Not many chefs can say they’ve won Olympic gold medals – yes, multiple gold medals – yet that’s exactly what Ben Grupe achieved in October 2016. That year, as team captain, he led the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Culinary National Team USA to place fourth in the world overall and win three gold medals at the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung International Culinary Exhibition, more commonly known as the Culinary Olympics.
Grupe and his teammates trained for months and years for the chance to compete against some 1,500 chefs from more than 50 countries in hot- and cold-food prep categories; prior to the 2016 victory, Grupe had participated in the 2012 Culinary Olympics, ranking sixth out of 35 and claiming a silver in both hot and cold food programs.
In June 2016, after more than a decade working in restaurant, country club and resort kitchens, Grupe took over as executive chef at Ben Poremba’s Elaia. The job was a crossroads of sorts for Grupe, who was hosting pop-up dinners around town and rigorously training for the 2016 Culinary Olympics when Poremba approached him.
“At the end of the day, it’s a platform, and [Ben was] basically giving me the keys to the car with no speed limit – I can push it as far as I wanted,” Grupe recalls. “It was a great opportunity; he was willing to support my personal and competitive endeavors.”
Since taking the reins at Elaia, Grupe has slowly transformed the menu into his own while still retaining the heart and soul that Poremba puts into all of his concepts – an impressive feat.
“The first thing I implemented was slowly evolving the menu,” Grupe says. “I saw how the machine worked, and then changed all the appetizers one week, revamped this, this and that the next week, the week after that it was the entrées, then the next week it was desserts. It was a systematic approach to injecting myself into the restaurant – I didn’t want to do it all at once.”
Years of training and working under extreme pressure with a crew of highly skilled professionals on Team USA has given Grupe a unique perspective as a chef; when he gets an idea for a new dish, he pulls from those experiences for R&D, evaluating things like the balance between flavor and texture in a dish as a competition judge might. Working as a unit with Team USA also taught Grupe the value of collaboration and appreciating each individual cook’s strongest skills; he loves empowering those young cooks in his kitchen today and watching them flourish and grow as chefs.
“It’s exciting to explain to young cooks in the kitchen the how and why [of dish R&D],” Grupe says. “All of the experiences I’ve had in the past with competition, you’re cooking a very high level, but you’re also learning and absorbing very technical and foundational knowledge at such an accelerated rate. So you can reach into your arsenal and figure out what you’re going to do.”
We recently caught up with Grupe to learn more about taking a competition approach in the kitchen at Elaia, what’s new on the summer menu and how to find inspiration in simple and sometimes unexpected places.
What’s your favorite ingredient to cook with and why? I don’t have a specific favorite ingredient. I think the most important ingredients for me are salt and acid, because they’re the foundation of balancing other flavors. Understanding how to use salt and acid can be the difference between something just being OK and being absolutely delicious. And I don’t mean acid in the form of lemon juice or vinegar, but just different types of citrus and vinegars, and different types of salt – fleur de sel, or my favorite, Maldon [salt]. Or even soy sauce, light soy sauce.
What’s your perfect day of eating in St. Louis? I try to go out as much as I can, but obviously having two little boys it’s a challenge. We always just do breakfast at home; that’s always the start to our day. If I’m cooking for myself, I’ll just do some soft scrambled eggs, toast, coffee and some fruit. I like going out for breakfast, but then again, I’d rather take my time and be at home. A lot of times for lunch we go to Mai Lee; we usually get a smorgasbord of food and just go to town. Carl’s Drive-In is closed on my days off, unfortunately, but I try and sneak in there and grab a burger; I really like that place. I really like taking the kids out, because I like seeing their reaction in a restaurant environment and in general… I think it’s hilarious when they’re in the zone and are genuinely having a good time. Most recently we took them to Peacemaker [Lobster & Crab Co.], and it’s loud and fun, and it doesn’t faze them at all. They were sitting there banging on each other with the [lobster crab mallets] and one of them said, ‘Oh, I love the hush doggies,’ about the hush puppies… For me, it’s not about going out and having elaborate food, it’s just about having my kids able to enjoy something that my wife and I enjoy. Having my kids involved in where we go out to eat, or even what we’re eating at home is really cool.
Who are St. Louis chefs or restaurant owners you admire at the moment? There are so many chefs I admire… I can’t pick just one. I really like what Ryan [McDonald] is doing over at Good Fortune. Not that I’m bias, but I really admire our baker, Joe Stein – that dude is very inspiring and motivating to me. I can go to him and tell him what I’ve been thinking about doing, as far as a bread component of a dish, and ask him what he thinks. He’ll either tell me it might not work or that he’ll make it a special project. As an example, when I was training for the Bocuse d’Or try outs, I wanted to do a rye en croute, but I wanted it to be in your face. I had no idea how to do it, or at least, I could figure it out and it would take me a lot of time and that was the one thing I didn’t have. I’d say his rye en croute dough was perfect. So I really admire and look up to him. I also really like what Rob Connoley and Justin [Bell] are doing over at Squatters; it’s all really good. I’m good friends with Justin. Just looking at the hash that they do, the potatoes – they’re perfectly small diced potatoes in this sweet potato hash, and it’s like, taking the time to really do things right shows a lot. I’m excited to see what those guys do with Bulrush, too.
