Two young talents are the latest Philadelphia chefs to try their luck at reality TV in hopes of launching themselves as culinary stars before a nation of celeb-hungry viewers.
Jason Cichonski and Nicholas Elmi, both of whom have cooked at some of the finest restaurants in the city, will be competing against each other and 15 other contestants from around the country on Top Chef, Bravo's popular cooking show that returns for its 11th season on Oct. 2.
Cichonski, 29, is the chef and co-owner of Ela Restaurant in Queen Village and previously was executive chef at the Rittenhouse Hotel. Elmi, 33, made his name on the Philadelphia culinary scene with stints at Rittenhouse Tavern and Le Bec-Fin.
The two men have known each other for quite some time, but for a while the relationship was less than friendly. As young, ambitious chefs making their bones in the city's top kitchens, they were competitive. So it seems counterintuitive that it took a cooking competition to turn them into real friends.
Because Top Chef keeps the selection process so tightly under wraps, seeing each other on the first day was a complete surprise to both - but an awesome one. "I had a safety net right there," Cichonski said. "Something that made me comfortable, that I knew I could depend on."
The two Philly chefs shared bunk beds in the Top Chef mansion, but the bromance was put on hold in the kitchen. "At the end of the day, it's a competition. J and I aren't there to hang out and be bros and be friendly," Elmi said. "We're there to essentially kick each other's ass if we have to."
The phone call about Top Chef came last winter for Cichonski. He'd already turned down the show several times because he was too busy to take time away for that long. This time, some of his friends intervened. Jennifer Carroll, a Top Chef alum, called Cichonski to tell him to "stop being stupid," as he put it. "She played into my ego," he said, "and finally won me over."
For Elmi, good timing and his wife's support were instrumental in his decision to take part in the show. The competition fell right between Elmi's leaving his prior gig at Rittenhouse Tavern in May and the opening of his next venture, Laurel, this fall.
From the start, both Cichonski and Elmi felt their solid training and experience in some of Philadelphia's finest kitchens would be advantageous. "There's not many cultures and foods that I haven't touched on. There's not many techniques or ingredients that I haven't worked with," Cichonski said. "I knew going in that there wasn't much they were going to be able to throw at me that I couldn't make taste good."
Elmi also felt well prepared for the high pressure of the Top Chef kitchen. "I trust myself," he said. "I'm at the point in my career where I know who I am, not only as a person but as a chef. I don't mind sharing that with other people."
On the show, Elmi thinks he might come off as the stern one. "Anyone who's ever worked with me or knows me in the kitchen knows I'm relatively intense," he said. But Elmi explained that his intensity had deeper roots during the competition. "If I was going to be away from my wife and two babies for that long a period of time, I wanted to make it worth something," he said.
Cichonski, on the other hand, is worried about not appearing serious enough. "I'm not unattractive," he said. "I care about my personal appearance: I make sure my hair is done well and I try to dress well . . . That pretty boy image . . . can come off as me being arrogant or a douchebag." While Cichonski is confident that people who know him won't get the wrong idea, he admits it "might be a little more difficult to convince the world on TV."
After jetting back and forth from New Orleans, where this season of Top Chef takes place, to New York and Los Angeles for additional filming, the boys are glad to be home. "I moved to Philadelphia 13 years ago and immediately fell in love with the city," Elmi said. "I see myself being here for the rest of my life."
Both chefs are quick to praise Philadelphia's culinary scene. "The best part about it is the camaraderie that all the chefs have here," Cichonski said. "We all help each other out. It's not really a competition. We want the culinary scene to grow in the city."
But what if it was a competition? Who would come out on top in a hypothetical Top Chef competition among only local Philly chefs?
"Me!" said Cichonski.
But Elmi concedes to Georges Perrier. "He's still the king," he said.