You may not know the name Ed Konrad unless you're involved in the restaurant business downtown.
For a decade, minus a couple of years, the Port Richmond-bred Konrad, 32, has been the No. 2 of chef Nicholas Elmi — the Top Chef winner who owns South Philadelphia's Laurel and its bar, In the Valley, and who also heads the kitchen at Old City's Royal Boucherie.
While Elmi has taken on the bigger-picture role of restaurateur, it's Konrad who works the line every night, starting (and putting out) the fires, touching every table.
Konrad, a graduate of Mercy Vocational Tech, got an associate's degree from Johnson and Wales University, where he met his now-wife, Keri Lynn, a pastry chef. He came home right away, taking a low-level cooking job at Le Bec-Fin under Pierre Calmels and Georges Perrier. When Calmels left — he now owns Bibou in South Philadelphia — Elmi inherited Konrad.
But the days of Le Bec-Fin were numbered. Just before Perrier pulled the plug in 2012, the Konrads decamped for New York City. He quickly rose to second-in-command at Del Posto, the swish Italian owned by Joseph and Lidia Bastianich.
As the Konrads realized they couldn't afford New York, Elmi and his business partner, Jonathan Cohen, lured them back to Philadelphia with the news that Elmi was opening Laurel. Eddie and Keri Lynn have a son, Roman, 2.
Like many chefs, Konrad dreams. But he seems to be happy where he is for now.
When did you realize you liked cooking?
I don't know. I grew up around food but not in this whole, 'Oh, I was standing by my grandmother's leg' kind of thing. It was more like my family enjoyed food, my parents watched the Food Network, and my great-grandfather was a chef, but nobody was holding him with high regard. Everybody liked eating. We're 'diet Polish.' I grew up in that food culture, albeit very Americanized. I used to watch Iron Chef and stuff with my parents and thought it was awesome. Then I got to high school. I wanted to be an artist my whole life. My parents were like, 'You're not going to make any money.' I went to vocational school because my parents both did, and they thought it was a good idea to learn a trade. As soon as I walked into the kitchen, I was like, 'That's what I want to do.'
When did you realize it could become a career?
When I started in high school, we had to cook every day. We were cooking and learning but we were actually putting out food. I just felt like I was good at it. I enjoyed doing it. I liked the culture of it. I like the fire. I like the speed. I like the sharp knives. It just felt right. I just felt like I needed to do that. It was good for my personality. I can't sit down for a long time and do computer work. I like to do stuff with my hands. My attention span maybe is better because it's like instant gratification, cooking. I don't think I could be a baker or anything like that. I don't think I have patience for it, but I create something with my hands and immediately cook it, it immediately happens. It's instant gratification. Give it to the guests. Making them happy makes me happy.
What kind of goals do you have now?
I don't necessarily want to do the 'South Philly rowhome' thing. I will, if the opportunity presents itself correctly. I'm just not in a rush. I love my job. I get to do the food, I get to have my team, and it's great. It opens up Nick to do other things. We have a good relationship. At the same time, I want to feel some kind of ownership, some real ownership. I obviously pretend like I own the place, because I think that's what you should do. Any sous-chef or chef de cuisine should really, truly take ownership of what they're doing. I'm just kind of patiently waiting for the right thing to come along. It's tough because I love what we're doing here. This is what I like to do. I like the style of it, I like the control of it, but it's not mine. I want my own place at some point.
I want something small, something likable. Maybe a little bigger, a little more casual. Here's the thing: I love the execution of the food, the precision of the food, making things beautiful and making them simple, but that's hard to do, the simple, beautiful, concise food.
I would like to have that idea toward food, but in a more casual setting that's still maybe the same format. Maybe a smaller tasting menu or something a little more affordable. All I know is I want to cook. The reason I've been here for so long is because there's nothing like this in the city.
Tell me about that.
Well, who is doing a seven-, eight-course tasting menu? The only person that does tasting menu only at this kind of level would be Vetri. That's my biggest problem with Philly. … Philly just still kind of has that blue-collar attitude, and people just don't seem to appreciate different ways of eating.
Why do you think that is?
