag’s Best New Chefs award as annual guest chefs. We caught up with Cowin as she reflects on her time as the public face (and behind-the-scenes multitasker) at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, the culinary celebration that takes over town for three gluttonous days each June.
Aspen Sojourner: After 21 years helming the magazine, how does it feel to come to the Classic without the responsibility of heading it up?
Dana Cowin: I loved every minute of the Classic, but I never had a moment to breathe. I used to go from demo to demo, seminar to seminar, and catch 5 or 10 minutes, do a quick sweep to see a chef in action. Now I look forward to being able to sit through an entire class.
AS: How did you keep offerings fresh each year?
DC: It had a lot to do with the intersection of quality and innovation. We wanted to be sure that we in some way reflected the zeitgeist. Who has a new book out or a TV show? Also, the events in conjunction with the Classic, like the Wines of Spain party, bring the idea of the Classic to life in a complementary way. When you’re side by side with José Andrés eating a suckling pig, it kind of brings it home.
AS: What makes Aspen such a good setting?
DC: If the Classic is a play, the town of Aspen is one of the most important characters in it. It’s so important to have a supportive chamber, and the size allows you to bump into the chefs and all these luminaries you’re so excited to see. The people who live in Aspen are adventurous, sophisticated, and open-minded, and that dovetails perfectly with the event.
AS: What are some memorable moments from your years at the Classic?
DC: A lot of my favorite memories are with people: sitting outside Paradise Bakery with Andrew Zimmern, having ice cream and talking about life. Dave Chang came over to cook for me and my kids at our condo at the Aspen Alps and made a ridiculously memorable meal. For my 10-year anniversary, at the top-of-the-mountain party, they created a cake, and Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud jumped out of it. In my earliest years, Julia Child still came. I was walking through the crowd with her, around 1995, and everyone was stopping to talk. I remember thinking, Wow, this is something I’ll remember forever.
AS: How about any disastrous moments, like a soufflé collapsing at high altitude?
DC: There are stories every year of chefs whose food gets left on the tarmac somewhere. A best new chef would ship food, like 300 oysters, and it would stay in Atlanta. We’d have to scrounge to find enough ingredients in Aspen or call to Denver.
AS: Any tips for a first-time Classic goer?
DC: Look at the entire program at once and make your choices. Don’t pick section by section each day, because you might realize later that the chef you really wanted to see only did one demo. For wine seminars, pick something you think you’d never be interested in. One of the great things about the Classic is discovery, and it’s a perfect opportunity to learn.
AS: What will Chefs Club here do for the Classic?
DC: On Thursday, we’ll have a dinner at the restaurant with this year’s new guest chefs showcasing the best of American regional. On Saturday night, Jacques Pépin and Claudine Pépin will be the honorees at a dinner, and we’ll cook Pépin family meals [tickets for both dinners will be available at chefsclub.com].