Real life after "Top Chef"

MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER He might have won the big "Chef" cash prize, but Nick Elmi's sticking with his old Honda.
MATTHEW HALL / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER He might have won the big "Chef" cash prize, but Nick Elmi's sticking with his old Honda.
Posted: February 21, 2014

LAST MONDAY, chef Nick Elmi stepped out the door of Laurel, his 22-seat East Passyunk Avenue BYOB, and exhaled in relief.

Four days earlier, the 32-year-old appeared on the dramatically up-and-down finale to a dramatically up-and-down Season 11 of Bravo's "Top Chef." Had you noticed his sigh, you might have thought he was feeling great. He won.

Then again, you might have thought he was happy to be able to talk about the show publicly. ("Top Chef" rules stipulate that only the chef's spouse and lawyer can know the result before the finale.)

You could also assume that Elmi was pleased that, post-finale, his BYOB's tables were booked three months out. "Can't even get my wife or [business] partner in," he said, with a hint of pride.

Of course, he was happy about the $125,000 prize. And the promise of free national publicity via a big story in Food & Wine magazine. Not to mention Laurel's two just-out local rave reviews.

But the truth was, his relief was much simpler. Much more familiar to us Philadelphians, even those who can barely make toast.

"No parking ticket!" the chef exclaimed, walking up to feed quarters into a meter beside a not-so-new black Honda, "One more, and my wife would have killed me."

The lesson: You can take the guy out of reality TV. But you can't take him out of reality.

At least, not Elmi.

True, 1.7 million viewers tuned in to watch him beat out St. Lucia-born fan favorite Nina Compton, in Maui. True, he was now trending in every possible mode of media. True, the demand to eat at Laurel had maxed out the restaurant's voice mail and shut down its OpenTable reservations page.

Said the chef: "Everyone's coming out of the woodwork, asking, 'Hey, remember me? I need a table.' "

Elmi's making an effort not to get caught up in the hubbub. "Maybe I'm naive . . . but I just wanna go back to work."

After the win - Bravo had him watch the show in New York before appearing alongside Compton on "Watch What Happens Live" - he closed Laurel, took a few days off.

That Saturday, he treated his employees to drinks at The Gaslight, the new Old City gastropub owned by Elmi's "Top Chef" competitor-turned-BFF Jason Cichonski. Sunday, he, his wife, Kristen, and kids (Grace, 4, and Wes, 2) skated at the RiverRink, where, for the first time, he was recognized outside the restaurant realm.

"People were super-cool about it," he said.

Now, a day before getting back to business, Elmi was signing for a new dishwasher part and psyched to dodge a $26 ticket.

Wasn't easy to keep things static. "Operating a restaurant is difficult to begin with," he said. Add on the demands of fame - the endless emails, tweets, calls and demands for interviews - and he'd been clocking just four, five hours' sleep at night.

He was running on empty.

In 2010, fellow Philadelphia chef Kevin Sbraga won Season 7 of the show. At the time, Sbraga lived in Jersey and worked at Rat's, in Hamilton Township. Sbraga said Elmi had better get used to his new schedule.

"I still haven't caught up," said Sbraga, who spent his prize money on a stereo and TV (on sale at Best Buy), Corian-handle knives, a trip to Paris and, a few months later, his namesake restaurant at Broad and Pine streets, which opened October 2011. (Last year, he also opened the Fat Ham, a more casual Southern spot in University City.)

Like Elmi, Sbraga's a father of two.

Like Elmi, Sbraga catches four, five, maybe six hours a night - still. "He can forget about sleeping," Sbraga said.

And, like Elmi, Sbraga tried to stay restaurant-focused. "Out of all the winners, I faded into my work more. A lot of [other winners] take a year, even two years off, travel, do events," he said.

Still, there are some opportunities a Top Chef can't refuse. Sbraga went to Alabama to cook at a benefit for tornado victims. Elmi plans a trip to Chicago to help raise funds for the church of "Chef" competitor Carlos Gaytan, whom the show made out to be his rival.

Elmi said he wants to "keep focused on making this restaurant better." He'd like to improve as a chef. Like to get even better reviews. Like to expand Laurel's currently 10-by-15-foot kitchen.

But no big changes.

He won't add seats, or get Laurel a liquor license. Won't open more than five nights a week.

Sundays, he and his staff still turn off their cellphones. One night a week, one of them will still cut out early.

Laurel's gnudi, a dish that Elmi tearfully presented as his daughter's favorite to the "Top Chef" judges and the restaurant's bestseller, stays on the menu.

As for the cash? Most will go into his kids' college fund. Some might help buy a house closer to his in-laws. (The Elmis live in Collingswood; his wife's family is in Lower Bucks.)

No big trips. No boats. No fancy new car. "I love my [old] Honda," he said.

Maybe more quarters for the meter.


On Twitter: @LaMcCutch

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