It was a sunny Friday afternoon when I piled into the Silver Queen Gondola with Bryan Moscatello, Todd Slossberg and Rob Zack, executive chefs of element 47 at The Little Nell, Chefs Club by FOOD & WINE at The St. Regis Aspen Resort, and Prospect at Hotel Jerome, respectively. Our destination? The iconic peak of Aspen Mountain, where photographer Leigh Vogel, who was also along on the ride, was to shoot the very photograph that appears on this newspaper’s cover.
A jovial bunch, who’ve known one another for years (decades in the case of Slossberg and Zack), they bantered about menus, compared notes about their respective kitchens and dished about a who’s who of the local restaurant community.
For each, it was the first trip up the gondy this season and, with the major push that will ensue as their respective restaurants are bombarded with holiday revelers over the next couple of weeks, it may well be the last for quite some time. But for the 17 minutes or so it took to get to the top, thoughts of all that vanished against the beauty and largess of our surroundings. It grew silent, except for an occasional “wow.”
Connections and Reflections
The ride up the mountain was the culmination of a week of conversations with the chefs. Conversations that turned into reminiscences. Reminiscences that brought laughter and a sense of wonder about how a place, Aspen, has so profoundly influenced their lifestyles. How, at this moment in their careers, they find themselves at the top of their game at high-profile restaurants set in world-class hotels that, in turn, are at their peak.
Zack, who will mark his 20th year in Aspen this June, and started out here at as line cook with Slossberg at the Jerome, was especially reflective. “I remember my first day at this hotel,” he said with a shake of the head and a laugh. “I walked in on Saturday of Food & Wine and they had me make one of those cheese displays on a mirror. It was a very different place and time.”
Over the years, Zack also worked with chef George Mahaffey at Conundrum and Pacifica in Aspen and opened Crave Kitchen at Willits downvalley with Slossberg. He was executive chef at Eight K at Viceroy Snowmass until, a little more than a year ago, Tony DiLucia lured him back to the Jerome when Auberge Resorts took over and DiLucia returned as general manager. “I was content, living in Snowmass and the Viceroy was a cool place,” Zack recalled. “But I knew what the Jerome meant to the community. So when I heard about the turnaround and renovation that was taking place, I thought ‘how can I pass that up?’”
Slossberg also has a significant history with the Jerome — and DiLucia. “I’d been roommates with Tony at the CIA in New York,” he said. “Thanksgiving of ’88, he was at the Jerome and called me to come out to help get a pizza company in the hotel running right. After that, I worked my way up from sous chef to chef in ’94, working with Charles Dale and Joachim Splichal. It was wild.”
Slossberg was executive chef at the former Century Room at the Jerome until 2006, during which time he was twice nominated for “Best New Chef: Southwest” by the James Beard Foundation. He also spent time at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs and Crave in Willits, and was most recently executive chef at The Aspen Meadows.
Ten days ago, Slossberg took on the role of executive chef at Chefs Club by FOOD & WINE, a position for which he had been recruited to collaborate with Didier Elena as Elena takes on the role of culinary director of Chefs Club USA. “I’d been following Didier since he was at (Restaurant) Alain Ducasse at The Essex House in New York, one of the best restaurants in the world,” Slossberg said. “I was very happy at The Meadows, but the chance to work with Didier and reconnect with Food & Wine piqued my interest. Plus, it gave me the chance to be back in the center of town.”
At the other end of town, Moscatello beamed as he shared the story of his return to Aspen and The Little Nell, landing at the helm of element 47 a couple of weeks ago. “It’s like I’m home,” he said. “I’d been coming back to town for Food & Wine and for vacations with my wife, Jamie, for a couple of weeks over the last 13 years. But I’ve always wanted to move back.”
Moscatello left The Restaurant at The Little Nell just as it was transforming to Montana (now element 47). “I wanted to be chef there, but I wasn’t ready,” he said. Moving at first to Utah, he opened Bistro Toujours in Deer Valley, followed by Adega in Denver, where he was named a Best New Chef in 2003. After that he opened a string of restaurants in Washington, D.C. His latest venture was as chef-partner in Storefront Company in Chicago.
The strategy worked. “It’s been a very growing time, and I’ve learned so much,” he said. “But, in Chicago, I’d been considering a next project and when I learned (chef) Rob McCormick had left The Nell, I connected with (general manager) Simon Chen. I came out to Aspen in November and cooked for the team, then got the call to come back in time for the holidays. It was quick, but the beauty of it is that I knew what to expect.”
With each new move, Slossberg, Moscatello and Zack have brought their food forward, reflecting both changing tastes of the local and visiting clientele, and the growing availability of local and regional products. The latter is apparent to Moscatello in particular. “I cannot believe the food we get here now,” he said. “When I left, we were just starting to FedEx things in. Now, there are lots of new vendors, like Milagro Ranch and Emma Farms, and fantastic produce. Plus, it’s more global. We can get anything from anywhere in the world, the same as Le Bernadin in New York.”
His goal for the near future is to work with the “really solid, good cooks” in his kitchen to turn out what he calls “food of the place” with all the “important flavor profiles” — sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Dishes such as pan-seared and roasted quail with goat cheese polenta, goat cheese chips, a 5-hour quail egg (cooked at 143 degrees until it’s just set), pickled shallots and root spinach. He also plans to bring back the charcuterie program started by former Nell chef Ryan Hardy. “We’re already doing wagyu pepperoni, bellies and pancetta,” he said.
At Prospect, Zack has had the opportunity to pick and choose his staff from the great number of capable folks he’s formed relationships with over the years, some of whom are the kids of employees who have been with the hotel for 20 years. “It’s an evolution, and all really fun,” he said. Zack’s menus are a balanced mix of signature dishes that have been brought up-to-date, like mustard-crusted ruby trout served over orzo with tomato, spinach, basil and lemon-brown butter, and new additions, including freshly ground 7X Colorado beef tartare topped with a softly cooked egg; and mini-Mason jars filled with chicken liver mousse, or burrata with roasted pumpkin. “It’s food that people will remember and create an emotional connect with,” he said.
Slossberg, who now gets to work on the open stage that is Chefs Club’s kitchen (“It’s a real chef’s kitchen, a dream kitchen,” he said.), will be finessing the restaurant’s original concept. “The food is always changing, with our dishes as well as those of the Best New Chefs that come in seasonally,” he said. “My job is blending all the styles together.” For the winter menu, dishes such as Slossberg’s grilled double elk chops with pumpkin and balsamic-pickled bing cherries will share space with Best New Chef Missy Robbins’ Colorado lamb porterhouse with calabrian chili, eggplant puree and coriander, for example. “We’re developing a new protocol for a fledgling restaurant group, which is exciting,” added Slossberg. The next Chefs Club is scheduled to open in New York in the spring.
Home Sweet Aspen
While all three chefs admit to getting away occasionally to cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco to recharge their culinary batteries, the attraction only goes so far. As Zack sums up, “I see so many chefs in cities where they work-work-work and have nothing else in their lives. I appreciate that, but here, there’s an offseason. When I get a day off, I can snowboard, or spend time with my wife and kids. Aspen has grown with the times really well. I can’t believe I live here.”
“I knew what the jerome meant
to the community. ,,, i thought,
‘how can i pass that up?’”
— chef Rob Zack