Bryan Moscatello and Matt Zubrod both began their culinary careers as night cooks here in Aspen: Moscatello at the Little Nell and Zubrod at the Ritz-Carlton Club. They rose through the ranks and eventually ran the kitchens at their respective properties before embarking on culinary adventures at some very successful restaurants around the country. Luckily for local diners, both are now back, Moscatello as executive chef at the Nell, overseeing Element 47, Ajax Tavern, and private dining, and Zubrod as chef de cuisine at bb’s. We sat down at lunch to discuss where they’ve been, what they’ve learned, and how the Aspen dining scene has changed.
T.P.: How does it feel to be back in Aspen?
M.Z.: I love the town. I love the skiing. I’m a family guy now, and I want to watch my kids grow up here.
B.M.: Do you mind if I take the seat facing the mountains? It just feels so good to see them again.
T.P.: How are you different from when you left?
B.M.: I was twenty-nine years old, working here at the Nell, when I cooked a meal for John Mariani, the famous food writer and restaurant critic. He told me I obviously was very talented, but that there was too much going on on my plates. He said I should take one ingredient out of each dish. It was a priceless comment, one I’ve never forgotten. And I made up my mind that I needed to go out in the world and see other things. Fourteen years later, I’ve learned everything from modernist cooking to foraging. I understand why you do something a certain way, not just how. So I feel like I’m a professional now, so much more prepared and confident.
M.Z.: I left Aspen six years ago. Since then I’ve worked at Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii and then in California at Rancho Valencia, among other places. So I got used to working with amazing produce and fish. In Hawaii, guys would walk in the back door with enormous tuna they’d just caught. In California, I bought my vegetables from Chino Farms, the legendary growers, who were just down the road. I gained a lot of confidence by trying new things. Also, our customers had very sophisticated tastes.
T.P.: How has the Aspen restaurant scene changed?
M.Z.: Well, you’ve got to have vegetarian options now, for sure. And the food on-mountain is a lot better. The on-mountain restaurants at Snowmass, for example, are so good. At bb’s, we can offer sweetbreads and foie gras. I can serve cuts of meat that are underutilized, like lamb belly. I have pizza ovens, too, so I’m creating dishes I can cook in them. I don’t grill anything—I use cast-iron pans to cook steaks.
B.M.: Aspen now draws a lot more foreign guests than when I was here before. We have diners from Mexico, Brazil, China, Russia, people who are used to eating global food.
Specifically at Element 47, we have to strive for balance, to provide both sustenance and a sense of place. And we have to deal with expectations, so we have game meats and trout on the menu. The tortilla soup and Cobb salad are back by popular demand.
T.P.: How important is using local food now?
B.M.: Local food has come a long way since I left, and we try always to source locally. But the product has got to be consistent. Emma Farms Wagyu, for example, is always amazing.
The difference between the old version of American Alpine and my version is sourcing. I want to cook well-sourced food. We owe that to our guests—to say, “We believe that the best chicken we can find anywhere comes from Green Circle Farm, so we serve that.”
M.Z.: We’ll have a very local menu in August and September, but I still want to source my steaks from Brandt Farm, a family-owned ranch in California. And then we have to deliver value. There used to be a lot of high-end places when I worked in Aspen previously, and now things are more casual. And by the way, do you know where I can get some great, small-production Colorado lamb?