ASPEN - Before becoming executive chef at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Robert McCormick worked for five years in the restaurants of celebrated chef Daniel Boulud's American empire. Friday night, the tables turned as McCormick welcomed his former boss and mentor into his kitchens at the Nell's Element 47 (formerly Montagna) for a special celebration of food, wine and friendship.
"It's great to have Daniel here in this kitchen," McCormick said. "Not just for myself but for the entire staff. When you work in New York or San Francisco, you're used to having great chefs come to the kitchen. But in a small town like Aspen, it is an honor to have someone of Daniel's skills come and cook with us."
Boulud was there to collaborate with McCormick on "The Collectors Dinner" at Element 47 for 30 wine lovers and six French winemakers, who came to Aspen for the third La Paulee des Neiges, a mega-meal and wine event. Also part of the event was a ski-in luncheon Saturday at the Aspen Mountain Club, to which the winemakers and guests were encouraged to bring their personal wine selections.
La Paulee was created by Daniel Johnnes, the wine director for Dinex, Boulud's collection of restaurants, which includes, amongst many, the three-Michelin-starred DANIEL, Bar Boulud and DB Bistro in New York, as well as outposts in cities as far flung as Miami, Singapore and Beijing. A lover of burgundy, Burgundians and, of course, their wines, Johnnes wanted to pay homage to the famed La Paulee de Meursault, part of the three-day festival known as "Les Trois Glorieuses" that takes place around the city of Beaune on the third weekend of each November to celebrate the harvest.
In 2000, he inaugurated the initial La Paulee New York. Since then, the event has grown to become one of the most exclusive, most revered and most expensive wine events in America. Alternating each year between New York and San Francisco, it attracts hundreds who pay thousands to attend dinners, tastings and seminars all dedicated to the love of Burgundy.
And then there is the La Paulee des Neiges, literally translated as the "Saute Pan of the Snows," a much smaller event that allows winemakers and guests an opportunity to come to Aspen, ski, converse and enjoy a convivial weekend of wine and food.
"The Aspen event is special because it is so intimate," Johnnes said during a break from sweating the details of glassware, decanting the wines and arranging seating for the guests. "Here, each table has a winemaker sitting with them, and guests can make real connections and really learn about the makers and their wines."
And these aren't just any winemakers. They are the pantheon of Burgundy. Dominique Lafon's grandfather gave birth to the La Paullee celebration back in 1923. Christophe Roumier's family has been making wines in Chambolle-Musigny for five generations. Jean Pierre de Smet is co-owner and longtime winemaker at the esteemed Domaine de l'Arlot.
Entienne Grivot, of Domaine Jean Grivot, has been instrumental in creating the fundamentals that express the "new Burgundy," stressing quality and care in the vineyards. Pierre Meurgey owns Maison Champy, the oldest Burgundy house which made its first wines in the 1720s. And Alain Graillot, from Crozes-Hermitage, is the only non-Burgundian in the house but is, as Daniel Johnnes described with a shrug and a grin, "a great guy, a great winemaker and a friend."
It is impossible to overstate the significance and influence of this group of winemakers. They hail from a region that has perhaps the most valuable vineyard land in the world. Over the past 50 years, their experience and attitudes about making wine and treating their vineyards with respect and attention have changed the way in which growers and winemakers globally view their roles and responsibilities. Each has made wine of such superior quality that virtually any collector would treasure a bottle of their wines in their cellar.
The guests, who had paid $2,000 per plate to attend "The Collectors Dinner" and sit with the winemakers, were treated to an evening of amazing food and 15 different wines, each paired with courses prepared by McCormick and Boulud.
What does that kind of money buy, other than friendship, camaraderie and wine?
"The Collectors' Dinner" began with a dish that brought the Atlantic Ocean to the mountains. Boulud's Kataifi-crusted red mullet on saffron rye berries featured poached langoustine, sea urchin and a bouillabaisse emulsion. You could smell the winds of Brittany in the dish, and it was adroitly accompanied by the Domaine de l'Arlot, Nuits Saint Georges Clos de l'Arlot Blanc, served en magnum, of course.
