Now that he has won Season 11 of Top Chef - the Bravo culinary challenge - Nicholas Elmi has set his sights on what he believes is a bigger prize:
A four-bell review from The Inquirer's Craig LaBan.
So happens that Elmi's new restaurant, Laurel, will be reviewed Sunday in the paper.
Four bells is a bigger deal than the accolades, the $125,000 and the spread in Food & Wine magazine? "I will give up everything I have to give up to get there," Elmi told me early Thursday, about an hour after the Top Chef finale was shown on the East Coast.
(Some people insist that newspaper critics don't matter anymore.)
Laurel, a salon-size French-influenced BYOB on the red-hot Passyunk Avenue strip, might appear to be an unlikely star vehicle for Elmi, who was the last chef at the original Le Bec-Fin (two bells) and the opening chef at Rittenhouse Tavern (three bells).
Elmi opened Laurel in November, a month after the finale was taped after a season in New Orleans, and surely knew that the publicity would drive business. As it is, Laurel is one of the city's most difficult tables to reserve, by dint of its 22 seats and five-night-a-week dinner schedule. When Elmi and his crew return from a few days off on Friday, all hell will have broken loose.
Why not think bigger, grander? Maybe 80 seats with a bar? He said he and his business partner, Philadelphia lawyer Jonathan Cohen, decided that smaller and more focused was the way to go. "I know exactly what I want to do," Elmi said. "And that is focus intensively on the food and the customer."
Elmi, 33, a Massachusetts native (one of six kids) who lives with his wife, Kristen, and two kids in Collingswood, found it quite easy not to spill the beans about his good fortune. "When you see the contract, it's pretty easy to hold that secret," he said.
Elmi was presented as the clear underdog all season. Tom Colicchio, the show's executive producer and head judge, acknowledged on the finale that Elmi peaked at the right time.
For the finale, filmed in Hawaii, Elmi selected his fellow Philadelphian and castmate, Jason Cichonski, as his sous chef for the challenges, along with ousted contestants Louis Maldonado and Brian Huskey. It was Cichonski's noodles made from scallop that seemed to impress most of the judges.
Elmi said his final competitor Nina Compton, 34, the St. Lucia-born chef de cuisine at Scarpetta Miami in the Fontainebleu hotel, remain great friends.
He found that he was nervous whenever he watched the series, and never watched in real time on Wednesday nights. "I've got a restaurant to run!" he said. "I don't have time to watch TV." He and Kristen watched on weekends.
With the win, Philadelphia is now home to two Top Chefs. Kevin Sbraga, who owns Sbraga and The Fat Ham restaurants, won Top Chef's seventh season, in 2010.