After a shift, what is your favorite guilty pleasure to eat? “Gummy candy. I’ve swapped out vices. I quit drinking a year ago and have replaced it with eating way too much candy. Sweet of choice is basically anything gummy. Worms and Coke bottles are the best though—also popsicles.”
Is there one dish you won’t cook? “I’ve never met a dish that I wouldn’t try cooking!”
All-time favorite spice. “Montreal Steak Seasoning. I know, blasphemous, but when I’m cooking in a kitchen I like to keep food pretty simple. There’s nothing better than a perfectly grilled sirloin that’s been heavily seasoned with that perfect mixture of garlic, onion, paprika, coriander, red pepper and mustard seed. Some lightly grilled veggies and done.”
What is your favorite music to listen to while you cook? “I feel like I’m the only one in my company who listens to music while I work—everyone else is so serious! Depends on the day but mostly Black Angels, Wooden Shjips, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Radiohead. Trippy stuff that you can either get lost in or can serve as background music. If it’s super early some rap works well. Army of the Pharaohs, Demigodz, and Run The Jewels are all great.”
Did you grow up cooking as a kid? “Not really. I began cooking in kitchens when I was 14. Actually, I got a job as a busboy but sucked at it so they threw me in the dish pit. Then the pizza guy called out drunk, so I started making pizzas and pastas and became pretty good by the time I was 16. I kept moving up. I studied accounting and economics for a few years in college, but dropped out to go to CIA.”
What cookbook is your go-to resource for inspiration? “Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras. Still holds up to this day as far as flavor combinations and presentation. It was a revelation to me as a 21-year-old cook when I saw food being presented so beautifully. It brings me back to that memory of being a young cook, of wonder and what is possible with food.”
After all these years working in restaurants do you still enjoy going out to eat? “Absolutely. One just has to adjust expectations. I love exploring different neighborhoods of Philadelphia with my kids and finding the best dumplings or the best pizza. I also love going out with my wife for oysters or for really great pasta. And then there’s research that needs to be done. Finding chefs and restaurants that inspire what I do. I find myself to be pretty lucky that for research I get to travel and eat. Pretty cool R&D.”
Is there one chef you’d like to cook with? “Julia Child. Hands down. Watch any of her shows and you can feel how much fun cooking can be and still be world class. This business is supposed to be exciting and fun and emotional. Julia embodies that.”
You were the winner of Top Chef season 11. Name the all-time best cooking show. “Great Chefs, Great Cities. After I started cooking in high school, I would watch it all the time. Just chefs, in their kitchens, cooking dishes on their menus. So simple, but it gave you an idea of world-class food and what it took to produce it in a very minimalist presentation.”
What is the one tool that you always make sure to pack when you’re traveling for business? “Just a spoon. A gift from my chef de cuisine a few years ago. A gunmetal Kunz spoon. It’s like my blankie. It just keeps me comfortable and centered.”
Nicholas Elmi, is the chef and owner of Philadelphia restaurants Laurel, ITV and Royal Boucherie. He is also the winner of season 11 of culinary TV show, Top Chef. On September 27, he co-hosts the Audi FEASTIVAL in Philly that benefits arts organization FringeArts. Tickets are still available.
Interview has been condensed and edited.