The Little Nell’s wine program is notorious for its excellence. When Chris Dunaway took over the program in 2019, he continued delivering on big goals, including The Nell being named a 2020 semifinalist for outstanding wine program by the James Beard Foundation. He connects with Aspen Magazine to chat all things James Beard, the coronavirus’ impact on the food and bev industry, and what’s next for The Nell and Element 47.
Having been a James Beard “bridesmaid” (five nominations either as a semifinalist or finalist over the years) for the elusive outstanding wine program category, what are your thoughts on this award? We’re very grateful to be acknowledged among so many illustrious restaurants across the country. The pursuit of this award is a driving force in our commitment to excellence. ... Having been at the gala two years ago as a finalist with my heart beating out of my chest as they read the five names in our category and not being the winner was devastating. I imagine coming out on the winning side of that award and how equally impactful it would be, though in a euphoric way. It would mean so much to our team as well as the Aspen community.
Share your sentiments for the restaurant and hospitality industry at this moment in time. This is certainly an unprecedented time in our history and one of unsettling uncertainty, but I have faith that our industry will recover. We’re fortunate to be in a seasonal destination like Aspen, so we are used to on- and off-season—just not this early, of course. It’s imperative that we work together to find creative means to support one another. It’s incredibly saddening to see friends and former colleagues being laid off and so many restaurants facing the reality of permanent closure from the outbreak. There are so many brilliant, innovative and dedicated members of our restaurant community working steadfastly to preserve our future. It’s always darkest before the dawn and I am very optimistic that our perseverance will yield a favorable result.
With The Nell and Element 47 anticipating a June 12 reopening—and knowing many events have already been canceled for the summer—what sort of programming can patrons look forward to? With so much uncertainty, it’s incredibly difficult to plan for summer, though we do have ambitions for the upcoming reopening and season ahead. I’d like to continue to expand programs in our cellar. We’ve hosted a broad selection of wine producer tastings for our industry, and we plan to offer these for guests as well, as more of a consumer event. We’re looking forward to presenting our Ride and Dine dinners with Mad Dog Ranch (Aug. 5 and Sept. 15).