Food Matters: Three Days, Two Legendary Chefs
IF YOU GO…
20th Anniversary Wine Dinner
Chef Francis Mallmann
Aug. 17 at 7 p.m.
The Little Nell
675 E. Durant Ave.
Plated: Experiential Dining
Chef Davide Palluda
Aug. 18 & 19 at 6:45 p.m.
Cooking School of Aspen
305 E. Hopkins Ave.
More than 300 days remain until Aspen’s epic food smorgasbord, the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen—but that doesn’t mean we must wait another ten months to enjoy the culinary stylings of world-class chefs. An awesome food weekend is right around the corner: Not one but two top chefs are coming to town for separate cooking engagements on Aug. 17, 18, and 19.
First up, next Thursday night: esteemed Argentine chef Francis Mallmann will lead the Little Nell team in preparing a five-course menu to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the venue’s first Wine Spectator Grand Award (which it earned yet again in 2017). Known for his mastery of primal, wood-fire cooking techniques, as shown in the first season of critically acclaimed Netflix series “Chef’s Table,” Mallmann, along with Nell executive chef Matt Zubrod, will stage preparation outdoors, likely in the sand bocce court in front of Ajax Tavern at the base of Aspen Mountain. (Zubrod notes that they plan to set up an infiernillo—“small inferno”—essentially a cooking level arranged between two fires.)
Including more than fifty rare wines poured by several Master Sommeliers and others who have worked at the Nell over the past two decades, the 20th Anniversary Wine Dinner for 40 guests is priced at $1,200 per ticket.
“It’s expensive, but the wine lineup is what you’re paying for,” Zubrod says. “And eating (Mallmann’s) food without going to Argentina.”
Then, on Friday and Saturday, Michelin-starred chef Davide Palluda (All’Enoteca in Canale) will prepare an intimate, seven-course Italian tasting at the Cooking School of Aspen. Capped at 30 seats, these events make full use of the school’s demonstration kitchen, allowing diners the unique opportunity to interact with Palluda while he cooks. Hosted in partnership with Forever Gourmet, a specialty food importer with European roots, the dinners will involve gourmet ingredients hailing from the Piedmont region as well as wild mushrooms. Tickets are $165; optional wine pairings an additional $75. (Bottles of wine from sister restaurant Rustique Bistro’s cellar that are normally $150 and over will be sold at half-price, too.)
Though purely by coincidence, these guest-chef visits are hardly surprising; Aspen has long been a magnet for creative folks at the top of their field, and locals have come to crave novelty in dining.
“We have a great food culture here, of people that bring experience from around the world to our community,” says Cooking School of Aspen founder Rob Ittner. “Sharing what they do is so much fun. The Nell has been on the forefront, doing it well for years. The Cooking School wants to add to that.”
Indeed, the Little Nell has been an important career move for a long list of chefs, sommeliers, and hospitality professionals, including chef Ryan Hardy and somms Richard Betts and Bobby Stuckey. And it has often hosted guest chef dinners, including engagements featuring Hakan Thörnström, Kerry Heffernan, Lou Rossi, Jaime Pesaque, and Claude Troisgros in the past two-and-a-half years since Zubrod took the helm. Thörnström, a close friend of fellow Sweden native and Cloud Nine Alpine Bistro general manager Tommy Tolleson, will most likely return this winter, whether at the Nell or elsewhere.
“It’s about sharing ideas and seeing other techniques,” says Zubrod, who handpicks kitchen staff to work with the guest chefs. “For the cooks to see it and not have to go work somewhere else is an invaluable lesson. These guys are throwing down!”
The Nell dinner will showcase a few of Mallmann’s signature dishes: empanadas, salmon, rib-eye with domino potatoes, and dulce de leche Napolean. The Nell chefs will contribute element 47’s tartare with Emma Farms wagyu beef; Colorado corn and crab chowder with squash blossoms; and wood-fired forest mushrooms.
“We all have his book (Seven Fires)—we’re excited,” Zubrod says. “We’re shutting down the restaurant for the night. We bought two cords of wood, which is almost more than we use most of the winter, and rebar for building this dome in the inferno. We’ve never done anything like this.”
Yet Zubrod has been a guest chef himself. He led the Cooking School’s first Plated dinner last December and recently cheffed a 30th anniversary luncheon at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Napa. He’s participating in the San Diego Bay Wine + Food Festival in November, too. Often these are pro-bono gigs, done “for the love and the experience,” he says. “What (Keller) has created is like the culture I’d like to create at the Little Nell.”
Of course, Zubrod and Ittner discuss food constantly. “We always talk about places we’ve eaten, chefs we’ve met, meals we’ve had,” Ittner says. “Matt and I share a combined passion on bringing in extraordinary chefs to showcase the fact that we are a global community here in Aspen. We’re inspired by what other people are doing around the world.”
Phillip Foss—chef behind Michelin-starred El Ideas in Chicago—may make the trip to the Cooking School this ski season, after canceling last winter due to hip surgery. “He is where the ‘Plated’ idea—a pop-up restaurant—came from,” Ittner says. “My hope is that we create a market for it after people try this type of dining.”
Ittner is working on drawing chefs from Amsterdam, Rome, New York City, and California, those with Michelin stars among them. The difficulty, he says, lies in the cost of getting them here, as well as scheduling an event that requires a fairly high-priced ticket on days that the chefs are not needed at their respective restaurants. (Mallmann, for instance, was already scheduled to visit Aspen for a private event.) Despite the challenges, the concept is instantly alluring to folks who love food.
“Each table is pretty much a chef’s table, seated next to the kitchen where chef is working,” Ittner explains. “Often people look at a multiple-course meal as being stuffy and formal. The fact that we have this demonstration kitchen creates this playfulness with the interaction of the chef.”
He credits top chefs of Aspen, Zubrod especially, for helping to foster Aspen’s culinary community while serving bucket-list experiences to the hungry public.
“It is going to be one of the best food weeks ever in Aspen,” Ittner declares.
Food fanatics, then, should secure tickets pronto—these special dinners are sure to sell out.
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In the summer of 1957, Aspen welcomed its first summer ice-skating rink complete with two skating professionals on hand for instruction.