Will Nolan, The Viceroy’s executive chef, redefines hotel dining
A little bit of NOLA(n) in Snowmass
As any traveler can tell you, hotel restaurants have a reputation for serving up overpriced, uninspired fare. Even high-end properties are guilty of crimes against produce, protein and palate, but happily, progressive brands like the Viceroy are debunking those tired cliches.
Thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of executive chef Will Nolan and his staff, Eight K at the Viceroy Snowmass is a destination restaurant lauded for the New Orleans–born chef ’s flavorful, Louisiana—and classical French-inflected fare (featuring housemade preserves, pickles and charcuterie made from locally sourced ingredients). Locals and visitors alike are just as enamored of the house sausages and seasonal salads at the Viceroy’s casual slopeside eatery Nest Public House, and the Southern-tinged bistro classics at the hotelmanaged brasserie Ricard, in nearby Base Village.
Although he’s a bona fide talent in the kitchen, it’s Nolan’s commitment to local growers that’s inspiring and educating a new generation of cooks and visitors to Eight K. Recently, I sat down with the gregarious 42-year-old chef to learn more about the man and the brand that are redefining our region’s perceptions of hotel dining.
From the French Quarter to Heritage Fire
Nolan was born and raised in the French Quarter; his mother was “a big home cook.” (The Crabmeat Suzanne on Ricard’s menu is her namesake recipe.) Despite having raised Will in a food-obsessed environment, however, Nolan’s mom “wasn’t too stoked” when he took his first restaurant job at 14. Soon after, he moved to live with his father in Pine Plains, New York, where he found a job at a hunting farm, collecting and prepping game birds and washing dishes. At 15, Nolan returned to New Orleans to cook at a barbecue joint.
Eventually, Nolan went on to attend Portland Culinary Institute, graduating in 1999. In 2009, after stints cooking in Singapore, New Orleans and Durango, he landed his present position with the Viceroy Snowmass. Nolan was given “full control” over menu development and sourcing—a rarity for hotel chefs.
“I want guests to realize we’re not just a hotel restaurant—we’re part of the culinary community, and I want them to come away with an awareness of local product, as well as having had a comfortable experience,” he explains.
It’s this laid-back demeanor and dedication to his craft and customers that make Nolan such a beloved member of the community. A former competitive Big Air and Slopestyle snowboarder and avid skateboarder, Nolan has mastered work-life balance as much as possible for someone overseeing three restaurants. He and his wife, Emily, who also works in food and beverage, are fond of off-season road trips, snow sports, mountain biking, hiking and participating in charitable and educational local events like Sustainable Settings’ Harvest Festival and friendly fire competitions such as Cochon 555’s Heritage Fire, a wood-fired, whole animal cookery bacchanalia featuring humanely raised and heritage livestock prepared by chefs from all over the country.
“Dirt is like gold”
It was Nolan’s involvement with the aforementioned Harvest Festival and Heritage Fire that altered his views on livestock management.
“I did my first pig slaughter at Sustainable Settings three years ago,” he recalls. “It was really emotional, but I used every part of that animal—from the skin for cracklings to the bones for stock—and Heritage Fire really opened my eyes to how important it is for all livestock to be raised in a humane, sustainable manner. These experiences completely changed my sourcing, and now I rely on local and regional ranchers and purveyors practicing responsible methods, like Mountain Primal Meat Company, Rock Bottom Ranch and Tender Belly. These are the people at the forefront of this movement, and it’s an honor to work with them.”
Nolan has developed a particularly close relationship with Brook and Rose LeVan of Sustainable Settings, and counts them as mentors. “People like [the LeVans] make me feel better. They talk about dirt like it’s gold—which it is. It’s the basis for great produce and livestock, and sound ecology.” In addition to crops the LeVans grow for Nolan—tatsoi, cardoons, heirloom radishes— the chef sources produce from Wild Mountain Seed and farmer Jack Reed, as well as Paonia-based Farm Runners, a delivery service that sources year-round from regional family farms.
So enamored is Nolan of local farms that the Viceroy launched its Range & Vine Dinners this past winter. Every month, a different Colorado protein— such as bison, duck, lamb or pork—and an internationally acclaimed winemaker were featured at a ticketed dinner held in Eight K’s private dining room. The goal of Range & Vine is to allow farmers, ranchers and winemakers to interact with guests and talk about their products, as well as foster a deeper understanding of sustainable agriculture and food and wine production; the series proved so popular it will be offered again for the 2016–17 season.
When I point out that Nolan is part of a core group of acclaimed local chefs—including Chris Lanter and Nathan King of Cache Cache, Mark Hardin of Field 2 Fork Kitchen and Mark Fischer of Town, Phat Thai and The Pullman—who work closely with Western Slope food producers, he nods.
“We’re a close-knit group here, and definitely part of a movement. But it’s also a great feeling when we can all come together and participate in events. We all benefit from learning new techniques, and just getting to hang out.”
A chef-driven hotel brand
If Nolan’s job seems at odds with his ethos, he’s quick to point out that he jumped at the opportunity to oversee the Snowmass property. “I’ve worked for other hotel groups and they oft en have a ‘brand standards’ mandate that dictates what products can be used. Here, I do the same menu I’d serve at a private restaurant, and that’s saying a lot.”
Just as unusual is Nolan’s daily involvement in the kitchen. For a chef of his age and status, the norm is to segue into an administration role, rather than work the line. Fat chance of that happening.
“You lose touch when you’re not involved in every aspect of your kitchen, including working the line. You need to touch it, see it, smell it. I want to be a pork pusher, not a pencil pusher. Lose touch, and next thing you’re out of a job.”
Yet Nolan is also invested in giving credit where it’s due, and providing his staff every opportunity to grow. “Food is what keeps me inspired,” he says. “I’m fascinated by its traditions and evolution, and love passing on that knowledge. But my definition of success as a chef is when I have a happy staff : Stressed-out cooks don’t make good food. I’ve done my job if they’re a family and learn from one another.”
And what makes Nolan happy? “This,” he says with his characteristic impish grin. “I can’t imagine doing anything else. What kind of a psycho gets into a line of work where your inventory dies in a matter of days?”
GO FIND IT!
Eight K at Viceroy Snowmass 130 Wood Road, Snowmass Village 970.923.8000 ViceroyHotelsAndResorts.com/En/Snowmass
Pedal to pasture with the Viceroy
This summer, the Viceroy is also ramping up its year-old, open-to-the-public Bike-to-Table program, in collaboration with Sustainable Settings. Nolan cooks in an outdoor kitchen on the farm, utilizing ingredients grown literally yards away. The exquisite meals—a September dinner included crispy squash blossoms with Avalanche Cheese Company chevre and fava beans, and roasted leg of lamb stuffed with pork sausage and pistou—are served family-style at communal tables in the farm’s 19th-century apple orchard, but there’s more than aesthetics involved. Says Nolan, “Participants get a great ride down the Valley, but more important, they’re exposed to a working farm where they can better learn the importance of the farm-to-table movement.”
For more information on the Viceroy’s Bike-to-Table dinners, call 970.923.8000.