Laurel's owner talks about his 'Top Chef' stint

He'stops: Chef Nick Elmi of Laurel.
He'stops: Chef Nick Elmi of Laurel.
Posted: February 14, 2014

Last week was something of a watershed for Nicholas Elmi: His victory on Top Chef New Orleans aired on Bravo, and - even more important, according to Elmi - his 3-month-old Passyunk Avenue restaurant, Laurel, was reviewed by The Inquirer's Craig Laban. Though Elmi had said he would "give up everything" for four bells, he had to settle for a three-bell rave.

Over the past season, we learned that Elmi is both intense and intensely talented, that his desert island foods would be bread, butter and Pont l'Évêque (the latter, a cheese, appears on Laurel's dessert menu with chestnut honey), and that the 33-year-old Collingswood resident is all about his family. We asked him about his turn on reality TV and his return to reality.

Question: Congratulations on your win and the review. Any reaction now that it's been published?

Answer: I love the review. We're going to take the criticism in stride and make as many improvements as we can. Our goal is to have four bells, and we're going to do everything in our power to do that. Everyone keeps asking, "What are you going to do now?" I'm going back into the kitchen. That's my goal right now.

Q.: The review suggested your cooking matured because of the judges' criticisms. Do you agree?

A.: Not really. I think my palate has been the same since I've been cooking. During the filming, we were with an eclectic group of chefs who do huge, bold flavors, and sometimes my flavors would get lost. I like to do refined, delicate flavors. It's not going to be as seasoned, as spicy, but to me it's perfect. I cook that way now, and I haven't had anybody tell me it's not seasoned. You have to stay true to who you are. I didn't want to go out there and halfway through start saying, "I gotta throw sriracha on everything." That's not what I did, and that's not who I am.

Q: In your most controversial Top Chef moment, you won immunity for yourself, but then cooked a dish that caused your team to lose. Jacques Pepin suggested you fall on your sword, but you declined. What was the thought process?

A: The way it was worded, they essentially asked for my thoughts. They said, "Do you think you should give up your immunity?" and I said, "No, I don't." If they wanted me to leave, I would have left. They asked for my thoughts, and I gave them. They've had shows before when they didn't eliminate a chef during a challenge, and they eliminated two later on. I thought that's what would happen, but it didn't.

Q.: Some dishes at Laurel - the torn scallops with apple and celery, or ricotta gnocchi with pancetta and Parmesan - are similar to items you prepared on the show. Did your Top Chef stint influence the menu?

A.: A lot of what we do in the restaurant is stuff I've done before, and a lot of things I did on the show were things I was comfortable with. I think the food I did on the show and food at the restaurant reflects me. It is my own restaurant now, and I get to do whatever I want. And I think that resonates.

Q.: On the show, you came off as pretty tense, and sometimes temperamental. Do you think that's an accurate reflection, and did you learn anything about yourself?

A.: I'm tense, and I can be temperamental. I knew that about myself going in. It's something my wife talks about: "You know, you need to learn how to breathe - maybe start doing yoga." But I'm very particular about how I work in the kitchen, and I'm not going to change myself because I'm on TV. I'm not going to put on a show and be nicer than I am, to be America's sweetheart. I'm a tense guy. I'm very passionate. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I don't really care what people think of me.

Q.: What's life been like since the finale aired?

A.: I've been picking and choosing my battles. I did a ton of interviews. I was in New York to be on the Watch What Happened Live show, but then I would turn off my phone for hours on end so I could just hang with my family and friends, and enjoy New York.

Q.: Have you kept in touch with your fellow competitors? What about your on-air nemesis, Carlos Gaytan (who annoyed you by leaving your sushi knife dirty and shuffling your pots around)?

A.: I have a certain group of friends I connected with on the show: Nina [Compton], Lewis [Maldonado], Stephanie [Cmar]. Carlos and I have talked. We actually exchanged gifts a couple times - he sent me a sushi knife, and I sent him a couple pots. I'm very good friends with [Jason Cichonski]. I do form relationships with people. In the kitchen I'm tense. Out of the kitchen, people think I'm a really nice guy.

Q.: Many people are wondering how long you'll stay in a 22-seat BYOB. When will you know you're ready to move on?

A.: I'm a relatively humble person, and I just want to go back to my restaurant and continue cooking. We're going to take opportunities as they come and keep our door open and be open-minded about things - but right now I just want to go back to Laurel and get ready for tonight's service.



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