Yes, we still have some time before the first episode of the new season of Top Chef, featuring Nick Elmi, Jason Cichonski and a bunch of other people who aren’t from Philly.
But for those of you out there who just can’t wait, we thought it might be nice to offer up a bit of history–a way for you to get a handle on our two hometown chefs and maybe come to understand, once the show starts, why this one is freaking out over his pork chops or why that one is doing that thing to that scallop. To that end, we’ve assembled a Six Pack of places where the two chefs trained, rose to prominence, made names for themselves or, in the case of Jason Cichonski, are still currently cooking (Elmi is unemployed at the moment, but working on opening his first restaurant–Laurel on East Passyunk).
It would make a helluva restaurant crawl. Or maybe something to do on the weekend before Top Chef premiers. But we’re not telling you how to live your life…
It’s a little bit tough to get a culinary read on Elmi for a couple of reasons. First, he spent a lot of his formative years knocking around Manhattan, cooking at Daniel, Lutece, Union Pacific and Oceana. Second, because after coming to the Philadelphia region, he hitched his wagon to Georges Perrier and… Well, we all know what happened there. But still, his most recent post before heading off to New Orleans and East Passyunk was as exec at the Rittenhouse Tavern where he brought his blend of Frenchified New American cuisine and careful plate design to the kitchen. Right now, his former sous, Hilary Hamilton, is in charge of the kitchen and the menu, though simplified, still bears some of the marks that Elmi put on it during his time there.
251 S. 18th Street
This is Jason Cichonski’s home base–the restaurant that he opened (with partner Chip Roman) and the one that most indelibly bears the stamp of his style of modernist cooking. Yes, the scallop noodles are here (we’re taking bets at Foobooz World HQ on exactly how long it takes before Cichonski busts these out for TV and smart money is on “Before the 1st episode opening credits are over”), and the pork belly dumplings, and the whipped foie. But it’s also a showcase for the more solid preparations Cichonski is capable of. It’s pretty much a guarantee that he’ll be using a lot of the same tricks on the show that he uses every night in his kitchen at Ela, so this would make an excellent first stop.
627 S. 3rd Street
Chip Roman’s Chestnut Hill joint was where Cichonski really came into his own as a chef. It wasn’t the first place where he made his name, but it certainly was the spot that proved he was ready for a kitchen of his own–and gave some early hints as to what he might cook there. And working with Roman absolutely informed the style in which he works today–even if, at the time, the menus often read like a battle between Roman’s traditionalism and Cichonski’s more avant-garde aspirations.
8609 Germantown Avenue, Chestnut Hill
You really want to see where Nick Elmi came into his own as a chef? Build yourself a time machine and go back to the days when he was Georges Perrier’s c-de-c at Le Bec-Fin. Can’t wrap your head around the physics of time travel? Then your only other choice is to hit Mia in Atlantic City, which had Perrier as a partner once upon a time. Elmi cooked there under Perrier alum/partner Chris Scarduzio (who still operates Mia in its current Perrier-less incarnation) immediately before being called up to take the reins as exec at Le Bec.
2100 Pacific Avenue, Atlantic City
The number of well-known chefs in Philly who came out of the kitchen at Lacroix is staggering. As far as training houses go, it’s probably second only to Le Bec in terms of sheer volume of ass-kicking veterans that have graduated from its line. And Cichonski can number himself among this corps. You want to know where his love of gadgets, twists and riffs on classical presentations came from? Look no further.
210 West Rittenhouse Square
Once upon a time, this was Jason Cichonski’s home base–a fine dining Italian joint in Bedminster, NJ. It was the Pluckemin Inn and Moonlight (a progressive American place in New Hope which has since closed), that gave Cichonski’s resume some early heft. And they were also the places where he started laying the groundwork for the chef he would someday become.
359 U.S. 206, Bedminster