Q&A With Ben Grupe, Executive Chef At Elaia
Elaia in Botanical Heights quickly soared to the top of St. Louis’s shortlist of fine-dining restaurants upon opening in late 2012. The menu changes seasonally, but current favorites include chestnut tortellini, goat cheese mousse, cape scallops, tuna sashimi and much more. Each includes a range of flavors and the option of a tasting menu, which our Q&A with executive chef Ben Grupe highlights below.
Elaia was originally opened by Ben Poremba, one of St. Louis’ most prominent chefs, but every time we turn around he’s opening up something new. So until cloning becomes a modern convenience, delegating has become key. Poremba appointed Grupe about six months ago to take over the executive chef position, and while reflecting on his journey Grupe discussed current menu predilections, a pivotal mentor and reveals that he began as a dishwasher at a now-defunct restaurant in Clayton.
How do you begin developing the flavors and feel of the menu?
We go through a trial-and-error process. For the previous menu this fall, we had a butternut squash tortellini. Now chestnuts are in-season, so we’ll add that to our filling for the tortellini. It’s definitely a play on flavor and ingredients. We have daily and weekly meetings with the guys in the kitchen and I ask, “What do we have to work with? What inspires you?” I have the last say in what goes on the menu, but I give everyone in the kitchen the chance to express themselves. For example, with the chestnuts, we all tasted the filling and agreed, “This is solid. Let’s put it on.” We never wing it.
What’s something about Elaia that a guest would be surprised by?
For the tasting menus, we’ll put in a few “surprise” courses. We also create specialty dessert granitas, often served between courses to cleanse the palate; traditionally it’s shaved ice flavored with citrus, or citrus fruits. What we’ve been doing is creating a base with traditional ingredients like grapefruit, lemon and apple, but then we freeze it with nitrogen and pulverize it into very fine granules, then sprinkle with mint.
What is one of your favorite items on the menu?
Definitely the cape scallops. They’re about the size of a dime—super flavorful, very sweet. We just do a quick sear to get some light color on ‘em, then we crack a little fresh thyme in with butter. Then we do a pumpkin confit, madras-infused curry oil, and then a pumpkin and curry soup that’s garnished with honey crisp apple. There’s a lot going on, but it’s very simple. We all love it, and the guests definitely have had good things to say about it.
Does Ben [Poremba] largely defer to you?
Since day one, I’ve had my hands on the menu. As far as input, he provides advice on what has worked in the past and what has not. Things like that. But as far as the menu goes it’s 100% me and the Elaia team. Each kitchen you go into is different. Ben and I have a great understanding of each other and the cuisine that we do. He trusts me, and it’s a really unique opportunity to run his flagship restaurant. It’s been a very a cool experience.
Do you have a mentor who helped lead you to this point in your career?
Definitely Chris Desens, who was head chef at The Racquet Club when I worked there. He took me under his wing and was the one who really inspired me. He showed me what being a professional chef was all about: it wasn’t about partying and all that stuff. It’s about taking your job seriously and respecting others in the kitchen. He also turned me on to the Greenbrier Resort Culinary Apprenticeship Program, where I later enrolled. It’s one of the best in the United States and has churned out some very successful chefs.
What does being a professional chef mean to you?
To me, it’s someone who is respected, shows respect to his staff, nurtures and educates those around him. What I’ve been building here at Elaia is a strong team of people who are better than me in certain aspects. If you don’t have people around you who aren’t aspiring to move forward, you’re not going to move forward. Being a professional chef is giving these guys the platform to develop themselves. That’s what Chris gave me: the opportunity to make my mark, rather than ruling with an iron fist. That’s my definition: someone who lets everyone around him shine.
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