Aspen’s Nutritarian Festival focuses on healthful eating, cooking

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Martin Oswald brings up a conversation he had recently with a gentleman who appeared dedicated to healthful ways of eating. “He talked about omega-3s” – the fatty acid found in some fish and plant oils – “and he knew the ins and outs,” Oswald said.

Oswald offers up this person as a perfect example of why Oswald has created the Nutritarian Festival, a healthful-food event that makes its debut Thursday through Saturday in Aspen. The man in question might have done all the reading on omega-3s, which are believed to help prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease and inflammation. But, Oswald notes, he also revealed that he ate dozens of eggs a week and consumed lots of oils – indications, to Oswald, that the man’s thinking on nutrition was focused too narrowly.

Last December, Oswald opened Pyramid Bistro inside Explore Booksellers. The restaurant focuses on nutrient-dense foods, with an emphasis on greens and grains, veggies and seeds – and a further emphasis on convincing diners that such ingredients can be high in taste. Over the last eight months, Oswald has come to see that the faultiest thinking about a healthful diet, even for people who are inclined to patronize Pyramid Bistro, is that there exists one nutrient that is the magic bullet of good health.

“The problem is, people tend to focus on a single nutrient. Today it’s omega-3s: ‘Got to get those omega-3s,'” said Oswald, who spent 15 years as executive chef at Aspen’s Syzygy before opening Pyramid. “Think back to when vitamin C was first discovered – they bottled it up and gave it to everybody. Then it was, ‘Zinc cures everything.’ That’s the biggest misconception, that you can bottle it up and depend on a few select nutrients. When in reality, you should get a broad, seasonal, local selection of it, with all the colors – nuts, beans, seeds, so you’re consuming all the antioxidants and vitamins and minerals.”

The Nutritarian Festival is designed to make sure that no vegetable goes unturned. The event’s main course is a cook-off on Saturday at The Aspen Club. Taste will only be part of the picture as chefs from the Little Nell, Six89, the Downvalley Tavern and others compete (in fact, in determining the winner of the Nutritarian Challenge, taste will account for 60 percent of the vote, with 40 percent weighted toward nutritional content). The event begins not with a cocktail hour, but with a lecture on how to reverse disease by Dr. Fuhrman, the New Jersey-based M.D. and author of “Eat to Live” and “Disease-Proof Your Child.” The two-hour cook-off will feature such dishes as Umbrian farro with kale-walnut pesto, ginger-cured salmon with Honshimeji mushrooms, and tomato terrine. During the meal, there will be raffles and demonstrations of the Vitamix, a super-blender used to make juice drinks. After the voting – diners will vote on flavor, a panel of experts will make the call on the nutrition end – the experts will explain the nutritional value of each dish.

The festival also includes a fundraising dinner at a private home on Friday, featuring a four-course dinner prepared by Pyramid, Syzygy and Six89, music, and a talk with Dr. Fuhrman. Also in attendance will be John Mackey, founder of Whole Foods. The festival opens with a reception on Thursday afternoon at Pyramid.

Oswald got his start in health-oriented cooking in his native Austria, where he trained in spa cuisine. In 1987, he created A Day of Health, an event in his hometown of Hartberg, designed to spread the word about eating right. He hoped to open a nutrient-oriented restaurant in the United States, but found the concept impossible to launch; instead, he made his way to Aspen and helped establish Syzygy as a premiere spot for fine, though not necessarily health-focused, dining. Looking to re-connect with his roots, he opened Pyramid.

At Pyramid, Oswald has been pleased to see that people show interest in using food as a key to health. But he has also been dismayed at the misinformation, or shortage of information, there is about nutrition. Vegetarians may be enormously concerned about what they eat – but make white potatoes, a food Oswald doesn’t favor, a staple of their diet. Consumers may be passionate about local ingredients, but still not grasp the full picture.

“The farm-to-table movement doesn’t clarify what optimum health is. You can raise something locally, then baste it in oil, throw it on a grill and get your carcinogens there,” Oswald said. “Everybody gets only little bits of information from TV, and one research contradicts the other, depending on who sponsors it.

“At the Nutritarian Festival, people can see the food, what it looks like, how it tastes, get a talk from Dr. Fuhrman, who has come up with a new way to look at optimum health. It’s a huge education event. People will go back and eat the 12-ounce steak laden with butter, but now they will know what the choices are for optimum health.”

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