Audi FEASTIVAL cohost Nick Elmi has had a front-row seat to the rise of the Philadelphia food scene over the last decade. He cooked under the tutelage of master chef Georges Perrier at the famed Le Bec Fin, and after being crowned Top Chef, Nick returned to Philly and carved his own place in the city’s restaurant history with Laurel, his modern, French-influenced American restaurant, its next-door neighbor ITV (In the Valley), and Royal Boucherie, his lively American brasserie in Old City.
Chef sits down with us to give us a sneak peek at his brand new cookbook inspired by Laurel, Audi FEASTIVAL 2019, and more!
FEASTIVAL: What did you want to be growing up?
Chef Nick Elmi: I always wanted to be in public service. When I was a kid, I wanted to be in the navy or the air force and then turn into a cop or a firefighter, [but] I fell in love with cooking at a relatively young age. I started cooking when I was 14.
What was your first cooking experience?
Well, I was working at an Italian restaurant. I got my first job as like a busser. I was terrible at it, so they made me a dishwasher instead.
One day one of the guys didn’t show up to work, so they were like, “Dude, you have to make pizzas tonight.” I said, “Alright, show me,” and that was it. That was how I started.
I worked at a pizza place in college. If they would have ever asked me to make a pizza, I would have walked out.
Too much pressure?
We had to make legit pizzas. We rolled all of our pizzas to order. Brick oven. It was a really nice place. I’m dating myself; this was back in 1995.
Did you fall in love with cooking right then and there?
I enjoyed doing it, and I continued to get better at it through high school.
The only thing I was really good at in high school was math, so I went to college for economics and accounting. I got through a year and a half of that, dropped out, and went to culinary school.
Coming out of culinary school, you staged and worked in a bunch of really remarkable kitchens, and Georges Perrier was one of your mentors. How does it feel now to know that younger chefs are looking to you as a mentor and inspiration?
[Nick chuckles at the thought] It’s odd. It makes me feel old.
I just had a thing where seven or eight years ago, I was a Rising Star Chef, and last year I was the mentor of a Rising Star Chef [for the same organization.] And I’m like okay! Cool!
But it is great. Last year, I got to go and do the commencement speech at the Culinary Institute of America which is where I graduated from. It was really cool.
It’s nice to be in a position where [I can be helpful.] I’m fortunate to have a lot of really spectacular people working for me, and they look to me not just for culinary advice but personal advice as well.
What made you want to write the cookbook, Laurel, now?
I actually wasn’t looking. The opportunity kinda came to me, and I wasn’t 100% confident in doing it in the beginning. Once we started building our team and getting people together everything just kinda fell into place pretty organically. [I’m working with] Adam Erace who’s a spectacular writer in Philly, Neal Santos who’s a talented photographer from Philly (and a handsome bastard by the way), and Running Press.
I got the first copy the other day, [so] I and Adam went through it. I got to show my family. [My wife, kids, and I] all flew home to New Hampshire for the weekend for my sister’s wedding, so it was cool to [have it]. It’s awesome that 20 years from now you can show this to your kids like ‘This is what I did.’
What was the process like making it? How long did it take?
2 ½ years between developing, testing, shooting, redeveloping, editing…
We wanted to do a mixture of old dishes, current dishes, and future dishes. I had to go through all of my notebooks and constantly call to touch base with old chefs who used to work there like ‘Hey man do you remember that potato recipe or do you remember how long we would cook the pork cheeks for?’
Adam did a lot of leg work, but I am…how do I put this without being self-deprecating… I’m very flighty. I don’t keep a lot of my recipes. All the people who work in the kitchen do and gram out every recipe. For me, I just cook. My job is that I cook, I create, I have fun.
So the process goes: I come up with an idea, [then] we take that idea and make it applicable to Laurel. So I’ll make a broth, and then we figure out how to make that broth again with gramming everything out.
So you’re reverse engineering it in a way?
Yeah. It’s kinda stupid.
It was a cool process to see. If we ever get the opportunity to do a second one, it will be a lot easier.
What was your favorite recipe in Laurel?
There is a truffle stuffed dover sole dish in the book, and it is a good representation from where I was to where I am now.
Laurel is in this position where we’ve always been considered a French restaurant only because I come from a French background. We’re not [quite] that. 99% of the product we use comes from the region, and we serve basically American food. We just get tagged as…very modern French.
Coming up in classical French cuisine and working at Le Bec Fin, a whole roasted dover sole was one of the heights of luxury. You know, [it would be] roasted whole and deboned, fileted, and sauced at tableside. Here, we kinda do the same thing, except we remove all of the bones in the fish, replace all the bones with truffle, and then put the fish back together and roast it whole. We still carve it at tableside, but the surprise is that instead of fileting it you get this tranch of fish that has this layer of black in the center of it. It’s a nod to old school classical french cuisine but with modern technique. It is a very good representation of what we’re trying to do [at Laurel].
Can you describe Audi FEASTIVAL in three words?
Exciting. Tasty. Beautiful.
What has been the biggest change in the Philadelphia food scene over the last 10 years?
The amount of restaurants that we can pull from to be able to do this event. When we started, we probably only had 30 chefs, and they were the 30 best chefs in the city. Those 30 best chefs in the city were probably the only 30 good restaurants in the city.
Now, we have 60… It’s something that we should acknowledge. We have to say to people that we know are good, ‘Sorry we don’t have room…’ You almost have to be grandfathered in. We feel terrible. We do our best to keep it current, but there are so many restaurants now that it is hard to get everybody involved.
It is the premier event in Philadelphia. The chefs who do this event like doing this event and want to be involved. You know, it’s still the best event in the city. Its the one most people go to and most people love. If there were a Rotten Tomatoes for FEASTIVAL, it would be in the 99 – 100 range.
Every year, we get better. People acknowledge that. They look at the progress that we’ve made. They see what we’ve done to improve.
Cliff Notes or the long answer?
You can give us the long! We have time!
The Cliff Notes is I am very happy with where I am right now. I don’t plan on [opening any new restaurants] in the future. I just want to focus on the three restaurants that I have right now and make sure that they are perfect and successful.
The long answer is that there are too many restaurants in the city. Competition is getting very high; margins are getting a lot slimmer. The [chances for] success are getting smaller and smaller. I think I’ll hold tight for a little while and see what happens in the next two years.
The book comes out September 17th.
We always have something brewing. Laurel opened. Three years later we opened ITV. A year after that we opened Royal Boucherie. A year and a half after that, we have a book coming out.
And you had all of this planned out?
Haha yes! I had a plan. It ends in 4 ½ more years with me going to the Florida Keys and disappearing.
As long you come back for FEASTIVAL!
Thank you to Chef Nick Elmi for sitting down for us!
You can preorder a signed copy of Chef Nick Elmi’s new cookbook, Laurel, at at https://phillyfeastival.ticketleap.com/! His restaurant, Laurel, and bar, ITV, are located at 1615 + 1617 E Passyunk Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19148, while Royal Boucherie is located at 52 S 2nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19106.
Philadelphia’s performing and culinary arts scenes unite once again for the 2019 Audi FEASTIVAL benefitting FringeArts. On Thursday, September 26th, 70 of Philadelphia’s top restaurants and bars join the city’s most breathtaking artists to create a unique experience for guests and celebrate the event’s tenth anniversary! Get your tickets today at https://phillyfeastival.ticketleap.com/.