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Elena's delicate yellowfin tuna pissaladière with olives, basil and arugula

Top Chef

by Linda Hayes | Photography by Ashley Davis Tilly | Aspen magazine | July 8, 2013

Didier Elena’s start in the world of haute cuisine involved a bit of simple luck. “It was 1988 in Monaco, and I was 18 years old getting ready to go off to [medical] school,” he says with a grin. “I went in to get a haircut, and a friend introduced me to Alain Ducasse.” The next thing he knew, he was peeling tomatoes for confit at Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo.

Elena spent the next 23 years working next to Ducasse at a number of his lauded restaurants, including Restaurant Alain Ducasse at the Essex House and Adour Alain Ducasse, both in New York, and earning a total of eight Michelin stars, before taking the helm at Chefs Club by Food & Wine in The St. Regis Aspen Resort last spring.

It was an inspired move. “Chefs Club is about great food, great atmosphere and a lot of different chefs in one location,” Elena says. “I believe, in fact, that it will be the new way of restaurants in the world.” Moving forward, an expansion of the Chefs Club concept, touted as Chefs Club USA, is underway in cities such as San Francisco (which could open later this year) and New York. Elena is a big part of the plan.

Each season, Elena is charged with curating a menu that combines his highly finessed, yet playful, dishes with those of a rotating roster of chefs—all of whom have been recipients of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef award, which is currently celebrating its 25th year. “These chefs come from some of the best restaurants around the country, and they all have signature dishes,” he says. “It’s important to see that they work together on one menu.”

To this summer’s menu, Elena brings dishes such as yellowfin tuna pissaladière, brightened with citrus and topped with baby arugula; decadent black-ink spaghetti with Santa Barbara uni, fennel and white wine; and locally sourced suckling pig flavored with sage, thyme, garlic and shallots. These dishes are paired with spicy cauliflower tempura and short ribs sauced with pineapple by Bryant Ng (BNC 2012) of the Spice Table in Los Angeles, as well as specialties by Jason Franey (BNC 2011) of Canlis in Seattle, Viet Pham (BNC 2011) of Forage in Salt Lake City and Missy Robbins (BNC 2012) of A Voce in Manhattan.

Savored either at the chef’s counter overlooking the well-ordered kitchen, at linen-topped tables in the whimsical dining room or on the garden patio, the experience is in sync with Elena’s emphasis on the importance of keeping (and sharing) memories about food—and making new ones.