Aspen Times Weekly Food Matters: How Sweet It Is
element 47 at The Little Nell
675 E. Durant Ave
AS A FOOD WRITER, my favorite part of the gig — aside from the obvious — is hanging out in restaurant kitchens to watch chefs in the zone. I feel nostalgia for a long-ago waitressing stint in an Italian trattoria with a manic Pompeian owner mixed with inspiration I pick up as an avid home cook, but what I enjoy most is absorbing the behind-the-scenes energy, like hanging out at band practice or lounging in an artist’s studio as she sculpts a masterpiece.
Much different from observing a regular chef is watching a pastry chef at work: frenzy and stifling heat cede to cool, calculated precision. Tweezers are swapped for tongs. Racks of meat and stinky stuff like fish stock and onions are nowhere to be found; instead, there’s butter, sugar, cream, and chocolate galore. So last week I geeked out at the chance to visit executive pastry chef Danielle Riesz and crew backstage at The Little Nell to learn how they make a spring dessert menu.
“I need to play with the doughnuts,” Riesz says when I arrive in the modest pastry room at the end of the sprawling kitchen. Lined in neat rows on top of her gleaming stainless-steel station are plastic containers of colorful accouterments — purple berries, golden streusel crumbs, bright-green pistachios, buttercup-colored custard, snow-white meringue — next to a crisp ingredient list and ideas notebook. She glances down at a single square white plate: her blank canvas.
“I don’t know where it’s going to take me,” she muses. “This is first time it’s going on the plate.”
Riesz picks up a freshly fried beer doughnut the size of a golf ball. This iteration — she creates a different variety each season — is made with New Belgium Trippel and rolled in nutmeg sugar. She pipes lemon curd into its center, and with a metal spatula swipes a comet of lemon curd to anchor the doughnut to the plate. For the second doughnut, a stripe of blueberry sauce.
“No, I don’t like that,” Riesz says, erasing the blob immediately with a clean towel. “Too smooshy. It needs more…luscious loving.”
Riesz works with the focus of a surgeon: piling streusel crumbs here, tweezering a few threads of candied ginger there. She wields two spoons and a few fast click-clack-click-clacks later lays a football-shaped cannelle of blueberry cheesecake ice cream atop the crumbs. A lemon chip, shaved super thin with a mandolin, dipped in simple syrup, and dehydrated in a low oven for hours, finishes the spherical tableau. “This will evolve,” she says.
The doughnuts join half a dozen other desserts on the new spring menu at element 47 at The Little Nell, set to launch in a week or two. Shortly afterward, however, the Five-Diamond award-winning hotel restaurant goes dark for offseason, closing on April 20 after Easter brunch and reopening on May 15.
“In our culinary department we are always using what’s fresh, what’s in season,” says executive chef Bryan Moscatello when he stops into the pastry kitchen. “There’s a mini-evolution of the menu in April, kind of like a sneak peek to spring.”
Pastry chefs — and dessert menus — perhaps benefit the most from this seasonal shift. “It’s like an awakening,” Riesz says. “Winter is long and stagnant. The (regular) kitchen can get produce from local farms, but they don’t grow fruit year-round. For us, it’s limited. Between now and June there’s another set of fresh produce that will become available. End of July and August: Paonia peaches, apricots, cherries—we get excited for those.”
One seasonal ingredient is rhubarb, which is poached sous-vide and cooked into a consommé, to accompany the dessert on element 47’s new tasting menu, which launched on April 1: a cylinder of limoncello glacé wrapped in tarragon gelée with candied fennel and meyer lemon. First-day intern Deanna Gamache, a Denver Johnson & Wales culinary student, preps the garnish, liquid-center limoncello cordials, by brushing loose starch off of each one the size of a pencil eraser. It’s a slow task.
Pastry supervisor Makayla Gagne finishes a few dozen dark chocolate and passion fruit lollipops, while colleague Yazmin Saraya whisks a saucepan of salted caramel to top shortbread squares, both mignardises delivered to each table at the end of the meal. Gagne then bastes freshly baked Parker House rolls with melted butter; Saraya sets the line for the upcoming dinner service.
Compared to other restaurants, the pastry staff at The Little Nell is big: nine currently, with an additional member beginning in June, the most “intense” month, to help with banquets, weddings, the Food & Wine Classic. Enrique the baker arrives at 5 a.m. to make muffins, croissants, sticky buns, burger buns, breads, and rolls, plus dough for cookies, brownies, and banana bread; the last staffer leaves at 11:30 p.m. What’s more, each dessert is tweaked and approved, tweaked and approved, by multiple people — chef Moscatello, general manager Simon Chen, other Nell bigwigs — before being printed on the menu.
“By the time it gets to the guests, we want it to be perfect,” Riesz says. Today the chef is also developing her deconstructed strawberry shortcake (pictured above): toasted brioche, fresh and roasted strawberries, whipped white- chocolate mousse, dried lemon and pink peppercorn meringue.
“I removed the ice wine sorbet and ice wine gelée and replaced them with basil sorbet and pink peppercorn gelée,” she tells me later. “These changes brightened up the dish and brought all of the flavors I already had together, like a family.”
A soda-shop inspired root beer and espresso frappé and milk chocolate brownie sundae with bourbon-praline ice cream and caramel are in the works too. And, of course, a creamsicle invention, Riesz’s signature since she joined The Little Nell four years ago. When I ask about upcoming trends, Riesz doesn’t skip a beat.
“Well, the cupcake trend is over,” she says. “I think they’re cute and timeless, but it was so big for so long. French macarons—right now, everyone wants them. I’ve always been into the classics and putting a twist on them—strawberry shortcake, doughnuts—to take what’s comfortable and make it fancy. That will never go away.”
Amanda Rae has spring fever. You? email@example.com
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.