I think it's because when people hear 'tasting menu,' people want what they want, and more so in Philly, because people will go out and they're like, 'I want this food the way I like it when I want it.' That's their idea of a good restaurant. Think about the general population of Philadelphia. They want to go out and do an Italian place because they get the pasta they like and they get the pizza they like. There are young professionals, the new young people with different appetites, and I feel like the general population is becoming more educated and enjoying new things. There's no doubt about it, but I still think, at the end of the day, when you say 'tasting menu,' people don't like the idea of just being forced into it. They don't see it as much as an experience as they should. You sit down, you don't have any choices, or maybe some choices.
The tasting menu is just a clear, concise idea that the kitchen has, what they want to do, and they can perform it at the level they think they can perform the highest at. Then you sit down and it's an experience. It's like going to the theater. You sit down, you get taken care of hand and foot. Everything should be pretty seamless, and everybody should be really happy about it. Maybe there's some dishes you don't like and maybe there's some dishes that the other person likes. That's what I like about it. It's this whole different experience of sitting down.
There's also a sticker-shock problem. At Laurel now, it's $115.
Do you think it’s a control thing, like people don’t want to be told what to eat? I mean, a recent menu started with kasu-cured kanpachi, green peaches, and sea buckthorn, followed by braised Burgundy snails, Pennsylvania polenta, shiitake mushroom, truffle, and hominy.
I understand that, and I can see why it's not for everybody, but I think that people just need to kind of think about it more. Maybe for that night, you just kind of loosen up a little bit. Go out and just have the experience. Go out and do it, spend the money, eat food maybe you wouldn't normally eat, maybe food you don't like. Even the dishes you don't like start a conversation. Good or bad, either way, it's engaging with guests.
How has your home eating changed since Roman has come along?
Sundays I try to cook something. He's at that age where he chooses when he's going to be picky. When he's hungry and he's in a good mood, he'll eat anything. He's come here and eaten ragout, raw oysters, caviar, foie gras. Then there's some days where I can't even get him to eat broccoli, and he loves broccoli. He's just a baby. We try to feed him as best as we can. He doesn't drink soda; we don't feed him snacks. He has a wholesome core diet.
How has the business changed in the last five years?
Five years in, we're not the hot new restaurant anymore, which isn't a bad thing, but I think that there's so much happening now. The city is blowing up. Every neighborhood is getting their own pop; new restaurants are opening left and right. That takes away from everybody because Philly doesn't have this never-ending supply of customers like New York or L.A. We're all fighting for the same pie, so to speak. I think that all things will come and go and fizzle in and out. I think the city is getting better, and I think it's going to get busier and it's going to become more of a destination city. I can see it happening now, but it's going to take some time. The best part about Philly is, for better or for worse, it's always changing.
For us specifically, we've slowed down a little bit. I talk to so many people about how they can't get in. I think that actually hurts. People just don't think they can get in so they don't even try. Now we have all these openings during the beginning of the week. I don't know how you tell people, 'Hey, you can come in. It's Philly. We're not impossible to get into anymore.' We're in that fifth year. We're better than we've ever been before, but we're a little slower than we've been, which doesn't make sense.
What do you think the public needs to know about chefs and working in a kitchen these days?
People have to realize that there are a lot of people behind the chefs who are working way too hard to give you that experience.
Some people don't see that. They want to go to a restaurant, immediately start yelping about something little they saw. They don't realize there's a whole group of people that really, truly care.
Our dishwasher, Joe — it's 100 degrees outside, he's got his hands in ripping hot water. People don't understand the value of food. They don't understand why things are expensive or why the menu is what it is. It's because we have to charge this much money so we can pay everybody and keep the place running and take care of these people that care this much. When people are like, 'Well, why is this meal $115?' Well, because we've got to pay for the food and we've got to pay for all the people that are doing it.
I would like to know more about business. I've spent my whole life just cooking. One of the reasons why I loved coming back to Philly, [as] opposed to staying at Del Posto is that being at Del Posto was like being on a yacht. You didn't feel any of the ebb and flow; you didn't feel the waves. It was like you're being in a building on the water.
Here, it's like a dinghy. You feel everything, every little crash, every little bump. It's more real that way. I look out, walk out through the dining room. You're walking through the dining room to see everybody's face. People come in the kitchen all the time, just pop their head, say, 'What's up?' It's not like that in those kitchens. Here, when the servers are in the [weeds], cooks run the food [to the tables]. It's just more real, more visceral. It's more gritty.