Little Nell fosters female firsts |

Little Nell fosters female firsts

Chef Meghan McGarvey knew exactly what she wanted to do for a career as a little girl.
Courtesy The Little Nell

Executive Pastry Chef Meghan McGarvey and sommelier Rachael Liggett-Draper may have taken different paths to Aspen and their positions at The Little Nell, but each is blazing a trail as a first.

“In a very male-dominated environment, it is sometimes difficult,” said McGarvey. “And I know it sounds kind of cliche, but I like to be unapologetically feminine. A lot of times, female chefs feel like they must be masculine, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I can be good, and I can be female. In fact, I can be better than other people.”

Her trajectory backs her up.

Head Pastry Chef Meghan McGarvey started her career at The Nell at 19. Now 24, she is the youngest and first female head chef at The Little Nell.
Courtesy The Little Nell

Ligget-Draper, meantime, went from stolen glances at “Wine for Dummies” at an early job to studying for the Master Sommelier exam in May. The number of Master Sommeliers is incredibly small, and a tiny fraction of them are women.

She always knew

McGarvey grew up in a small suburb of Chicago and knew early on what she wanted to do in life.

“I’ve never thought about anything else,” she said. “I grew up baking and making cakes and doing all that stuff. I watched ‘Top Chef’ when I was 8 and got obsessed with it. The first female winner, Stephanie Izard, came here last season for Food and Wine, and I got to meet her. She was my idol. I almost broke into tears when I saw her, but I was trying to be cool. It was a big thing for me to see a woman win.”

After high school, McGarvey attended The Culinary Institute of America in New York, where she studied pastry. After six months of working in Chicago, at the age of 19, she moved to Aspen to work for The Little Nell as a cook.

Four years later, and now 24, she is The Nell’s first female and youngest (ever) head chef.

“Most people don’t know how old I am,” she said. “They usually guess like 30 to 35, which is fine. I don’t like to spread it around because sometimes people use it against you. But I’m proud that I’m this age, female, and running an all-female department. It feels good.”

Meghan McGarvey insists on creating a healthy work environment and opportunities for her team.
Courtesy The Little Nell

And although she’s younger than most in her position, she approaches her job with emotional intelligence, passion, and a sense of responsibility — not only to her diners, but also to her all-female staff of 10, who support her in providing all The Nell restaurants and the hotel with pastries, bread, and desserts 24 hours a day.

“I like trying to mentor the women in my department,” she said. “I want to be there for this group of women and provide a healthy work environment and help them grow; so when I’m gone there is someone behind me who’s excited and wants to do something different than I did.”

Chef McGarvey’s signature peanut-butter-and-jelly dessert.
Courtesy The Little Nell

Her approach to pastry and dessert is approachable but elevated, focusing on familiar flavors that bring people back to childhood, reinvented in an exciting way. Think of a reimagined pineapple upside-down cake, a trio of chocolate, and a play on peanut butter and jelly on brioche with blackberry.

“With dessert, I think everyone has some memory in the past with Grandma or Mom or Dad that made the one thing that they love,” she said. “I like to keep everything approachable and understandable to the guests and to turn simple flavors into modern plating. When I started as the pastry chef, I didn’t exactly know my voice or my plating style, but you grow and you learn how to find your voice on the plate, essentially.”

The Little Nell’s first female sommelier, Rachael Ligget-Draper, joined the team in 2021.
Courtesy The Little Nell

She didn’t even like wine, at first

For sommelier Rachael Ligget-Draper, a career in wine wasn’t remotely on her radar.

“I disliked the taste of wine,” she said with a laugh. “I hadn’t found anything I enjoyed. I remember my family trying to teach me how to smell wine when I was like 22 or 23, and I was like, ‘Oh gross.’”

Originally from Massachusetts, she moved to Vail straight out of college and got a job as a host at an upscale bowling alley with elevated wine offerings, such as grower champagnes and Petrus. There, the opportunity to learn about wine presented itself.

And once she started, she was hooked.

“I started to get a little bit of an interest,” she said. “I was reading ‘Wine for Dummies’ at the host stand and doing the logistical stuff, creating the programming for the POS system, redoing the wine list, etc. I started studying for my certified, and that’s when I got my first som job. It gave me an opportunity to continue to study. There’s no limit to wine. Every time you think you know something, you realize you knew nothing. There’s no ceiling, and that was quite attractive to me because I was a very academic person.”

Rachael Ligget-Draper says there is no experience quite as magical as sharing a bottle of wine with loved ones.
Courtesy The Little Nell

After nine years working in various establishments in Vail, she was ready to work somewhere that had a “master status list.” So when an opportunity became available to join The Little Nell team as their first female sommelier, she jumped at the chance.

“When the opportunity arose about a year and a half ago here, I was so glad because so many of those amazing programs are on the coasts and in the cities,” she said. “But I love Colorado, and I wasn’t willing to give up the lifestyle that Colorado gives you. This is one of the few places that is at the foot of a mountain, but you still get to see the same reputable wine business and same bottle sales as the coasts.”

And indeed Ligget-Draper gets a sparkle in her eye when discussing the 3,000-bottle wine list The Nell offers, or the fact that the cellar is hovering around 22,000 bottles. She takes obvious pleasure in the organization, cataloguing, and studying of these wines, as well as learning from her team.

“It’s always been thought of as a boys’ club, but fortunately what I have experienced is all the boys in the club are welcoming to the girls,” she said. “Whether my colleagues are male or female, I also try to be a mentor to people learning and to foster that little seed.”

But the thing she loves most about being a sommelier is the hospitality, service, and experience she provides to her guests.

Sommelier Rachael Ligget-Draper is equally passionate about wine and hospitality.
Courtesy The Little Nell

“There is something magical about wine,” she said. “When you sit down with your friends and you open a bottle of wine, there tends to be this energetic building in the room, especially over a wonderful dinner. The energy builds, the laughter builds, the conversation builds as the wine flows. It’s this quite sweet thing. I’ve never seen it with anything else.”

Next up for Ligget-Draper is her master sommelier exam in May, which she is studying for and will be a huge accomplishment, should she pass. 

To give some perspective, according to The Court of Master Sommeliers, there are 172 professionals who have earned the title of Master Sommelier as part of the Americas chapter since the organization’s inception in 1977. Of those, 144 are men and 28 are women.

Luckily for Ligget-Draper, she has the support of another local who gained this honor in 2022: Casa Tua’s wine director and the world’s youngest master sommelier, Maddy Jimerson.

“I think a lot of women are becoming attracted to this incredible opportunity, and it’s really quite cool because we are seeing more master sommeliers that are female,” Ligget-Draper said. “You know, Maddy Jimerson just passed, and she’s turning around, and she’s taking the time to help me, and she’s helping others. That’s so much of what it’s about, when you get to the top to turn around and lift others, and I think it’s very much like a rising tide lifts all boats type thing.”

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