IACP Conference Report: What do several hundred wet food writers smell like?

Categories: Sheehan (RIP)

For those of you not yet hipped to the big foodie news in Denver this week, the International Association of Culinary Professionals is in town -- a kind of traveling circus show of food writers, food editors, food pimps, chefs, authors, wine gurus and associated tradesmen. And, of course, Jason Sheehan is embedded right in the middle of all the action, causing trouble, sponging up free drinks and generally comporting himself in as disreputable a way as possible. His reports from inside the convention will be running throughout the week.

Stranahans.jpg
Ham. And rosewater. And, fairly quickly, Colorado's best whiskey, Stranahan's, liberally poured.

Yesterday marked the official kick-off for the IACP's 2009 conference, and even though it was somewhat late on the uptake, the city finally tried to do right by the several hundred heavyweight food-industry professionals by throwing them a bash at the Denver Art Museum. One that they could walk to from their hotel.

Walk to at 6:30 at night.

Through the snow.

So that no one got lost, the city happily lined the route down the street and across the park with hundreds of luminarias (or "luminarios," according to the press release that came just a few hours before the Long March last night) -- hundreds of tiny candles in flimsy paper bags that immediately wilted in the afternoon rain, snow and hail. It would've been pretty had Mother Nature cooperated.

As a backup plan, a bunch of first-year students from Johnson & Wales were press-ganged into service as guides. They had to wear their whites and checks, their chef hats and neckerchiefs. Brave little sonsabitches though they were, after the second or third trip back and forth walking, they all looked a bit drowned, a bit pissed, a bit hypothermic. Good training, in my opinion, for the indignities and hardships they will have to face as young cooks, fresh out of school. Maybe they will remember their night at the IACP and be comforted because at least, for the most part, their kitchens will be warmer.

Weather and poor planning aside, the Denver Art Museum was packed. The booze was flowing and the food was flying off the tables. Rioja stood up well with Jen Jasinski serving nice ravioli and smiling like a champ. Frasca showed up with nothing more than excellent prosciutto, excellent hard parm, some olives and horseradish cream and red-pepper jelly. Why?

Because they're Frasca and don't need to show off. Their table was mobbed as soon as everyone figured out where they were -- set up across the bridge from the rest of the party. John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom from Duo and Olivea had a long line (and, smartly, were offering snacks wrapped to go with their restaurants' info prominently displayed), and even Justin Cucci from Root Down had wisely decided to offer his red-beet custard with bitter greens and goat cheese and was moving plates by the sheet tray.

It was a good event. After my experiences in the basement of the Sheraton, almost anything would've been a nice break. And I quickly shook off the worst of my blues with repeated trips to the Stranahan's Whiskey table upstairs, taking mine neat from the cask and making friendly small talk with the girls handing out the booze.

I was at the IACP convention in Chicago a couple years ago -- there to stalk Herve This (who, quite literally, wrote the book on molecular gastronomy) and to collect an award from this esteemed body for my peculiar version of restaurant criticism. There, the chefs were brought in to an enormous hotel ballroom in the middle of the city and made to serve their plates to a constantly circling throng of conventioneers who moved through the place like sharks, eating everything in sight. No offense to Chicago, but neither the food nor the space was as nice there, so kudos to Denver for one-upping the Second City. Of course, last year's was in New Orleans, so...

It was an easy night, up to a point. I had some friends in the crowd -- some food people and some fellow travelers -- so we did little more than drink and eat and gossip and drink some more. I met Kathleen Flinn (who wrote the excellent and crazy food book The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, about doing time in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu), got to hang with Maggie Savarino Dutton from www.wineoffensive.com and the Seattle Weekly (if you like reading about wine and booze, read her Search and Distill column, and even if you don't, read it anyway, because I hate reading about wine and I still read it all the time).

There were others, too -- PR people and editors, other writers, other friends. It reminded me that, when taken in small groups, food writers make for fine company -- even for a miserable hermit like me. And that as pissy as I might've been earlier in the day, a lot of that probably had to do with being locked in a basement for hours and having not planned ahead enough to have brought along some things to liven up the afternoon.

Things like a hip flask. And maybe a pistol.

In any event, all was going swimmingly. Right up until the part where Jesse Morreale and his posse showed up, clapped me on the shoulder and hissed in my ear, "Hey, we have a mission."

But I'll write about that part later. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe never. Things got weird after that -- as things often will whenever Jesse shows up. And who knew I'd be finishing out my evening hunting the most dangerous game of all: Man.


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