Food & Wine Classic celebrates diversity, different identities

Chef and TV personality Maneet Chauhan makes a presentation during her seminar on Friday, June 17, 2022, for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Chef Chintan Pandya has seen the way some chefs from his home country of India have cooked “things to impress other people.” You like truffle oil on that? Sure, here’s truffle oil. Want caviar? Here’s caviar.

“But these are not our ingredients. You have not grown up eating these ingredients,” Pandya said in a phone call Wednesday before heading to Aspen for the Food & Wine Classic. He and restaurateur Roni Mazumdar take a different approach with their “Unapologetic Foods” enterprise that includes four sit-down and two fast-casual Indian restaurants, plus a couple of food concepts.

“The food that we actually do in all our restaurants is regional, rustic food” — food that now has the recognition of a James Beard Award, the food-industry equivalent of the Oscars. They proudly wear “Unapologetic Indian” T-shirts that drive home the point.

Pandya comes to the Classic fresh off of a James Beard Award win for the best chef in New York state, an honor that turned this self-described “not very emotional guy” into someone gushing with joy about the recognition and the impact it has on Indian cuisine.

“This will actually empower a lot of chefs, Indian chefs to cook regional and rustic food and not do a very French or Italian or Western food. … This is what they will be proud of cooking now, because now they believe that somebody’s doing this will be accepted by everyone,” Pandya said.

The Food & Wine Classic in Aspen amplifies that impact, Pandya said. This is his second go-around at the festival — the first, in 2019, was the year Pandya and Mazumdar’s Adda Indian Canteen was named one of Food & Wine’s best new restaurants. This year, the two were on the Saturday schedule for their own seminar on “Beyond Butter Chicken: The Secrets to Kebabs.”

“There’s literally nothing bigger than this, and the more it comes (in front of) people’s eyes, and more people see it, it will get more marketing of it, and more people will be able to accept it and understand,” Pandya said .

It was a message that Indian-American chef Maneet Chauhan emphasized too during a “Wait Wait … DO tell me!” panel seminar Saturday morning.

“I think now with a new generation of chefs who are so proud, like I am so proud of the food, you know, Indian food that I’ve grown up with that I want to show the world. … I think there are young chefs now who are taking pride in owning (their cuisine), like we are not running away,” Chauhan said. “For the longest time, I thought that I had to learn French food because that was the only acceptable cuisine out there. But now I’m like, ‘No, this is the food. This is my food. I’m proud to show it. I think it’s on us to be the voice of ethnic food.”

And the Food and Wine Classic is exactly the kind of place where there are a lot of industry changemakers and culinary enthusiasts ready to listen to those voices.

The seminar lineup is itself a celebration of different culinary experiences from people with different backgrounds and identities.

Attendees could attend Chauhan’s “Mumbai Memories: A Love Letter to Indian Street Food” on Friday morning and Claudette Zepeda’s “Acid Trip: The Art of Aguachiles” that afternoon. They might have popped in to Alicia Towns Franken and Dlynn Proctor’s “Vintners Noir: Wines from top African-American Winemakers” on Saturday morning, might have made plans for Tiffany Derry’s “Southern Food, The Remix: Old School Meets New School” the day after.

That celebration is in the extracurricular, too: parties, dinners and gatherings that embrace a more diverse culinary industry.

The Hotel Jerome’s “Epicurean Passport” program was certainly part of that, with offerings that included a “Black on Black” dinner featuring Chef JJ Johnson and a slate of Black wine experts and a Saturday night dinner at the Hotel Jerome from chef Carlos Gaytán, who was the first Mexican chef to earn a Michelin star.

Gaytán started as a dishwasher, and it was a long road to earning his Michelin star back in 2013. Now, with a Top Chef alum credit to his name, plans for cooking schools in El Paso, Texas, and in Mexico, and a partnership with Disney to launch Mexican restaurants, he sees his work as a way to show young aspiring chefs that it’s possible to succeed — and to debunk any assumptions that Mexican cuisine means “cheap food,” he said.

“For me to open the mind, to open the road to educate people about Mexican cuisine, (in those) days, it was very difficult,” Gaytán said. “So I want, now, those kids, young kids, you know, to continue what I’m doing, and get better, for the future.”

Over at Aspen Meadows Resort, the hotel now managed by Salamander Hotels and Resorts, a Sunday afternoon Juneteenth event will cap off Food & Wine weekend by celebrating the holiday that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. (See sidebar)

For Derry — a Texas-based celebrity chef at the helm of Tiffany Derry Concepts, Roots Chicken Shak and Roots Southern Table — the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen is a platform to share the richness and variety of Southern cuisine and also to boost visibility for Black Chiefs.

“I think for a lot of people they didn’t realize that Southern cuisine was really a lot of produce and not just certain dishes. … I love that this is an opportunity not just for me, but for many more to come after me and a spotlight to be shined on what we’re doing also in the south,” Derry said.

Derry sees visibility as a crucial component to making sure everyone has a seat at the table — and making sure everyone knows, too, that they can have access to that seat.

“When I went to culinary school, I didn’t know another Black chef. I didn’t know another chef doing what I wanted to do. I darn sure didn’t see any women black chefs. It was just something I just never saw,” Derry said.

“There are people who can dream, never see it and go through, but there’s a larger base of people who truly need to see that it’s possible to truly believe that it’s possible,” she added.

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