Before coming to New York in June, Didier Elena spent five years in the calm, bubbly-producing region of northern France, where he worked as executive chef at Hotel Le Château des Crayères, which boasts two Michelin stars. Preceding his Château stint, he was under Alain Ducasse’s tutelage in New York. The pair has collaborated for almost two decades.
Elena now calls Adour home. Here, he waxes wine and contemplates his new role as executive chef at Ducasse’s famed restaurant at the St. Regis Hotel.
It is true that you don’t make dishes with more than three main ingredients?
Yes — because when you cook with wine in mind, you don’t want to ruin it with too many different flavors. You stick with tastes that are known, that you can recognize when you eat them, so you can appreciate the wine, too. It’s a question of simplicity. Wine is best enjoyed when you go by this principle.
Does fall bring any big shake-ups to Adour’s menu?
No. We’re sticking to the “design with wine in mind” idea. Yes, everyone brings his own touches, his own imprints to a kitchen, but at the same time we’re working under Alain Ducasse’s philosophy. Everyone shares their ideas, which brings the restaurant to life.
You’ve bounced between New York and France a bit. Biggest things you’ve taken away from your last stints in each place?
I learned so much those first five years in New York. I learned to have a different vision, a more globally oriented one. Then, when I returned to France, I learned about champagne, a name I was familiar with, but a region I did not know at all. You think that because you’ve had a few bottles of champagne that you know it, but there are really 4,000 people making the wine, 4,000 small producers. It’s enormous, and there’s a culture that surrounds champagne that’s so interesting. I thought I knew champagne, but I didn’t know it at all.
More on that …
First off, champagne is a wine where the carbonation enhances the flavors of the food it’s eaten with. If you eat something while drinking champagne, it’s a lot more expressive. The bubbles enhance taste tremendously. Also, there are very different types of champagne that have varied functions, depending upon whether they’re made with the pinot meunier, the chardonnay, or the pinot noir grapes, production, and time. Ultimately, this creates a world in which one champagne is distinct from another.
Are you bringing a new appreciation of champagne to Adour?
Not really — it’s similar. Here, nobody really thought it silly that there was an association between a dish and a champagne. It’s not that people necessarily looked down on that distinction, more so the idea that champagne isn’t just an aperitif. Maybe just the idea of when it’s appropriate to drink champagne.
Any thoughts so far on the Big Apple’s food scene?
New York is a platform of global culture. Italian, Chinese, Japanese, French, American — everyone meets in New York. I think that’s fabulous. Maybe the best Italian restaurants in the world are in New York. Maybe the best Chinese restaurants are in New York. This creates such an enormous richness — I love that! It’s one of the reasons I came back to live here. The melting pot makes it such a great city. Have you had the chance to try a lot of restaurants since you got back?
Yes. I like this one restaurant, Peasant, on Elizabeth Street. Frank DiCarlo, the proprietor, is a good friend. Also, Balthazar, on Sunday morning. I’m also a fan of Eight and a Half, just down the road. David Chang’s Má Pêche. I like to go out to see what’s out there. With my kids, I go to Jimmy’s Barbecue on Third Avenue. I love Katz’s. I had a pastrami sandwich for lunch. That, to me, is New York.
You’ve got two kids. Are they finicky eaters?
Both have very different tastes, but because we talk about food so much at home, they want to taste everything, but in distinct fashions. The girl doesn’t ever mix her food. I don’t know why. She doesn’t want to; she keeps her meat to one side, her veggies on the other. The boy, on the other hand, likes his food in a puree. All mashed up. On the other hand, they’ll try anything, but in their own way. One likes soft food, the other not so much. She likes Parmesan; he likes Gruyere. But they’re still very open.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our chat with Didier Elena.
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