Interview: Top Chef Nicholas Elmi

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Nicholas Elmi knows a thing or two about “licking” the competition. Not only did he claim the title of Top Chef in Season 11 of Bravo’s hit reality competition, but his year-old Philadelphia restaurant, Laurel, is also racking up accolades, earning high praise from Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan as well as a nomination for a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant.

Though this all happened just last year, both wins have been a long time in the making. The 33-year-old Massachusetts native started cooking at age 14, left college to attend the Culinary Institute of America and spent the next few years honing his skills in some of the most prestigious French restaurants in the world, including Guy Savoy in Paris, Lutèce in New York City and Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia.

When the producers of Top Chef came knocking, it took four tries to get the popular young chef on the show.

“I had been talking to them off and on for a few years, but the timing never worked out,” Elmi recalls.

When he finally made it on the air, Elmi rose to the top – beating all 19 of his competitors to win the $125,000 grand prize, despite criticism from some fans of the show.

“Putting yourself out there is weird,” he muses, “but I didn’t want to change my personality. My wife says I’m not the easiest person to deal with so she was like, ‘everyone’s going to know now!’ But I wanted to be honest. I wanted to be real.”

Elmi’s insistence on authenticity has helped his 22-seat French/American restaurant, Laurel, stand out in a town famous for its dining scene; the eatery has a two-month waiting list for reservations and was recently named the number one restaurant in the city by Philadelphia Magazine. Despite the honor, Elmi remains humble.

It’s nice to feel like you’re doing it right, that you’re getting recognition,” he admits. “I take a tremendous amount of pride [in my work], but I try not to read much about myself or the restaurant. My whole team just constantly works to get better every day.”

When he’s not donning a chef’s toque, Elmi can be found at home in New Jersey, where he has a few two- and four-legged helpers in the kitchen. Rounding out the pack, which includes wife Kristen, daughter Grace and son Wesley, is 13-year-old Max, a rescued Maine Coon mix who still has plenty of spring in her step.

“She wants to be an outdoor cat so bad,” laughs Elmi, “and she’s very protective of the kids, which is funny for a cat. If my son is upset about something, she’ll jump in his lap. She’s very comforting to them and very snuggly for an old lady.”

Keeping a mature kitty fit has been surprisingly simple. Max stays spry by “hunting” in the family’s fenced-in yard, getting lots of playtime and avoiding extra treats – although Elmi admits that rule can sometimes be hard to enforce.

“My daughter’s at the age now where she’ll just go to the fridge and start feeding the cat ham,” he chuckles, “but we mostly stick to cat treats, so she rarely gets people food.”

Elmi says the family hopes to have more pets down the road, which should be fine with Max. And when it comes time to add paws to the pack, Elmi can turn to his friends at the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), an organization that works to find homes for the city’s abandoned animals.

Elmi has lent a paw―and his culinary expertise―to PAWS’ annual Chef’s Dinner, fusing his passion for pets and sautéing skills to raise much-needed funds. His participation in 2013 helped raise $350,000 for the city’s homeless animals, and he plans to repeat his support at the fall 2015 event.

A hot restaurant, a budding family and a “pet” cause may all seem like a lot to tackle, but Elmi doesn’t mind having a full plate. In fact, he’s set his sights on opening a second restaurant in the coming year.

With an entire city behind him and the support of his family (two- and four-legged alike), we’d say this is one Top Chef who has the future all but licked.

— published in fetch! magazine, the “Lickety Fit” issue

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