Last year, FOOD & WINE launched the Chefs Club at the St. Regis Resort in Aspen. The program is a rotating guest-chef collaborative where each visiting chef signs on for a number of months, cooks special dinners for at least two long weekends, and has dishes on the regular à la carte menu. The line-up of upcoming chefs joining the club includes Jason Franey of Canlis in Seattle, Viet Pham of Forage in Salt Lake City, and Missy Robbins of A Voce in New York City.
There is one person, however, who stays throughout the changes and spearheads the restaurant's unique culinary programming. That person is executive chef, Didier Elena, a 25 year veteran of the food world who has worked in the world's most esteemed kitchens including those of Alain Ducasse and Paul Bocuse.
A native of Monaco, Elena had a chance encounter with Alain Ducasse in a barber shop. A few days later, he set foot into the revered kitchen of Alain Ducasse where he worked over the next two and a half years, while also earning a culinary degree from École Supérieure de Cuisine in Paris. That was the beginning of a career that took Didier to kitchens that total 15 Michelin stars among them. More recently, chef Elena received one Michelin star at Adour Alain Ducasse, NY, two Michelin Stars at Hotel LA Chevre D'Or in France and two Michelin Stars at Hotel Château les Crayères also in France, where he was also named Best Chef of the year by the 2006 Champerard and Pudlowski guides.
Didier Elena accepted the executive chef position at Chefs Club in Aspen in March. There, he curates one-of-a-kind menus that blend his own cuisine with the dishes of FOOD & WINE's featured Best New Chefs invited to join the club. He chatted with Eater about what drew him to this unique venture, managing many chefs with different personalities, and adjusting to life in Aspen.
What attracted you to this position and what challenges did you anticipate accepting this role? I was sort of charmed by the idea of the chefs club concept and the opportunity to work closely with a rotating group of talented chefs from FOOD & WINE magazine. It's a one-of-a-kind opportunity for learning and sharing culinary traditions and visions. Chefs Club is a modern restaurant, developing great food between chefs that come from different cultures and culinary backgrounds. But it's unlike any other.
How do you manage chefs with multiple personalities and still keep everyone happy? It isn't always easy, but the goal is always to create a dining experience that satisfies the expectations of the guest. For Chefs Club, each chef that is invited to cook at the restaurant over the course of the year becomes part of the Chefs Club community. The expectation is that this is a long-term relationship between the Chefs Club concept and the chef and it is treated as such. We invite the chefs to come to Aspen multiple times over the year and host them. There is ongoing communication regarding which dishes we will put on the menu and the teaching process, once they work with our kitchen staff as to how to prepare their cuisine, is very collaborative. Keeping communication open and encouraging collaboration ensures that everyone stays happy and positive.
How do you guide the chefs selected to curate their unique dishes and still maintain a cohesive menu and restaurant mission?There are two primary guiding principles. One, we need to keep in mind the kind of guest that lives and visits Aspen and two, what products can we get that are local. People in Aspen want delicious, high-quality cuisine that isn't fussy and they aren't interested in long tasting menus. Being active, they aren't afraid to indulge, but the indulgence would be great pork belly, not something fried. Also, we are limited to the ingredients that we can find locally, which is very seasonally driven. We might have some fish on the menu, but it will be limited. Besides educating guest chefs on the Aspen dining public, I make suggestions as to new farmers and purveyors that are really great and easy to work with here locally and suggest their products as chefs look to create dishes for the menu.
What are three things you learned from your previous experiences, particularly working alongside Alain Ducasse that you are bringing to Chefs Club? First, the dining experience needs to reflect to what is happening today in the country, in the world. Second, I strive to give each guest a memorable experience from the arrival to the end of the meal. Last, my aim is to stay focused on the technical experience of the meal and ensure that the cuisine is based on the product, seasoning and a story. I believe that behind each dishes there should be a story which gives the dish purpose.
What has Chefs Club brought to the Aspen food scene? Why should guests come here and return again and again?At Chefs Club a guest can taste signature dishes from the most successful chefs from around the country again and again. We bring these chefs to Aspen and to Chefs Club to lead classes and special menus in the restaurant which is an opportunity to learn from some real talents from coast to coast. Also, throughout the course of the year we have national and international chefs join us as part of our "Star Series." Earlier this year we had two very different Michelin star chefs from France join us at Chefs Club, bringing a taste of their cuisine to Aspen. There is always something going on.
Do you get to put some of your own dishes on the Chefs Club menu? How to do choose what your contribution to the menu will be? Many of the dishes I added to the menu at Chefs Club reflect my upbringing in Monaco, along the Mediterranean and my own experience cooking for over the last 20 years. For example, a signature is the Santa Barbara Uni Spaghetti with fennel, garlic and white wine. I grew up in a fishing family and we would make this pasta on the boat with fresh uni. It is fresh pure and simple, with the flavor from the sea complemented by the richness of the pasta, fennel and garlic. I have served it before and always got a great response. The Beef Short Rib Ravioli on the menu right now is served with swiss chard, spring greens, ramps and parmesan. Its about 50/50 pasta to greens which reflects who people should be eating today. Less protein and meat, more vegetables. The beef is local and along with a few greens, stuffed into the ravioli. Very simple. And rather than a sauce you have the textures and tastes of different sautéed greens with a little butter, olive oil, and cheese. People want something hearty and satisfying, but not a big bowl of pasta anymore.
Moving from Manhattan to Aspen, what's the transition been like? What are the biggest similarities and differences for both work and life? So far, being in Aspen has been fantastic. It has its own personality and culture. The only difference is that in Aspen, most guests are on vacation when they come into the restaurant while in New York, guests would come in after a long day of work or a stressful day. The Aspen guest tends to be a bit more relaxed than the New Yorker. And, I can walk to work, got to ski a few times this winter? and you can see your guests in the street. It's fun.