"Top Chef" Winner Nicholas Elmi Talks Victory, Emeril
On Wednesday night, Nicholas Elmi became Philadelphia’s second Top Chef champion, joining Kevin Sbraga, who won in 2010. Elmi - who recently opened BYO Laurel on East Passyunk - simply out-cooked second-place finisher Nina Compton during the Bravo show’s season finale in Maui. He won $125,000 and a cover feature in Food & Wine magazine.
That showdown came after Elmi successfully battled his way through many other challenges in New Orleans, where he started with a pool of 18 other contestants vying for the crown. One of those other chefs was fellow Philadelphian Jason Cichonski (Ela, The Gaslight), who made a star cameo in the finale when Elmi invited him back to be part of his team.
We caught up with Nick via telephone from NYC, where he spent the evening of the finale and appeared post-show on Watch What Happens Live.
Zagat: Throughout the season, you were portrayed as an underdog, and you picked up a bunch of haters along the way. Were you surprised at the way you were shown?
Nicholas Elmi: Maybe a little surprised, but I’m an intense person. People who know me know I’m really a nice guy - I’m not as horrible as everyone thinks I am. But I didn’t look back and think, oh, the producers made things up. What they showed is what happened. The process is really organic. You walk in to the room, get your instructions, and go, go, go. You cook all day, every day, for 12-14 hours. What ends up as 45 minutes of TV is really two or three days of hard work.
Zagat: Then there was the episode where you had immunity, but the judges asked whether you wanted to resign. Did you consider it?
NE: At no point was I going to walk away.
Zagat: What was your favorite dish you cooked on the show?
NE: The gnocchi, no question. It’s been one of my standards for a while, and it’s actually the best-selling item at Laurel right now.
Zagat: Who was your favorite guest celebrity chef?
NE: Across the board, Emeril, hands down. He’s the warmest person I’ve ever met, a really sweet guy. He was the one person who encouraged us the entire time, he would come through the kitchen and give us pep talks.
Zagat: What was your favorite challenge of the season?
NE: The finale in Maui was definitely the most fun, because I got to surround myself with people that I love, especially Jason [Cichonski]. He was making fun of me, making fun of the judges, just making us laugh. I really love that guy.
Zagat: And Cichonski’s “scallop noodles” were one of the biggest hits of your winning meal.
NE: At first I was a bit resistant to doing the scallop noodles - they’re his signature dish, not mine - but then I decided he was on my team for a reason, so I went with them, and it paid off. Jason deserves recognition, he’s a fantastic chef.
Zagat: Despite the great food, your final service did not go smoothly. You snapped at the servers in your pop-up “restaurant,” and even the judges could hear. Do you regret yelling?
NE: No - at that point, I really thought I had lost the whole thing because the service was so bad, so I almost didn’t care. Also, I didn’t get to see any of Nina’s food, so I had no idea what she was making. She did a great job - she really killed it all season.
Zagat: Tom Colicchio made the comment that you “peaked at the right time.” Was that a conscious strategy?
NE: Not really. I did play it reserved in New Orleans - I didn’t want to show my entire hand. But when I came back from the break [the finale in Maui was filmed several months after the NOLA episodes], I had just spent the whole summer with my family, Plus, I had already started working on my own restaurant, on Laurel. So I was much more relaxed.
Zagat: When did you start planning Laurel?
NE: I originally looked at the East Passyunk space in May, before I left for New Orleans. But it wasn’t until I came back during the break that my partner and I decided it was the right thing. I love that room, the karma it has [it used to be Fond]. I really wanted to do a tiny restaurant, where I could concentrate on each table, each dish. And I love how, if I’m not there, we just close for the day.
Zagat: How did you decide to go on Top Chef in the first place?
NE: I figured if I gave it a shot, it would help me. I know I’m a strong cook - it’s called Top Chef, but it comes down to the food - and that I can think on my feet. My wife Kristin really sealed the deal for me. She said, “It doesn’t matter if you’re the best chef in Philly if no one knows who you are.”
Zagat: What are your future goals? Any plans for new restaurants or expansions?
NE: We’re actually working on expanding the kitchen at Laurel right now because it’s tiny - you can barely fit three people in there. But my goal for the year is really to focus on Laurel and nothing else. Who knows how far we’re going to be able to take it? We’ll take all the criticisms from our Philadelphia Inquirer review [it comes out this weekend] and work on them. My hope is that by the end of the year, Craig LaBan will consider Laurel one of the best restaurants in Philadelphia.
For those looking to check out Elmi’s cooking for themselves, reserve now - tables are booked well into April, and if you want a prime-time spot, even further out. Look for him to pop up at special events around Philadelphia, and be sure to catch the Food & Wine issue when it hits the stands this spring.