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Top Honors

by Erica Bauwens

Top Chef Season 11 winner and Collingswood local Nicholas Elmi talks kitchen competition, life off-camera and why he loves to call South Jersey home.

There are few reality television shows with the reputation for success and standing power like Bravo’s Top Chef. The cooking competition pits some of the country’s best chefs against each other in a series of challenges that test their skills in the most extreme settings, and has led past winners to James Beard Awards and tremendous acclaim.

Chef Nicholas Elmi, the owner of the brand new Laurel in Philadelphia, took the top prize at the start of February. Elmi was a stand-out from the beginning of competition, making his way through months of competition in New Orleans before claiming the top prize in Maui. These days, when he’s not creating French/American dishes at his intimate BYOB, Elmi calls Collingswood home, alongside his wife and young daughter.

This is the second winner in the show’s 11 seasons with South Jersey roots, the first being Willingboro’s Kevin Sbraga in 2011. We spoke with Elmi after his big win to get the behind-the-scenes scoop on the competition, and to hear what the family man has to say about his life outside of the kitchen.

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE What was the hardest part of the competition in Top Chef?
NICHOLAS ELMI: I think just being pulled away from your support system for that period of time. You’re and adult but you have to kind of act like you’re going back to college. You’re in apartment with 18 other people that you don’t know. And despite that fact that you’re all cordial to each other, everyone is there to win. And in your free time there is very little communication with the outside world: We don’t have phones, or computers or television.

SJM: Did you watch the show after it aired? What were your thoughts of what they showed on TV?
NE: I generally didn’t watch it until Saturday night or Sunday. I’m very much involved with the restaurant right now, and I think I got to watch it twice in real time. But when the weekend came I would sit down and watch it with my wife. Even though I knew what happened every week you still get a pit in your stomach and you get a little nervous about what you’ll see.

SJM: What is one thing that viewers might not have seen?
NE: I guess what people don’t understand is that it takes two or three days to film one show. So they’re shooting for 36 hours to grab 42 minutes, and they’re going to get the best 42 minutes from that time. I think the biggest challenge is outside the kitchen. Once we’re done cooking we just have to wait and wait and wait for the production crew to pack up and move. It’s a crew of 100 people and when you’re done your job it’s time for them to do theirs. The waiting was the hardest part.

SJM: One thing we hear about a lot from chefs in competition is how tough adjusting to a new kitchen is. And on Top Chef you’re in a new kitchen every week—sometimes even outside. What was your toughest challenge?
NE: I think that’s where I was fortunate, because I can adapt really quickly and think on my feet in a lot of different situations. Obviously every single challenge is different, and once I step into the kitchen that’s when I can sort of relax. But the hardest challenge was the challenge at Dooky Chase’s [Restaurant] because it was so close to home. I’m relatively pragmatic and for that challenge you have to think about what’s important to you, and who you’re doing it for and who you could get sent home for.

SJM: And that challenge, where you cooked your daughter’s favorite food gnocchi, was one of your strongest points in competition.
NE: Every time I thought, ‘I’m going to get sent home,’ I ended up doing a really good job, and when I thought I did well I didn’t. You really have no idea what’s going to happen.

SJM: What are the judges like off the camera?
NE: We didn’t have a lot chances to talk to the judges off camera, because they wanted to make the competition about the food. But the one we spent some time with was Emeril [Lagasse], and he was the sweetest, most welcoming man you’ll ever meet. But we didn’t spend too much time with the judges. I think some people get lost on this part of the show; it’s what went onto the final plate that matters every week.

SJM: Where do you like to eat around South Jersey?
NE: Joey Baldino is amazing. Zeppoli is our favorite place. My wife and I like to frequent that place often. Joey and I met when we worked together and have been friends ever since.

SJM: What do you like about living in Collingswood?
NE: We chose Collingswood because at the time… I had taken a job at Le Bec-Fin and I was driving into Philadelphia, and we wanted to find a place that was very family-centric. We’ve outgrown our house very quickly and are looking for something new, but we want to stay in this area. I think Collingswood is a great example of a young, family-oriented town, with a great dining scene that’s up and coming. It’s very much what we wanted.

SJM: You mentioned on the show that you met your wife in Atlantic City. Is there a story behind that meeting?
NE: It was through friends, I moved down there because I was working for Georges Perrier and he opened up a place at Caesars, and she was working for a friend and we ended up accidentally meeting. It was very organic, from meeting to dating to where we are now. When you meet that person you just know, and luckily I was able to hold onto her.

SJM: Have you gotten recognized around town since the big win?
NE: I got recognized a few times up in New York City, but around town it’s been pretty cold. I’ve had to wear hats and coats so I don’t think anyone can see me too well. But I’m happy about that, I’m not that guy that enjoys that.

SJM: Have you ever thought about following Philly chefs like Marc Vetri and Jose Garces and opening a South Jersey restaurant?
NE: We’ll see what happens. I would never say no to anything, and I think South Jersey is a booming area right now. Especially for my wife and I, it fits our mold. We like to stay where we live, and I’d completely be open to something in the future. But right now I’m really focused on Laurel.

SJM: You’re the second South Jerseyan to win Top Chef, following Kevin Sbraga in 2011. Is there something in the “wooder?”
NE: When my daughter comes home from school saying “wooder” I always correct her! But maybe there is. Kevin [Sbraga] is a good friend of mine, and we have the same mentality. We’re blue collar guys, and a lot of the work that we do is for our families and we’re determined. We want to go out there and we want to do the best job that we can.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 12 March, 2014).
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