Chef brings taste of Vail to Italy |

Chef brings taste of Vail to Italy

Sarah Mausolf
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily

VAIL, Colorado ” Terra Bistro’s executive chef recently brought a taste of Vail to the tiny mountain village of Valbruna, Italy.

Of four chefs featured in a wine and food festival there, Kevin Nelson was the only American. He saw the trip as an opportunity to share Terra Bistro’s new-American style cuisine with a fresh audience. In doing so, Nelson learned valuable lessons about cooking in a foreign land.

Hanging on the wall inside Vail clothing store Valbruna is a picture of the entire population of the Italian village with the same name. Store owner Marco Tonazzi displays the portrait as a tribute to his Italian roots. Not only did he grow up just outside Valbruna, he owns a small inn there.

When Tonazzi heard Valbruna planned to invite guest chefs to its culinary festival this year, he instantly thought of Nelson. The two are friends through their daughters. Tonazzi approached Nelson about the idea at their daughters’ preschool, and late last month, the two flew to Italy.

Situated on the border with Austria and Slovenia, the usually sleepy Valbruna played host to more than 200 winemakers and four guest chefs during the 9th annual Ein Prosit festival. Wine enthusiasts packed a 500-year-old palace to sample wares from regional and national vineyards.

Traveling to Valbruna was like stepping 50 years back in time.

“It is very small ” 120 people ” but it is very picturesque in the way the village sits with a backdrop of high peaks,˜ Tonazzi said.

As Nelson prepared a five-course dinner to serve at the festival, he fielded advice from event organizers.

Don’t mix fish with meat in the same meal, they warned. It goes against the local custom.

After making several changes to the menu to bring it in line with local tastes, Nelson decided on a pomegranate-glazed duck breast, five onion cream soup, fallow deer medallions, a bean casserole with buffalo short loin steak and Colorado cheesecake.

Nelson brought some of the ingredients with him, but others were too perishable to haul across the Atlantic. As a result, he embarked on several food shopping adventures in Italy.

He bought the deer from a local hunter who also worked at Tonazzi’s Valbruna Inn. He discovered tomatoes with unique flavors at local markets. And still other ingredients yielded surprises.

None of Valbruna’s stores sold cilantro, so Nelson worked with a local shop owner to bring it in from Southern Italy. To his surprise, it arrived in the form of a potted plant. Due to a translation mishap, Nelson wound up with hickory when he requested Swiss chard, and when he couldn’t find graham crackers anywhere for the cheese cake, he substituted with biscotti.

After many hours of preparation and a pinch of improvisation, Nelson was ready to serve his dinner.

The setting for Nelson’s meal was the intimate Valbruna Inn. A mix of about 45 Italians and Austrians gathered in the dining room each of the four nights to sample a slice of Americana.

When Nelson emerged from the kitchen to greet the patrons after the meal, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I was expecting a lot of scrutiny and a lot of discerning palates,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a challenge to win everyone over but I generally came out to the dining room to warm welcome and applause.”

Visitors to Terra Bistro will soon see some of the dishes from the festival on the menu.

Nelson said he plans to serve the onion soup through the holidays and the cheesecake will debut on the dessert list. The chef might also create a cheese plate inspired by a chocolate ganache tart with bing cherry mustard he tasted at the event.

Along with the food, Nelson said he found inspiration in Valbruna’s highly personal style of hospitality. The people who worked at the inn treated him like family, greeting him with warm smiles and cappuccino each morning.

“One of the things I think of more than anything else is how I can instill that sort of feeling and environment into the people that work for me and in my business here,” Nelson said.

Valbruna’s approach to customer service is at times quirky and informal.

“You walk into a restaurant, they say, ‘Oh, kitchen is closed,'” Tonazzi said. “Then 10 minutes later you’re sitting in the kitchen with grandma and they’re making a special meal for you. So in Italy, maybe we’re missing some of the professional approach to hospitality but we’re able to go past the first impact and bring you in.”

High Life writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 748-2938 or

Support Local Journalism