Nicholas Elmi’s culinary career started on a Thursday. That was his day of the week to feed his five siblings and hard-working parents. The weekly chore became a paying gig in high school, when Elmi slung pizzas and pasta at Joseph’s Trattoria in his native Bradford, Massachusetts. And it turned into a career when he opted out of an accounting and economics program to earn a degree from the Culinary Institute of America.
After graduating in 2001, Elmi moved to Philadelphia to work under one the city’s most iconic chefs, George Perrier, at Brasserie Perrier. Elmi then left Philly to immerse himself in the New York City fine-dining scene with a stage at Daniel and posts at Lutece, Union Pacific with Chef Rocco DiSpirito, and Oceana with Rising Star Chef Chris Lee. Elmi eventually found his way back to his mentor Perrier with an executive sous chef position at Mia in Atlantic City and eventually the executive chef role at Le Bec-Fin.
Before he took over the kitchen at Le Bec-Fin, Elmi first moved to Paris to stage at Guy Savoy, a formative experience that changed his view of ingredients, purveyors, and creative process in the kitchen. He brought his renewed passion to Perrier’s flagship until the restaurant changed hands in 2012. Now chef of Rittenhouse Tavern, Elmi’s first solo restaurant is an elegant reflection of his French training and an inspiring taste of his culinary vision—ignited years ago in his parents’ kitchen.
2013 Philadelphia Rising Star Chef Nicholas Elmi
Caroline Hatchett: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Nicholas Elmi: I had to. I’m one of six children, so by my early teens, we took turns cooking. My parents worked two jobs. I had Thursdays. I started in kitchens at 15 and started professionally at 21.
CH: Did you go to culinary school?
NE: I went Bridgewater to study accounting and economics. Then I went to the CIA.
CH: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?
NE: You get out of it what you put into it. The only kitchens I worked in were Italian. I wanted to do French food. You gain a lot of knowledge in culinary school.
CH: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
NE: It's tougher now. Being a chef and cooking is so popular; you see chefs who are younger. You should treat it like a residency. Shut your mouth and learn. Wait until you're 30 until you become a chef. Focus on learning the simple stuff, and then extravagant stuff will be easier.
CH: What’s the chef community in Philadelphia like?
NE: It's tight, and everyone knows each other. We have a lot of outside chefs coming in now. It will bring more media. There have been features in Food & Wine and Saveur; there’s a bubbling food scene, which brings better chefs to town, makes it more competitive. You have to focus more. You can’t go to work and fuck around. There are so many chefs in the game now. People actually want to come and cook in Philly.
CH: What is your most important kitchen rule?
NE: Clean and Quiet. I can’t think when its noisy and am somewhat OCD about how my chefs present themselves. The way you treat your environment is the way you will treat your work. If you look clean, work clean, and focus on what you are doing, then your passion will come through on the plate.
CH: Who’s your mentor and what did you learn from him?
NE: Guy Savoy in Paris. We would get vegetables in every day and redo things every day. The respect he had for his product and the people who grow it—it's why I have great relationship with people like Ian [Brendle of Green Meadow Farm]. As long as you’re creating an environment with respect, your passion will show. Get really simple ingredients, treat them proper, and make them look good. Make things taste like what they're supposed to.
CH: Where do you most want to go for culinary travel?
NE: Back to France. I only stayed in Paris for a month and didn’t get to eat at as many places as I would like. My dream weekend would be L’Astrance; then I’d travel south to Michel Bras.
CH:What is your favorite cookbook?
NE: Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras. It was a complete game changer for the way people wrote and shot cookbooks, plus probably the most influential book of my career.
CH:What does success mean for you?
NE: Respect from your peers. If you're good at what you do, people who work with you and for you will respect you. If you worry about money right away, it’s never going to happen.
CH: Where do you see yourself in five years?
NE: That’s in flux right now. It's gone well here so far. We’ll expand on the business and get better, and grow into the museum. We’ll develop a relationship with the museum. Hopefully, we’ll focus on what we’re doing and get better.