Eli Kulp had chosen his spot. And in the darkest moments following the Amtrak derailment that left the celebrated Fork chef paralyzed in May 2015, a particular stretch beside the East River without a railing lingered in his mind as the place to end his life.
“You know, suicidal thoughts came in," he said, recalling his rehab in New York City. “The spot where I could essentially drive me and my wheelchair into the river became a fascination of sorts.”
Kulp’s reedy voice, now calm and brushed with a folksy gravel, reveals this intensely private thought in the first episode of the CHEF Radio Podcast, his project that launched April 1.
It’s a prelude to an inspiring comeback for Kulp in his new role as an interview host leading important dialogues with colleagues about their passions, challenges, and the future of the food industry they love. And it’s one of several chilling moments in the segment “Eli’s Story” that vividly details the incident that changed his life.
The shudder of the train. The sudden quiet. Catapulting into a luggage rack at 100 mph. Yelling for help from the darkness beneath the rubble, then realizing he could hardly speak: “I thought I was done, I thought it was lights out ... .”
Kulp, 42, remains a quadriplegic who will never run a kitchen again quite like he once did at Fork and High Street on Market, which in 2014 was named one of the best new restaurants in America by Bon Appétit: “Struggling with this new reality was not what I wanted. I couldn’t be in the kitchen all day, couldn’t be cooking with my hands, and there was a lot of grief.”
But Kulp has found his voice again in a big way with this podcast from Philly’s Radiokismet, a podcast studio at 10th and Spring Garden where executive producer Christopher Plant says Kulp’s compelling story has found a powerful outlet to inspire others. “There’s so much more that Eli Kulp has to give the world.”
Kulp raises broader issues of accessibility, sustainability, and social justice at the core of his podcast, whose name is an acronym for Cooking, Hospitality, Environment, and Food. It’s a project that’s helped Kulp feel impactful and “enjoy life again,” he said.
Its steady message of perseverance and self-reinvention feels particularly relevant now as the restaurant industry is decimated by massive layoffs due to the coronavirus pandemic. That includes most of the 150-plus employees at the five restaurants run by the High Street Hospitality Group, of which Kulp is still a partner.
“Right now, we’re in the acute triage phase of the coronavirus,” said Kulp. “We just sustained the injury and we don’t know what the other side is going to look like. The recovery and the rehab. People are going to go through identity shifts. ... People are going to lose their livelihoods and get hurt.”
“But if anything else, I hope people listen to this and they can sort of feel the resilience and the struggle it took [for me] to get back,” Kulp tells chef Joey Baldino of Zeppoli and Palizzi Social Club on Episode Six.
It has been a long climb for Kulp. His marriage dissolved in the aftermath of the accident. They moved back to Philadelphia to raise their son Dylan, now 8. Although Kulp remains a significant contributor to his company, he came to view his more passive role early on with a tinge of resentment.
“I had lost the desire to even be in the kitchen," he says. “I had blamed my ambitions and my want to always have more for this accident, and it got to the point where I turned my back and decided I didn’t want anything to do with it.”
The vulnerability Kulp shares on the podcast sets the tone for guests to open up in a way that feels natural and unfiltered, like listening in on colleagues after work.
“He’s one of us., ... he’s one of the most cerebral chefs I’ve ever known” says Nicholas Elmi of Laurel and Royal Boucherie. “His approach just allows you to relax.”
In his episode, Elmi shares the “soul-crushing” realization that his mentor, Georges Perrier, was not going to sell him Le Bec-Fin, followed by the embarrassment of being fired in front of his staff by the new owners. His own resurgence — winning Top Chef and then four bells at Laurel — is tempered by his account of getting sober.
“My wife [asked] me: ‘When was the last time you weren’t drunk?’ ” Elmi said. “I couldn’t remember not having a drink for a day. And it made me break down and start crying,” he said, taking an audible pause "I’m choked up now.”
Jennifer Carroll of Spice Finch talks about her experiences with misogyny in the kitchen, a culture Kulp concedes he knew well: “What I saw as a young cook from my chefs was crazy. You’re almost baptized in this misogyny.”
Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau talk about the early stigma of being regarded simply as “vegetarian chefs,” rather than the visionary pros they’ve proven to be at the root of a national movement. Joey Baldino shares the pride of growing up Italian American in South Philly, where Sunday gravy at home is still sacred.
“To do [Sunday gravy] at a restaurant just doesn’t seem right for me," says the chef of Zeppoli and Palizzi Social Club. "It shouldn’t be all over Instagram, ... and you shouldn’t charge money for it. It should be something you have with your family.”
“Those principles!” Kulp chimes in admiringly.
Kulp’s business partner, Ellen Yin, is hardly surprised by his ability to get his guests to open up.
“I remember interviewing him, but he ended up interviewing me," she says of recruiting him in 2012. "He asked, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?' And I was, like, ‘Oh, me? I want to be at the top. Of course, I want to be the best!’ ”
Kulp was, indeed, the key to Fork’s and High Street’s subsequent ascent, with a dramatic culinary style that left an indelible mark on those who ate it.
“Your duck meatballs are so damn good!" gushes Michael Solomonov in episode eight.
“I miss his cooking so much,” says Yin wistfully.
There was a moment in 2019 when Kulp seemed on the cusp of making a triumphant return. He took over the kitchen out of necessity to fill the void while Fork was between chefs, and directed the staff and menu for six months.
“It felt really great, actually," he said. “I hadn’t run that kitchen since I got hurt.”
But it also became clear, as Yin made constant trips to the basement to FaceTime with Kulp from the walk-in, that the physical limitations were too much: "We all knew it wasn’t sustainable, because Eli also had already shifted priorities,” said Yin.
“Behind the line, you need somebody that can be hands-on sometimes when language doesn’t translate," she said.
Kulp confesses on the podcast his continued frustrations, but also the importance of resourcefulness.
“All I want to do is stand at the pass, plate food, and see the look on the diners’ faces....That was my identity for 27 years,” he says. “But you have to find areas you’re still very capable in, where you’re still able to make a difference."