Restaurant Hospitality editor Mike Sanson attended the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, June 18-21. The event attracts more than 5,000 attendees, celebrated chefs, wine makers and spirits experts. A component of the festival is several trade panels designed specifically for restaurant operators. Sanson’s focus was on covering those trade panels and interviews with top chefs and industry experts attending the event.
RH: What brings you to Aspen?
Cusack: This is my first year here. We came to compete in Grand Cochon, which takes place the same time the Classic is happening. Ten chefs compete in a head-to-tail cook-off. We didn’t win, but I’m proud of our chef, Mark Decker of Down House. He made a nice showing.
RH: There’ s been much talk here about the rise of casual dining and the decline of fine dining. What’s your take?
Cusack: I don’t see it so much as a decline of fine dining, but rather the elevation of casual dining. Customers are insisting on higher-quality ingredients, even on the lower end. And, apparently, they want things less formal.
RH: You’re having quite the summer.
Cusack: You’re not kidding. We have three restaurants now—Down House, Johnny Gold Brick and D & T Drive In. By the end of the summer, we’ll have three more restaurants (Hunky Dory, Bernadine’s and Foreign Correspondents).
RH: It’s a bit crazy developing three restaurants at once, no?
Cusack: We didn’t plan to do them all at the same time, but the Houston restaurant scene is exploding at the moment and we went after the best spaces and chefs we could get our hands on before anyone else grabbed them. The restaurant openings were spaced out, but you know how construction scheduling goes. We’re getting it done.
RH: This event in Aspen falls on Father’s Day weekend. Was your dad a good cook?
Cusack: He wasn’t, but he was a great musician who did things his own way. Because of him, I felt comfortable going out on my own (with partner Joey Treadway) and creating a company my way. “Take charge of your destiny” was his message, and I listened.