Clinking oysters chargrilled on the half shell — Cheers! — then slurping them up from a pool of smoky chipotle-bourbon butter. Smearing slices of slow-roasted bison brisket through fragrant mole sauce while gabbing with old acquaintances. Nibbling the charred edges of grilled wagyu skirt steak … then hearing raindrops hiss on hot coals, sending fragrant steam skyward as chefs tend to more slabs of sizzling meat over open fires. These are the aromatic taste memories that cling to my mind from Heritage Fire in Snowmass last Saturday.
Sharing stories with chefs around the literal campfires staged on Fanny Hill were moments that have been largely absent since the pandemic began in March 2020. That this food fest was able to happen at all, amid a global pandemic still emerging from shutdown 16 months ago and during a steady afternoon rainstorm, may be a testament to how hungry for connection we’ve become.
Introduced to Snowmass in 2015 (and on hiatus in 2020), Heritage Fire has traditionally piggybacked on the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, held every June since 1983. Showcasing some 2,500 pounds of sustainably raised pork, beef, lamb, goat, poultry and seafood cooked over live fire just yonder from the guest arena, Heritage Fire in Snowmass has become known as Aspen’s local-favorite culinary event.
“The concept is exposing people to heritage breed proteins,” explains Brett Friedman, CEO of Agency21, which began hosting the event in 2018. “We’re forcing a sustainability discussion, which is not a new discussion but a well understood conversation.”
Since this year’s Classic has been rescheduled to Sept. 10-12 due to the pandemic, Agency21 forged ahead with an independent midsummer showing (plus Heritage Fire events in Napa on Aug. 14 and Miami on Nov. 21).
As it turns out, this was the most attended Heritage Fire Snowmass to date: More than 870 people braved the rain over the course of three hours, proving that the Snowmass event has developed the legs to stand on its own.
For local chefs, Heritage Fire is a long-anticipated reunion as well as an opportunity to cook differently than in their respective kitchens. During his fifth Heritage Fire appearance, chef Jason DeBacker of The Edge Restaurant & Bar in Snowmass skewered whole Norwegian mackerel and roasted the fish over flames until blackened.
“Steckerlfisch,” he explains. “It’s a German restaurant, so that’s what I’m gonna go with. I’ve done salmon, goose, lamb (in the past).” Served alongside a pretzel roll and warm kartoffelsalat (potato salad, DeBacker’s version with bacon, shallots, and caraway), the Bavarian dish constitutes the kind of fare he serves just up the ski slope from the Snowmass Mall.
Tim Ormonde, new executive chef down the hill at TORO Kitchen & Lounge at the Viceroy Snowmass, flexed Argentinian flavors with a lamb merguez slider topped with tangy peach chutney on a fluffy house-made roll. This being his first Heritage Fire, Ormonde was still taking it all in.
“The setup is really fun,” he says from his station. “It is HOT out there! (The rain) didn’t hurt it. You’ve got so much wood stoking the fire.” All told, three cords of hardwood fueled operations for Heritage Fire’s 20 featured Colorado chefs, more than half of them from the Roaring Fork Valley.
The Little Nell culinary director Matt Zubrod made his first-ever trek to Heritage Fire. Though he did have to skip a wedding, the new July date was a blessing: usually Zubrod is tied up with Food & Wine Classic events in Aspen.
“One reason: Will Nolan. That’s why I’m here!” Zubrod says, name-checking his chef buddy who led the Viceroy Snowmass kitchen when Heritage Fire began here in 2015. (Nolan returned this year as executive chef of LittleHouse, “an elevated, fresh, organic, dine-in and take-out eatery with European influences” in Telluride.)
“We can’t do many (festivals) because we’re all short-staffed,” Zubrod says, flipping wagyu on a grate set over flickering flames. “But this is a fun one.”
Zubrod called on longtime Aspen chefs Gregg Hemming and Megan Rainnie to assist, and brought element 47 a.m. chef de cuisine Jeff Casagrande, who “has been foraging like a madman, and got a ton of porcinis.” Find those mushrooms in risotto at element 47 currently; wagyu is always on the menu at The Little Nell, thanks to the property’s deep-rooted partnership with Emma Farms in Basalt.
Meanwhile, in a preview for Plosky’s Deli, set to open in Carbondale soon, chef-owner David Eisenson prepared a top sirloin pastrami on thin slices of sourdough rye with a hearty schmear of yellow mustard. Eisenson’s partner in the deli and fellow alum of long-gone six89 in Carbondale, Mark Hardin of Field 2 Fork Kitchen layered lamb barbacoa with chimichurri on crispy-edged, fluffy blue corn tortillas. Shining Mountain Farms, located on the Lazy Glen Open Space, provided the pastured lamb.
“It’s all about bringing the community local agriculture: Rock Bottom Ranch, Two Roots Farm, Wild Mountain Seeds — whatever we can do to get the public aware of the local — hyperlocal! — agriculture in our valley,” notes Mike McNamara, in-residence chef at Rock Bottom Ranch. At Heritage Fire for the sixth time, McNamara floated for fellow chefs Nolan, Hardin, Mike Rutherford, Patrick Kennedy and Flip Wise.
“The band is back together!” McNamara quips, referencing the above team of chefs who won Cochon555 — Heritage Fire’s pork-centric predecessor, founded as a competition tour in 2008 —in Denver in March 2017. “It’s about helping each other out. Maybe you’re running late or got stuck in traffic — Hey, can you start my fire? — which has happened twice today.”
Rutherford, representing Home Team BBQ in Aspen, served one of the most-mentioned bites in my unofficial poll of attendees: brined and smoked salmon from sponsor Seattle Fish Co., perched on a chile-dusted pork chicharrón with jalapeño-yellow pepper salsa. At one point, Rutherford and Nolan paraded a whole roasted piglet through the grounds, then shredded the meat over blackened butter beans with crunchy fennel slaw.
“We’re very blessed here,” Friedman says, noting that Heritage Fire events in isolated locales such as Snowmass and Napa have relaunched smoothly without the participation troubles inherent of planning food festivals in other cities. Staff is in short supply everywhere, but Snowmass pulled it off. Though simply having Heritage Fire back to town stokes local morale in myriad ways, I hope that the interactive demonstrations and educational presentations of years past return in the future, to further connect attendees with the food being served.
“Our agency is the largest in the country for culinary events. Cochon555 is anywhere from 10 to 15 cities,” Friedman says. “Next year, we’re going to double or triple (Heritage Fire). People want to be outside — this live-fire, sustainable movement is not going away.”