There was this moment, shortly after the finale of Top Chef: New Orleans had aired, shortly after Nick Elmi had been named the winner, when another chef walked up to him at one of the big food events in town, shook his hand, congratulated him, and asked him what the hell he was thinking, opening a 22-seat restaurant.
Because, seriously? When you win Top Chef, you suddenly become one of the most famous chefs in America. At least temporarily. Shoot, even losing on the show can be enough to raise you up out of obscurity and turn you into a brand — a known name who can draw down the dollars just by having been featured on the jumping box for a few hours. Cookbook deals, product endorsements, cruise-ship gigs — it all comes to you. And a big-ass restaurant with high-volume turnover on the floor? Of course. That’s just a given.
But that’s not what Nick Elmi did. No, he came back home and opened Laurel on East Passyunk, in the space formerly occupied by Fond (which was run by Elmi’s friend and former sous-chef, Lee Styer). Not the smallest restaurant ever, but close. The kind of space you look at and think, Oh, what a great place for a little neighborhood restaurant. Most assuredly not a space you look at and think, Oh, that’s just perfect for one of the best-known chefs in the country. “We do 44 people a day,” Elmi says from his tiny kitchen at Laurel on a Thursday night, just a few hours before the start of service. “Every day.”
And when he says “every day,” he means every day. In June, reservations were booked out through the summer. By the time you read this, they’ll be booked out through October. On the rare occasions when someone calls to cancel, the Laurel staff has a list of neighborhood regulars they call and offer the seats to. They never go unfilled.
“Isn’t this what chefs are supposed to do?” Elmi asks. “They cook for their friends and neighbors, right? This was the game plan. This was the goal since I started cooking — to have a small, intimate restaurant all my own.”
And now he does — one of the best restaurants in a city full of great restaurants. A place people come to from all over the mid-Atlantic (because, you know, Top Chef) but that still exists to feed the neighbors. At Le Bec-Fin and the Rittenhouse Tavern, Elmi cooked for other people — followed their rules and worked the way they wanted him to work. But here, it’s his show.
He comes in early, lays a fresh edge on his knives, and starts to prep. He looks at the reservation book for names he recognizes —
the regulars who’ve been coming since before he made the big time. He chops the mushrooms, reduces the sauce, worries over his team and the lack of space they have in which to do … anything. The menu is modern. Artistic but unaffected. Borderless in a way that makes it okay to have jalapeño, ponzu, arctic char and pickled mustard seeds all together on the same plate.
He cooks every night (or almost every night), and when he goes out into the dining room, only some customers are there because he’s the guy who won Top Chef. More and more, the tables are filled with people who are there because it’s Laurel, because it’s Nick Elmi, the Philadelphia chef.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were days when I thought, ‘Oh, man, maybe I should’ve gone for 80 seats,’” says Elmi. “But I’ve never regretted it. Not one second of it. This is the most fun I’ve had cooking in longer than I can remember.” Laurel, 1617 East Passyunk Avenue, South Philly, 215-271-8299.
See the rest of our Best of Philly picks in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine, on newsstands now, or subscribe today. Then join us at the Best of Philly Bash at Citizens Bank Park on August 12th!