Star Q&A: The Little Nell’s Bryan Moscatello

By Ruth Tobias  |  December 10, 2013

The recent news that Bryan Moscatello would be returning to five-diamond Aspen resort The Little Nell as executive chef on December 2 caused no small stir, even downslope. After all, upon leaving the property in 2000, Moscatello helped put Denver on the national map with the now-defunct Adega Restaurant + Wine Bar, where he earned a Best New Chefs nod from Food & Wine in 2003. Though he departed for Washington, DC, two years later, many locals continued to track his movements through the capital and into Chicago at venues like the high-profile Storefront Company. But finally, they can stop searching - and start planning their next ski trip.
Zagat: What has brought you back to Colorado after nearly a decade?

Bryan Moscatello: Honestly, the short version is, it was good for me to come home. I’m not from here, but I moved to Aspen when I was 20, and I worked at The Little Nell for nine years. When I left, it was to get into a city environment, starting with Adega - but I’d never really planned to stay in Denver. The idea was to get my feet planted in a smaller city and then move on to something bigger. DC is a fantastic place; the culture is just mind-blowing. My focus there was opening more large-format restaurants, like Indigo Landing and [the now-closed] Potenza, two blocks from the White House. I created a farm-to-table program at the Virginia Department of Agriculture... After six years, however, it was time to move on. When the opportunity in Chicago came up, I thought, “Well I haven’t done this yet.” That’s always been my MO. What can I learn from opening this great restaurant from scratch on a shoestring budget?

It was really exciting, and we achieved a ton, but the reality was I wanted to get back into fine dining. I sat back and looked at my list of everything I’ve done. I’ve opened a dozen restaurants, high-end and low-end; I’ve run a food cart; I’ve developed cocktail programs. I’ve done a lot. But, I asked myself, what do I really love? The answer was, I love the luxury element of things - and man, I really want to get back into the mountains. As much as the big cities have to offer, they don’t have that healthy lifestyle. All I did in Chicago was eat! It was great, but I’d had enough. So I’m super-jazzed to be back in Colorado.

Zagat: The Little Nell’s signature restaurant, element 47, didn’t exist during your previous tenure. How are you approaching the kitchen?

BM: First of all, I’ve got to thank [predecessor] Robert McCormick for the terrific crew I’ve inherited, including [chef de cuisine] Kyle Robinson. They’re already doing a lot of the stuff I’m looking for, but in working with them, the first evolution I want to make - even though I love the really contemporary redesign - is to dial the menu back a bit in keeping with the elements of American Alpine cuisine. We’re a resort, so of course we need to offer luxury product. But being at the base of the mountain, we’ve also got a local clientele who don’t necessarily want a six-course paired tasting menu on every visit.

Zagat: And how do you define American Alpine cuisine?
BM: Well, of course, I’m a big fan of game meats; I became addicted to them here. Venison, huckleberries, locally foraged mushrooms… The main thing is that when you’re reading the menu, the ingredients should convey a wholesome, earthy feel. But what I’ve learned, and it’s part of our culinary heritage here, is that if something enhances the dish, you should do it; if it doesn’t, you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t sous-vide everything just because you can. [Conversely,] if yuzu or chiles will elevate the dish, use them; those are your mixers, those are your accents.

Can you give us an example?
The new menu’s going to come out around the 16th, and one of my favorite dishes so far is sautéed, roasted quail over goat-cheese polenta, petite spinach and pickled shallots in a shallot-Shiraz vinaigrette, garnished with Monte Enebro chips and a five-hour quail egg.

Nice. What else are you excited about?
The biggest thing is that I can really live that nose-to-tail philosophy. When you have a luxury restaurant and you buy a whole cow, you’ve just paid $5,000 and all you get is about 50 portions. Here, all these venues and levels of dining [including Ajax Tavern and two bars at The Little Nell] give me the ability to cook into all different genres. Prime cuts go to the high-end restaurant, because your customers are paying top dollar for them. But you can do shanks for your tavern, use chuck roll for your burgers, top round in your lounge. You can make great pastrami-cured beef heart.

We get our cows from [Wagyu rancher] Emma Farms Cattle Co., but I’d like to expand the program to whole lambs and whole hogs - make Canadian bacon out of the loins, take the shoulders and turn it into sausage. Why not? We have all these different outlets to play in.

675 E. Durant Ave., Aspen; 970-920-4600