They came for Eli.
Hundreds of food lovers and dozens of chefs helped raise more than $130,000 Thursday night at a fund-raiser at Fork Restaurant for Eli Kulp, one of the city's most promising and celebrated chefs, who was paralyzed in the May 12 crash of Amtrak Train 188.
Thursday night's benefit - with $25,000 in donations from a silent auction - will be combined with $49,000 raised previously to help offset medical expenses for Kulp, 37, who has been hospitalized in an inpatient rehabilitation facility in New York City.
"The words thank you can't begin to express the amount of gratitude my family has tonight," said his wife, Marisa, adding, "It's bittersweet that Eli can't be here with us tonight to feel the love in this room.
"I can assure you all that he's fighting hard, the hardest fight of his life. When I first met him 10 years ago, he was just graduating from culinary school, and I fell in love with his ambition and his drive to succeed and his determination. That same determination and passion is what's going to get him back in the kitchen and back to the things that he loves, like his son, and myself, and everybody here in the community of Philadelphia."
The benefit was organized by Ellen Yin, co-owner of Fork and High Street with Kulp, who is executive chef at both Old City restaurants. She told the staffs Thursday night, "What you've all been doing for the past two months inspires me to be strong."
Kulp's career was soaring when the derailment fractured his spine.
Food & Wine magazine named him a "Best New Chef 2014," while Bon Appetit last year dubbed High Street the "No. 2 Best New Restaurant in America." Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan named him Chef of the Year in his 2013 "The Year in Bells" roundup.
Kulp is also executive chef at a.kitchen + bar on 18th Street and co-owner of High Street Hospitality Group, and was overseeing the opening of a High Street in Manhattan scheduled for this fall.
Kulp has sued Amtrak over the accident, in which eight people died and more than 200 were injured when the train left the tracks in Port Richmond. The train was traveling more than 100 m.p.h. through a curve where the speed limit is 50. Investigators are still trying to determine why.
According to the suit, filed last month in federal court, Kulp was sitting in the second car and suffered a spinal fracture that required surgery. "As a result of the accident," the suit says, "Mr. Kulp has been left paralyzed" and "with disabilities that will in the future . . . incapacitate him."
Marisa Kulp is also a plaintiff in the suit, which claims she has suffered the loss of Eli as an active husband, father, and provider. According to the suit, they have a 3-year-old son, Dylan.
"We expect Amtrak to take full responsibility for the damage that they have caused to the Kulp family," said Benedict P. Morelli, their lawyer, who was also at the benefit.
More than 300 tickets were sold for $200 apiece, with VIP tickets going for $350. Chefs from more than 25 top restaurants cooked for guests, and beverages were donated by local breweries, wine merchants, and distilleries, from Yards and Victory Brewing to Bluecoat Gin.
The dishes included Sawagani river crabs swimming in club soda, then fried with sea salt; grilled lamb rubbed with coffee, black pepper, and vegetable ash; beef marinated and grilled in chimichurri sauce; smoked salmon mousse tartlets with pickled peaches; and Jersey corn esquites.
Tracie Muir of Moorestown, a regular at Fork, bought a ticket with her friend Hilary Stahlecker.
"He's really helped the food in Philadelphia be known around the world," Muir said.
As he worked over a hot grill, Andrew Oliva, a line cook at Fork, said, "I owe Chef Eli my entire culinary career. He had total faith in me. I would do anything for him."
Oliva said one of the qualities that make Kulp a great chef, in addition to his relentless push for improvement, is his decision to bring Pennsylvania Dutch cooking to the forefront.
"I think he fell in love with the city, and it's important to showcase where the food comes from," added another line cook, Peter Bresnahan.
John Patterson, Fork's chef de cuisine, said one of Kulp's gifts as a chef is to find new ways to bring flavor from an ingredient, even something as simple as a bean. Patterson said he had visited Kulp in New York.
"It's going to be a very long road back," Patterson said. "Much like he was in the kitchen, he's pushing every day to get better."
The participating chefs said the decision to come was easy.
"Trying to help out a friend," said Brad Spence of Amis.
"This is the least we can do," said Josh Lawler of the Farm and Fisherman. "He's one of our own."
Kulp's mother, Lia Kulp, is from Mossyrock, Wash., where her son was raised, and which only recently got its first traffic light. She has been in New York City since the accident.
"This is the first time I've been away from Eli," she said. "The amount of support is overwhelming. I've seen so many people here tonight that I've seen up there." Her husband stayed in New York with their son.
Marisa Kulp's parents, Richard and Carmelette Rotella of Niagara Falls, N.Y., also attended.
"In the middle of this horror, what we've been experiencing is a wonderful outpouring of goodness and graciousness," Richard Rotella said. "It has put a great deal of light into our lives and Eli's as well."
Later in the evening was the silent auction, with more than 20 items including all-access passes to the 2016 Aspen Food and Wine Classic and tickets to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival with a condo on the beach.