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Dispatch From Aspen: The Best of the Trade Seminars

Lest you think the Aspen Food & Wine fest is all about chefs letting their hair down via copious amounts of wine, we'd like to remind you that there's a lot of serious industry discussion going on too, namely the round-table discussions from the restaurant trade program. At these seminars, a cross-section of big-name chefs, CEOs and restaurateurs discuss specific, relevant industry topics such as how to balance creativity and commerce and how to invest in home-grown talent. But of course, the economy comes up every time. Some highlights:

1) Earlier this morning, Bobby Flay—who finally made it here after cooking for the Obamas—talked about what makes the right business partner and how he and his longtime partner-in-crime Laurence Kretchmer have been so successful: "I don't allow Laurence to talk to the press anymore."

2) Alongside Flay, Traci Des Jardins pointed out that even though Pat Kuleto was instrumental in getting Jardiniere off the ground, she was the only one on the panel—which also included Chipotle CEO Steve Ells and NYC's Joe Bastianich (all pictured)—that flies solo in terms of having a long-standing business partner, though that's changed with her new project with the Ritz Tahoe (more on that in a bit).

3) The economy was front and center during the seminar titled "The Money Equation: Evaluating Obstacles and Opportunities" with Mario Batali, Jose Andres and IHOP/Applebee's overlord Julia Stewart. One of the most interesting parts was when Batali and Andres revealed the ways in which they've saved money since the economy tanked last fall. Andres says he has copied the way that McDonald's and similar fast-food places do things, namely installing TV monitors ordering systems in his kitchens, which he says makes a huge difference in efficiency and quality of the kitchen. Batali simply asked/demanded his vendors to take 10% off everything.

4) In the same segment, Stewart revealed that despite her predictions, ribs flopped at IHOP. Shocking, right?

5) During the audience Q&A, Mario Batali and Jose Andres were asked the following question: now that their restaurants are established and they don't have to worry about little things like the dishwasher showing up drunk anymore, what do they worry about? Mario's answer: "These days, I'm more worried about what my son is getting on his math test than how the ravioli are doing. Our system is just so solid at this point." Jose's answer: "I worry I'm starting to show up drunk with [the dishwashers]."

6) Finally, we had three chefs (NYC's Jonathan Waxman, Chicago's Paul Kahan and Boston's Barbara Lynch) and one restaurateur (NYC's Drew Nieporent, last seen in SF shuttering Rubicon) discussing how to cultivate home-grown talent and the dilemma of nurturing/publicizing your chefs only to have them leave for new project. And here's where there was an awkward divide on the panel: all three chefs expressed warm fuzzy happiness when one of their underlings went on to bigger and better things, but Nieporent? Not a fan of losing his chefs. At all. Call it the divide between chefs and owners.
· All Coverage From Aspen 2009