Behind the Scenes: Completing Topple’s signature elk Wellington |

Behind the Scenes: Completing Topple’s signature elk Wellington

Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado
HL Ludwigs Fish 1 DT 2-10-12

The suspense is over! It’s now time to move from searing meat to making duxelles needed to complete Chef Steve Topple’s elk Wellington, one of his signature dishes he now serves at Ludwig’s in the Sonnenalp Resort Hotel in Vail. Under the guidance of Sous Chef Dan D’Onofrio, I made this dish during my experiential research session in February. I will now share the remaining techniques with you.

Credit is given to famous French chef Francois Pierre la Varenne for creating this intensely flavor-packed mixture of sauteed mushrooms, shallots and herbs in 1650. Purportedly named for his employer, Nicolas Chalon du Ble, marquis d’Uxelles and Cormatin, duxelles have a myriad of uses, including stuffing, atop crostini and Wellington. The key to successful duxelles is to learn basic techniques for washing and sauteing mushrooms. A quick Google search yields pages of hits for duxelles recipes, but I will share with you the pure and simple one used in Ludwig’s.

D’Onofrio’s mise en place includes a saute pan, oil, mushrooms, julienned shallots, sliced garlic, thyme leaves, dry white wine, salt and pepper. Ludwig’s chefs prepare a case of mushrooms at a time, but for six individual servings, three quarts for one quart of cooked mushrooms is sufficient. Depending on seasonal choices, D’Onofrio uses a combination of equal parts of three mushrooms, such as shiitake, oyster and cremini. For an economical option that still imparts a nice, rich flavor, Topple advises home cooks use cremini.

Who knew mushroom washing could be a controversial subject? While recognizing the need to do so these days, Topple says washing “tortures the mushrooms.” My Sicilian-American mom always scolded me for washing mushrooms. Little did she know it’s just fine to do so and is less tedious than brushing and wiping. Remove stems and toss mushrooms into a container of very cold water to soak. Agitate them a bit to help release the dirt. Drain, and rinse. Place a wire rack over a sheet pan, spread the mushrooms in an even layer, and drip-dry. Although best done the day before, storing uncovered in the refrigerator, it can be done the same day the Wellington is assembled. Make certain the mushrooms are dry, otherwise you’ll have quite a mess of oil splatters to clean up.

When dry, rip the oysters and quarter the shiitake and cremini. With all of that prepped, carefully measured and laid out, it’s time to begin.

Last week, we discussed optimal oils for high-temperature cooking. Although Ludwig’s uses a 60-40 blend of canola and olive oil, I primarily use grape-seed oil. During my weekend shopping adventures at Costco and City Market, I discovered two useful tidbits for local readers. Costco is carrying a reasonably priced “Mediterranean blend” of canola, olive and grape-seed oils. City Market in Avon now has Grapeola, a cheaper, but still great, grape-seed oil that costs 26.5 cents per ounce.

Place a large, shallow pan on “blazing hot heat,” and add a cup or so of oil. Mushrooms are like sponges and will soak up the oil. When ripples show and the oil begins to “dance,” add the mushrooms. Spread them in an even layer, not crowding them, and brown. Once browned, stir a bit, add salt and pepper to taste and then shallots, and caramelize pan ingredients on medium heat, lowering or raising the heat as needed. Stir, and continue to cook until brown. Deglaze with white wine, and reduce until the wine is completely gone. This is an important step that allows you to save those wonder, flavor-packed, burned bits in the bottom of the pan known as fond (French for “bottom,” pronounced “fon”). For these duxelles, white wine is used, but deglazing liquid for other dishes can be anything from water (not my choice) to red wine, stock or cognac, to name a few.

With the pan off the heat, fold in the herbs. If herbs are added too soon, these delicate ingredients will cook out. Rough chop the mushrooms, and set aside while you turn your attention to the grand assembly.

But first, the answer to my question: Why doesn’t Topple use foie gras? Easy answer: Elk is a rich meat with great flavor he doesn’t want to mask. So not only does that omission make his recipe easier but a little lighter on calories – and the wallet – as well.

Your seared elk and duxelles should be completely cool before assembling. A few minutes in the freezer helps expedite the process. If the meat is warm, it will sweat and ruin the pastry. Other than for vegetables, sweating is no good in the kitchen, so don’t get impatient. Otherwise, you will be sweating when you realize your guests are about to be served a less-than-pretty dinner. The Sonnenalp’s pastry artist, Chef Bernie Oswald, makes up sheets of puff pastry. For home cooks, you can try this yourself or buy readymade frozen pastry. Cut 4-inch-by-6-inch rectangles, depending on the loins’ size. Paint each one with Dijon mustard, being careful to leave about a half an inch border. Next spread a couple of tablespoons of duxelles over the Dijon, place the loin at the end closest to you (crosswise on a narrow side), and roll the dough carefully over the meat. Don’t overlap the dough because it will be thick and cook unevenly. D’Onofrio leaves ends open, facilitating testing for doneness. Score two bias slits, and brush the top with egg wash made from whisking together two egg yolks and a little milk.

At this point, you can cover the Wellingtons with plastic wrap and return to the refrigerator or proceed with baking. In a 450-degree oven, you’ll need about five to six minutes, or until the pastry is a lovely golden brown. Test for doneness by pushing the ends. D’Onofrio said it’s rare when a finger mark is left on seared meat after being poked. With each rise in temperature, the meat springs back faster. As with searing, resting is important to seal in juices, and the meat will continue to cook a bit, so rest it for about three minutes while you prepare the plate.

Topple’s recipe calls for a bed of celery root and potato puree. Place three baby carrots in a triangle around the “bed” with a dot of huckleberry sauce at each point. Cut ends off the pastry, and then bias cut in the middle. Plate with the middle cut showing for a lovely presentation “to show the temperature.” The final touch is a garnish of fried chiffonade leeks atop the cut ends and a pinch of microgreens such as “bull’s blood” to give an intense color.

You’re now ready to serve this classic dish to adoring guests. Of course, you’ll want to pair it with the perfect wine. Topple loves a great zinfandel with game. I do, too, particularly something from Russian River.

Both Topple and D’Onofrio love to experience the transformation of food from simple ingredients to works of art. And Topple’s elk Wellington is just that. I hope this virtual visit to Ludwig’s kitchen has inspired you to try these useful techniques and make this dish in your own in-home restaurant.

Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. Visit to learn more. Email comments about this story to

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