The bocce court at the base of Aspen Mountain appeared to be on fire last night—yet the dozens of sharply dressed guests gathered on the gondola plaza didn’t seem to mind. Instead, they swanned through billowing black smoke and swatted away fluttering ashes as they watched the Little Nell (TLN) wine director and master sommelier (MS) Carlton McCoy saber a 15-liter bottle of Champagne Billecart-Salmon Brut-Réserve. Called a Nebuchadnezzar (“king of Babylon”), the vessel is so big—some 80 pounds—that pouring it requires a special cradle. It was a celebration befitting the Nell, recently awarded Wine Spectator’s esteemed Grand Award for the 20th consecutive year, and the many master somms who have filtered through its wine program during that time.

Perhaps more impressive than this legacy, though, was the man behind the fire: illustrious Argentine chef Francis Mallmann. Wearing his trademark black beret and silk paisley scarf, Mallmann sipped hot tea from a red Adirondack chair. The pop-fizz of the enormous bottle didn’t faze him; he was focused on whole pineapples, cabbages, and slabs of bone-in rib-eye swaying from wire strung on a rebar dome erected over the flames. On his first visit to Colorado, Mallmann was in his element. “Every smoke is different,” Mallmann mused. “It’s like a new love affair every time you cook.”

Similar passion flowed freely at the reception prior to the Nell’s $1,200 ticketed feast featuring Mallmann, as Nell somms of the past (including Bobby Stuckey of Frasca Food and Wine and Sabato Sagaria of Union Square Hospitality Group ) and present (Carlton McCoy) reflected on the institution’s influence on their careers.