A big cheffing deal for Robert McCormick | AspenTimes.com

A big cheffing deal for Robert McCormick

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy of The Little NellRobert McCormick is executive chef at The Little Nell in Aspen.

ASPEN – Can it get any bigger for Robert McCormick than it gets this weekend?It will be the first Food & Wine Magazine Classic for McCormick in his position as executive chef at The Little Nell, a job he was promoted to in April. The Nell, home to Montagna and Ajax Tavern restaurants as well as Colorado’s largest wine collection, becomes the unofficial foodie central over the course of the Classic, with who knows which celebrity chefs sitting down for a meal.In fact, McCormick does know the identity of at least one chef who will be tasting his cuisine at Montagna. Daniel Boulud, his boss at three restaurants, including the Daniel Boulud Brasserie at the Wynn, which McCormick helped open, has reserved a table for eight. Among Boulud’s dining companions is a contingent from the Bocuse d’Or, a cooking competition based in Lyon, France, that is generally considered the culinary equivalent of the Olympics. McCormick had thought of keeping the dinner casual, trying to treat it as not such a big event, but then came back to his senses.”Come on, I can’t make it casual,” McCormick, a handsome, sharp-featured 34-year-old, said, adding that the meal would emphasize Colorado products, including a whole roasted lamb and locally caught trout. “I didn’t want to go over the top, so it’s a more country, Colorado-style set-up. But it is kind of a big deal.”Even so, this weekend isn’t quite the biggest thing on his plate. When McCormick was elevated to the Nell’s executive chef position, after serving six months as executive sous chef, the plan wasn’t merely to replace Ryan Hardy, who had a prominent five-year run heading the hotel’s kitchen. The Nell is looking at a major remodel of Montagna next spring, and McCormick expects to have significant input on the project. The vision is already starting to come together in his head: cleaner visual lines and a better integration of kitchen and dining room; a completely altered menu format that focuses on la carte ordering; a cuisine that includes a wider variety of European elements than Hardy’s Italian-oriented cooking.McCormick has already done some small-scale fiddling with the Nell. Many of the Italian words have been stricken from the menus; a Hungarian-style ribeye using Wagyu beef from Tom Waldeck’s local Emma Farms Cattle Company, served with red pepper jus, paprika and mustard spaetzle, has been introduced. Also added was Saturday and Sunday brunch at Ajax Tavern, featuring sweet potato pancakes and duck confit hash. That, however, is just the starter course: “I didn’t want to turn the world upside down yet,” McCormick said, adding that he will wait until the remodel to institute bigger changes.In creating new menus for the Nell, McCormick has much to draw on. His early food memories revolved around family meals in rural Lake Ariel, a town in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. “We were strict about eating dinner together every day,” he said. “We went to apple orchards and blueberry farms. Every Sunday was a huge dinner at my grandmother’s house. It was people you were close to, people you trusted.”A focus on food as a career was instilled by his high school cooking teacher. “You’re 15, 16; you don’t know what you want to do with your life,” McCormick said. “She was a very mouthy Italian – no filter – and a motivator, someone you trust. She taught me to take it more seriously.”Attending the Culinary Institute of America right out of high school, McCormick needed no more motivation beyond the atmosphere of the Hyde Park, N.Y. campus. “Once you get there, you realize it’s a big deal. Using the best ingredients, cooking from scratch – you realize that’s huge,” he said.McCormick went on to work for three chefs, each of whom added something unique to the pot. Guenther Seeger, from Seeger’s in Atlanta, was the stereotypical German: The focus was on consistency, order, precision, etiquette. Seeger, a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement in Georgia, also introduced McCormick to the importance of local ingredients: “We didn’t even have a can opener in the restaurant. Sysco, U.S. Foods – I didn’t even know what they were,” he said.Working for a year with the French-born Michel Richard at Citronelle in Washington, D.C. gave McCormick an entirely different perspective on cooking. “It was more whimsical and creative. He showed you there were a million different ways to do things. With Guenther, it was always one perfect way.”Under Boulud, McCormick got to witness what he considers the complete cheffing package. “He was the passionate French chef,” McCormick said. “He had it all – this amazing business sense, understood his clientele. And he could motivate people; he was an all-star personality. He conquered fine dining, and now casual restaurants.”Now McCormick gets the opportunity to impress his old boss – while also keeping part of his mind on next spring’s remodel and dealing with this weekend’s Classic madness.”The biggest challenge is crazy weekend like this,” McCormick said of adjusting to his job. “You’re dealing not only with your own team, but all these outside people, who might be organized. Or might not.”stewart@aspentimes.com

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