It was followed by a "Black Tie" of scallops en croute layered with Perigourd truffles, a dish that Boulud has been making since the late '80s, when he was chef at the fabled Le Cirque.
"Why stop making it?" Boulud shrugged. "The guests always love it."
And it is obvious why they do. The dough on the crust was golden, and the layers of scallop and mushroom were perfectly sliced.
Next up was McCormick's beautifully presented spiced squab breast, which was crisp around the edges with a hint of salt and rare and tender in the center. So simple in its presentation, and yet so full of flavor and texture, the squab, with the accompanying petite hedgehog mushrooms and carrot jus, might have been the evening's highlight. Paired with Grivot's Clos de Vougeot and Richebourg, both from the 2000 vintage, the wines and the dish transported guests to France.
The "piece de resistance," however, was a presentation of the hay-baked T-bone "Rossini". Ten profoundly large, bone-in porterhouse steaks were set on their sides on a stack of hay, surrounding immense lobes of foie gras and accented by a bevy of massive black truffles. I have never seen steaks like that, foie gras like that or mushrooms like that. Together they might have been the most decadent collection of raw ingredients ever compiled.
Once the steaks were grilled, McCormick and Boulud wheeled the display in before the guests and then, with a torch, "smoked" the dish by setting the hay ablaze. Spectacular, yes, but as the smoke rose, so did the furrowed brow of the Nell's food and beverage director, Sabato Sagaria, who had thoughts of fire alarms ringing and sprinklers raining overhead. Here, the 2005 and 2002 vintages of the Roumier Charmes-Chambertin accentuated the presentation.
A cheese course (McCormick stayed local, using a goat cheese from the Avalanche Creamery called a cabra blanca, house-made blackberry jam, pistachios and pickled ramps for a "tour de force" presentation) and a dessert (a cardamom-orange cigar with a touch of Element 47, that would be silver, sprinkled an top) completed the evening, though there was revelry long into the night.
Behind the scenes, the kitchen felt like the war room at the Pentagon - quiet, efficient and orderly. Everyone had specific tasks and someone filled in if something needed doing. There had been preparations taking place for the menu for more than a month. Product was ordered, a team was convened, including Eddy Leroux, the chef de Cuisine at DANIEL, and plans were made to implement the menu. Each plate was checked thrice by members of the team before they were whisked away for service by the Nell wait staff, which did a magnificent job. It was a sight to see.
And yet, as sublime as the meal was, this was an evening that was about the wines. Helping The Little Nell staff, including Sagaria and wine director Jonathan Pullis, pour and serve more than 500 glasses of wine was a veritable murderers' row of sommeliers. Rajat Parr, the wine director for Michael Mina's restaurants, which play host to the San Francisco La Paulee, was joined by no less than six master sommeliers, many of them Little Nell grads.
"The generosity of these guys was amazing," Pullis said of the turnout of sommeliers with a shake of his head. "On their own dimes, they came here on a busy weekend to be a part of this event and to pour the wines of these winemakers. We're just lucky to have them here when they could be pouring wines in their own restaurants to their own guests on a Friday night."
Included among the pouring crew were Bobby Stuckey, who owns Boulder's Frasca; Dustin Wilson, currently working at Eleven Madison Park in New York; Sabato and Pullis, all of whom are among the 129 esteemed master sommeliers and all of whom worked at the Nell. They were joined by fellow masters Brett Zimmerman, of Boulder, and Ian Cauble, who is the U.S. brand Ambassador for Krug Champagne, which he poured to the delight of all assembled.
There were perhaps half a dozen other sommeliers in attendance, meaning that guests, though not outnumbered, were well-taken-care-of. As would be expected, the crew repaired to a another bar and then a private home postpour for an evening that came close to becoming a morning.
The 2013 La Paulee des Neiges proved to be a soulful, delicious and unforgettable affair. But as Johnnes indicated, this event is young. Perhaps one day it will be the equal of its ancestor in Beaune, but that is a long way off. In the meantime, for those who attended this year, it will remain a memory never to be forgotten.