We Want Answers: Eli Kulp

The man Food & Wine magazine pegged as one of the country’s best new chefs talks Anthony Bourdain, Pulp Fiction, and the one thing you should never, ever do with brussels sprouts.

You grew up in Mossyrock, Washington. Is that a town of more or less than 100 people? Ha. Last time I saw, it had 498. My mom is from Holland; my dad is from New York. And they were sort of hippies traveling in the ’70s, doing their thing. They met and found this little plot of land in the middle of nowhere and bought it, put a single-wide trailer on it, and that’s where I grew up.

Eli Kulp | Photo by Gene Smirnov

Eli Kulp | Photo by Gene Smirnov


You started cooking professionally at age 14. In a limited capacity. I got into the kitchen as a sort of dishwasher/busboy. In Mossyrock, there’s one restaurant. It’s no longer there, so there are actually no restaurants. There’s one burger stand in the whole town. My parents were sort of, “Do what makes you happy.” If I had stayed home and worked in the timber industry, that would have been fine, too.

 

In 2012, you moved from New York to take over the kitchen at Fork. You’ve talked about the fact that the cost of doing business is cheaper here, but that customers are fewer, less adventurous and thriftier. Is Philly worth it? You’re trying to get me in trouble here. This is a hard one to answer. I’ve tried, and I’ve had backlash. New York is just a different beast. You have seven days a week that you can make money on. In Philadelphia, you really have two guaranteed nights, if you’re good: Friday and Saturday; Monday, Sunday, it depends. I mean: weather. We had a terrible winter. That had a huge impact on our restaurants.

First, Fork. More recently, A.Kitchen. What’s the next languishing restaurant you plan to resuscitate? [laughs] A.Kitchen came to us. It wasn’t really something I sought out. It’s sort of become my m.o.

You’re the ringer. I’m like the Wolf in Pulp Fiction. Bring in the Wolf.

Which Philly chef is doing the most exciting work right now? I think Chris Kearse at Will might not get the most recognition for it, but what he does is very solid.

We’ve got a couple of Top Chef winners in town: Kevin Sbraga and Nicholas Elmi. Does that get them respect in the culinary world? Or are they basically Kelly Clarkson? When it first started, it was a little more gimmicky, like taking a bunch of ragtag cooks and putting them in an environment where they were almost guaranteed to fail, for TV’s sake. Now I think Top Chef has some legitimacy.

Do chefs actually watch Top Chef? I don’t think so. I think cooks watch it. I don’t know if, for the industry, it’s something that has benefited us. You know, sensationalizing what we do.

Right. I mean, has the whole behind-the-scenes, drug-fueled Kitchen Confidential genre proved true in your experience? When Tony Bourdain wrote that book, he was in the ’80s in New York City. I believe that book. And that book is a big reason why I went to New York.

What is to be done about the phenomenon of adults drooling over what is essentially kid food? Cronuts, for example. The obsession with trends has gotten so bad. I mean, there are trend-watches for trends now. At the end of the year, my inbox will fill up with: “Chef, can you tell us what the next trend will be for next year?”

Are brussels sprouts over yet? They are a trend, but I don’t think they’re going anywhere anytime soon. I think what people discovered was to stop fucking boiling them.

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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