Little Nell Culinary Fest launches Thursday in Food & Wine Classic’s absence |

Little Nell Culinary Fest launches Thursday in Food & Wine Classic’s absence

The Nell Pairs with partners from Relais & Châteaux for Culinary Fest

Kelly J. Hayes

The inaugural Little Nell Culinary Fest will take place on the very weekend that would normally see the Aspen Food & Wine Classic roll into town June 17-20. It’s a big void to fill. But if anybody has the chops to do it, it’s the culinary and wine teams at the Nell.

For more than 35 years, Aspen’s summer season officially began with the Classic. Last year, as we all know, it was a casualty of the pandemic. While the Classic will return Sept. 10-12 in what’s planned as a truncated form, the folks at the Nell did not want the third weekend in June to pass unnoticed.


What: Little Nell Culinary Fest

Where: Little Nell Hotel

When: June 17-20

Tickets: Sold out

More info:

“We haven’t thrown a party in a while and it’s my favorite thing to do,” said Matt Zubrod, culinary director at The Little Nell, who initiated the concept of gathering chefs in Aspen for a Fest this summer. “Everybody is hungry to do something.”

“June has always been the time we kick off summer with Food & Wine” said Chris Dunaway, wine director at the Nell. “This year, with the Culinary Fest in lieu of the Classic, it feels like we are getting back to where we were.”

The four-day Fest will feature a series of food and wine focused breakfasts, lunches and dinners over four days at the Nell — all paired with the appropriate wines, of course. The event will also pay homage to United Nations World Oceans Day (celebrated this year on June 8) with a menu rich in sustainable seafood and shellfish.

To help celebrate, the Nell has invited an all-star trio of visiting chefs from sister properties within the Relais & Châteaux family to prepare meals at the events. Wines will be paired and poured under the guidance of Dunaway and his crackerjack team, which includes sommeliers Oscar Fernandez, Jacob Johnson and Jessie Libby. The team enters their third season together and they are coming off their best summer yet in 2020, despite the pandemic.


In 1954, Marcel and Nelly Tilloy, who owned a hotel and restaurant on the right bank of the Rhône called La Cardinale, came up with the idea of branding related properties under the slogan “La Route du Bonheur” (the Road of Happiness). The different houses, or hotels, each with their own distinct character, lined the road from Paris to Nice, united in shared goals of offering the finest amenities, outstanding dining and wine service and individual interpretations of the Art of Living.

Thus began the Relais & Châteaux mission, long before the trend of what are now called “boutique hotels.” Today Relais & Châteaux is a confederation of 580 member hotel and restaurant properties, including The Little Nell, that remain known for providing unique wine and gastronomy experiences along with a taste of local culture.

“Four times a year the chefs from Relais & Châteaux get together on a call to share notes,” Zubrod said. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to invite some of these great chefs to Aspen to cook and create some camaraderie?’ I love going to events and cooking with other chefs and I just thought it would be great for our kitchen to get some other chefs in here for a weekend.”

An idea was quickly launched to host the Fest on what would normally be the opening weekend of the Classic (and Father’s Day).

Joining the Nell team for the four-day celebration will be Adriano Venturini, culinary director, Eden Roc Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic, Josh Holt, executive chef at Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa outside of San Diego and Zachary Ladwig, executive chef of the Inn at Dos Brisas in Washington, Texas — all of which are Relais & Châteaux properties.

The lineup brings heavy kitchen cred, a love of seafood and a wealth of talent to the Fest.


The Fest opens with a Thursday night reception on the Element 47 patio, where champagne and canapés will be passed and registered hotel guests will meet and mingle with the chefs and sommeliers.

The Little Nell’s Wine Director Chris Dunaway
Courtesy Jamie Jaye Fletcher

Friday features a “Sommelier Lunch” with a three-course tasting menu by Zachary Ladwig, executive chef at The Inn at Dos Brisas. Dom Perignon will flow at the signature event Friday evening in the elegance of the Element 47 dining room. The “Relais & Châteaux Gourmet Dinner,” with a multi-course tasting menu will be prepared by the chefs from the four properties while wine service will be overseen by the team at the Nell.

“It’s a fun challenge to pair wines with so many chefs,” said Dunaway. “Each chef has his own personality and his own cuisine. They send us menus and we isolate individual ingredients and styles. If a dish has an item that is charred we may look for something with tannin, if it’s a spicy dish we might find a wine with perhaps a little higher acid.”

Saturday, too, will start with Champagne for breakfast (sounds like an old Peter Frampton song) in the Nell’s gardens. A luncheon prepared by Chef Adriano Venturini, of Eden Roc Cap Cana, will follow and that evening will see an “An Ode To Shellfish Dinner: A Taste Of The Sea”.

Set on the Ajax Tavern patio, this event will feature dishes from all of the chefs, each utilizing sustainable shellfish from producers affected by the pandemic, with shellfish purveyors on site. In addition to the hand-chosen wines by the team of sommeliers, craft cocktails featuring Duke Bourbon, Woodinville Bourbon, Volcan Tequila and La Adelita Tequila will be served.

Father’s Day falls on Sunday so Zubrod, a father of three, will team with Chef Josh Holt from the Hotel Rancho Valencia, to prepare a savory send-off menu for a “Father’s Day Brunch” with the Provencal rosé wine Whispering Angel from Chateau Chateau d’Esclans.

“Anytime you get chefs together it’s special. The timing is just so great,” said Zubrod. “We are really looking forward to having all of our guests and just hanging out with the chefs. ”

Same as it ever was.

Under The Influence

Chateau d’Esclans Whispering Angel

In 2006 Sacha Lichine left Bordeaux and headed south for a new venture in Provence. In just over a decade his rosé helped to create one of the hottest categories in the world of wine. Today he is partnered with LVMH and Whispering Angel is the best selling French rosé in the U.S. “Bordeaux-style vine-growing practices and Burgundy-style wine-making techniques are the key to obtaining a super premium rosé wine” according to Sacha. Chris Duanaway says the wines are “a classic expression of Provence.” Sipping the wines on the patio of the Little Nell on Father’s Day will be a treat for any dad. Or son or daughter for that matter.


The Little Nell has also announced that “The Aspen Cookbook” is a charitable partner for the Fest. Amanda Rae Busch, who writes the Food Matters column for the Aspen Times Weekly, curated and edited the compendium of 100 recipes from 69 local chefs to help raise funds for the Aspen Board of Realtors pandemic relief grant fund. So far, $30,000 has been donated to the community.

“The Little Nell was so incredibly supportive in my effort to wrangle recipes for ‘The Aspen Cookbook’ last spring and summer,” said Busch in appreciation. “The cookbook features recipes for the Nell’s legendary Lemon Soufflé Pancakes, Mountain Mojito cocktail, and the classic Wagyu Double Cheeseburger from Ajax Tavern. So to participate in the Culinary Fest as a charity partner is a full-circle moment.”

All proceeds from “The Aspen Cookbook” directly impact local restaurant workers through the grant fund established by the Aspen Board of Realtors. The book is $45 and available at or Aspen booksellers and gift shops.

Aspen Times Weekly

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