Chef Eli Kulp was new to Philadelphia when his career really took off. Within two years, he was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine, Bon Appétit called his High Street on Market the second hottest restaurant in the country, he and was ready to open a new place, two hours away in New York. But commuting home one night, the Amtrak train he was on took a sharp turn at 100 miles an hour. After that accident, Eli travels in a wheelchair and works to reinvent himself as a chef who no longer cooks in the kitchen. He talked with Francis Lam during a live Splendid Table event at WHYY in Philadelphia.
Francis Lam: I know you from New York City. Your last job before moving to Philadelphia was as the chef at truly one of the greatest restaurants I've ever been to. It was called Torrisi Italian Specialties. If you don't know it, it was talked about in the press as the food was described as fancied up Italian-American food. I don't think that was exactly right. It had a lot of Italian-American signifiers: there was mozzarella, there was a porch, with boxing gloves and Stella D'oro breadsticks on the wall. It was in a tiny deli space.
Eli Kulp: It was about 450 square feet.
FL: I was so amazed by the food you were making there. There is this idea of when you say “Italian-American food,” people think that means chicken parmesan and all these stereotypical dishes. But it was amazing to me was it showed that side of itself, but to me it always felt like the inspiration was about the American part of Italian-American. It was a restaurant that took its inspiration from America and the neighborhood it was in, a neighborhood called NoLita, which is north of Little Italy but very close to Chinatown and the Lower East Side – which was an incredible historic center of immigration in New York City. Waves and waves of Irish, German, and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, plus Chinese and Dominican communities of all came through the Lower East Side. And so the dishes at Torrisi were things like a salad of cucumbers with fresh cucumber and quarter-sour pickles and half-sour pickles and full-sour pickles with a coriander vinaigrette. All of the sudden you're like, “Oh, my god. I'm eating a Jewish pickle barrel. I also remember a cavatelli and spicy beef ragu with a little bit of turmeric and the cavatelli. I'm eating this Italian pasta dish, but I’m thinking that it’s like a Jamaican beef patty. The food was brilliant because there were references that all these other neighborhoods in the city. Clearly, you had taken so much inspiration and researched, and kept filtering them through this other lens. It was a little bit like of a trompe-l'œil effect. Then you moved here to Philadelphia to become the chef at Fork restaurant. Did you take that same mentality when you were cooking here? What inspiration did you find when you got here?
EK: Being a part of Torrisi for those two years before I came down here was probably the most formative as far as learning how to take a thought, giving it some sort of background, and then put it on a plate. The first thing I did when I got the job here in Philly was to search and ask, “What is Philadelphia cuisine?” Because, of course, you have soft pretzels, cheesesteaks and whoopie pies. I started digging deeper and I saw things that were really special. I started to think about how I could take the same spectrum that we were looking through at the food at Torrisi and applying it to Philadelphia.
As I discovered more and more – while spending time down here – the main thing was the amazing proximity to very passionate, dedicated farmers and farm systems. Whether it was a technique in taking a really great potato and taking the soil from that farm or putting aromatics with the soil like cinnamon, garlic, and ginger and then cooking the potatoes in the dirt that came from the farm. That would be another idea that came because the farmers are coming into your kitchen and you're able to talk with them directly.
In New York, you would have to go to the market on either Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday, fight the crowds, and if you can help it, try not to spend 10 bucks on a cab getting back to the restaurant. I realized here in Philadelphia the relationship with the farmers and the farms was so much closer than what it was in New York. That was really an inspiration because then they started bringing me their ideas. These amazing ideas would come out of these relationships with the farmers.
FL: You had tremendous success quickly upon arrival. Within two years you had open the High Street on Market, which is fabulous and was named Bon Appétit’s Best New Restaurant. You had plans to open a High Street in New York. You were on the rise in terms of your career trajectory. You suffer a tremendous accident. And now you're in the mode of going from an ascending empire builder to having to think about whether or not you'll ever stand in the kitchen and cook again. You've spent a lot of time healing physically, emotionally, and mentally, thinking a lot about what it now means to be a chef who doesn't have use of his body in the same way. But you say that in November of 2016 you felt like you had a bit of a switch, and you could feel like yourself again or maybe feel like a new version of yourself. What was that switch?
EK: That was about 18 months after the accident with six months of inpatient rehab from Philadelphia to New York to Atlanta trying to put myself in the best position to recover the best I possibly could. The acute stress that you're under in those first six months – not just for me, but for my family and everything else that goes around with it – was absolutely tremendous.
Just to rewind a little bit here. We signed the lease for the New York restaurant in March of 2015. I got hurt two and a half months later. So, the restaurant was just starting the process of the construction and all of that. Getting back to New York and this dream of mine to have this restaurant in New York – I was very excited about it. I really saw the company going. When I got back, what it represented to me was lost now. Because it was one thing; I was working like crazy, going back and forth, and I felt like my job almost killed me, literally. The 18 months after getting hurt is really just about figuring out life again. You have to figure out how to do everything again. How you are going to live. How are you going to survive. Just getting everything lined up. With rehab three or four days a week you don't have time to focus on anything but that. It was about 18 months after when something clicked in me. I don't know what the real impetus for it was. But I knew at that point I had to stop feeling sorry for myself. I had to figure out how to get back in the mix, how to survive on my own, and try to make the most of it. My son was three and a half at the time; you know, this kid isn’t going to wait around for you. I had to come to grasp with that and say, “Okay, it’s not going to be what I thought it was going to be, but I can make the most out of it.” And then getting back in the kitchen a little more, forcing myself back in the public, and a ton of therapy to go along with that. Getting back into it was important; I feel like I’m succeeding in that now.
FL: In what ways are you a better chef now than you were before your accident?
EK: You have to adjust. You have to evolve. Obviously, being in the kitchen day in and day out is not going to be like it was. As far as being better, it's hard to say exactly what I'm better at. I have to be able to teach, explain, and talk about food in a different way. If I have an idea in my head of a dish, I have to be very careful and I'm learning about ways to describe that dish so that it’s as close as I can get to how I see it and I taste it in my head. Sometimes they are successes, and sometimes not. It is always a learning process.
FL: I was reading your old colleague Rich Torissi, and he said that “Eli is this huge dude, and you could always feel how he could sense his own presence in a room.” I think that is such a tremendously powerful thing, when you have an awareness not just of yourself but how your presence in a room influences the dynamic. I think to be a great communicator it's about making connections and making connections about empathy. It's about recognizing what your presence does to and with the other people that you're talking to. What you're describing now is a focus on communication rather than doing. Instead of having you see me do this thing, let me talk with you. Let me mentor you. It sounds like that's a thing that you can do; that's a thing that is a strength and a power of yours.
EK: That's something I still take a lot of pride in. With the way I always ran my kitchens, I use the analogy of a good sports team. Everybody has their role. Everybody has their job to do. If everybody does that we succeed together. That's no different now. For me to suggest that the satisfaction is the same, I think that wouldn't be genuine. There is still a lot of what was that I missed every day. By no means is it something that I think anything will ever take its place. It's just about how I fill up the rest of the time with other inspirations. Those things are going to give my life the purpose that I had with food. Being in the kitchen, leading the team to battle every day; those are the areas where I'm now working on filling those in other ways.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.