What concepts or styles of cooking do you hope to see added or expanded in St. Louis? Segueing from talking about Squatters, I’d like to see more of that type of singular concepts; I don’t think you see a lot of those. It’s a big risk, doing a singular concept like that. From what I know about Logan [Ely] from Square1 [and Savage], he’s kind of going down that same path. I’m excited to see what these guys do. And then there’s a handful of places that do late-night food, but I’d like to see a place where you can go when you get off of work at midnight or 1am and the same thought and care is put into, that’s focused, to where you can get some really simple, well-executed food.
What do you like to cook at home or on your day off? I try to do the least amount of cooking as I can on my day off, because it’s my day off. We do try to cook as much as we can at home with our kids though. Right now we’re doing a lot of grilling; we eat a lot of grilled vegetables throughout the summer. We’ll do all the grilling and meal prep on Sunday for the entire week. Our biggest challenge is that our kids are obsessed with the broccoli-Cheddar soup at Panera, which is… Not to knock it, but we made the mistake of getting them that soup one time, and they are obsessed with it. We’ve tried to make it at home, replicate what they do, and our kids won’t touch it. That’s been my challenge: How do I fool them into thinking that my homemade soup is the Panera soup.
What’s your favorite comfort food? There’s nothing like meatloaf. [Laughs.] I love meatloaf. Comfort food for me is like nostalgic childhood comforts – meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fried chicken. I’m a fat boy at heart, so Twinkies, Frito pies, Kool-Aid, those Hostess cupcakes with the swirls on top… I haven’t had one in forever, but the chocolate cupcakes with the cream filling are so good. One that comes to mind right now is broccoli-cheese-rice casserole. Just those kinds of nostalgic favorites.
If you could tell home cooks one thing, what would it be? Don’t be afraid of taking risks. Like if somebody wants to make some ribs at home, just know what you like, marinate them, season them, whatever you want to do, watch some YouTube videos, look up some recipes and cook some ribs. That’s what I have to do sometimes with researching ingredients and stuff like that – you’re never going to know until you do it. Appreciate and understand the fact that as a home cook you’re going to make mistakes and fail. Having the ability to understand that and learning from your mistakes will make it better the next time. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve failed at numerous things, but you learn lessons and try again.
What’s your first food memory? Barbecuing and grilling with my dad. Just the aroma… I was thinking about it yesterday [on the Fourth of July]; this time of year is just really memorable, because we’d always have the family all together, go check out the fireworks down at the VP Fair, and just smelling the fireworks reminds me of barbecuing and grilling, and that brings back this nostalgic feeling associated with summertime and my dad.
What’s the most intriguing dish you’ve made recently, and why? We did the Bocuse d'Or dinner down at Sidney Street, and there was a chef there, Mitch [Lienhard], who had this course that was white asparagus chawanmushi custard, like a savory Japanese egg custard. The simplicity… it was just so delicious and so simple. I wanted to put something like that on the current menu [at Elaia]. So now we have a green asparagus custard that has a variety of locally foraged mushrooms and pickles, preserves, flowers and herbs. It’s just a barely set custard, so it’s got a nice creamy, fatty mouthfeel. It has a lot of layers, but when you break it down, it’s so simple. It really has all the textural and flavor components. It’s probably the dish on the menu that gets the most compliments, because it’s not what the guests really expect – because on the menu, it’s listed as asparagus custard, and then it’s presented in front of you, and you’re like, ‘OK, I get it. It’s beautiful.’ But then you eat it, and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ It’s just delicious and so simple. That’s the approach I’m taking with some of the new items we’re putting on the menu – really breaking it down. We don’t always have to throw our entire arsenal at one dish. It’s not always about being aesthetically pleasing; it’s got to be delicious from the get go.
What inspires your cooking? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? I’m just really inspired by the ingredients. To give you an example, I saw David Bohlen [of Bohlen Family Farms] post a photo of fresh baby corn on Instagram, and I’ve never really worked with it fresh. I asked him to give me some, and now it’s on the menu at Elaia; it’s just roasted baby corn made with kind of a street-corn approach that we serve with braised bacon and some pickled vegetables. That was really inspired by the farmer and what he’s growing, and really highlighting just the product itself.
What are your future plans? I’m really trying to push our team and our menu forward at Elaia.
Elaia, 1634 Tower Grove Ave., Botanical Heights, St. Louis, Missouri, 314.932.1088, oliostl.com