Elie is an alumnus of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and a 1981 graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School. He went on to attend the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated in 1985 with a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Economics. In 1986 he received his Master of Science from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, later becoming Alumnus of the Year in 2012. After graduating from Columbia University, Elie went on to receive an Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from University of Virginia.
Elie began his career as a business reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He then went on to become the road manager for jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. In 1995 he became a columnist and reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. During this time he wrote several books.
After leaving the Times Picayune in 2009, Elie became the story editor for HBO's Treme. He wrote the episodes "I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say", "Shame, Shame, Shame" and "Santa Claus, Do You Ever Get the Blues?" for which he won an NAACP Award. In 2013, Elie moved to Los Angeles where he became the executive story editor for AMC's "Hell on Wheels." His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Saveur, Gourmet, Bon Appétit, and Smithsonian magazine and he has been featured on NPR, CBS News, and 60 Minutes. He is also a contributing editor to the Oxford American. Elie is one of the founders of the Southern Foodways Alliance.