“Top Chef ” Season 11 winner Nicholas Elmi was born and raised in Massachusetts, but his Philly roots go deep. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he moved to Philadelphia to work with Georges Perrier, who would become his mentor. From there, Elmi staged at illustrious kitchens from Daniel in New York to Guy Savoy in Paris. But the City of Brotherly Love captured his heart, and he eventually settled here as chef de cuisine at Perrier’s famous Le Bec-Fin.
These days, Elmi keeps busy at his acclaimed fine-dining spot, Laurel, intimate In the Valley, and his ode to the classic tavern, Royal Boucherie, where a fun-loving crowd digs into hearty fare like braised lamb shank to a soundtrack that veers from Ella Fitzgerald to Arcade Fire. Recently, Elmi took a few moments to talk with WhereTraveler about his adopted home, the culinary world and travel.
Q: How did “Top Chef” change you as a chef?
A: Being on and winning “Top Chef ” just made me trust myself a little bit more and gave me the confidence to open my own restaurants—not continue working for someone else.
Q: Who are your culinary heroes and what lessons from them continue to keep you going?
Guy Savoy. Marc Vetri. Eric Ripert. Sustained excellence is really important to me, and these guys continue to be on the top of their game year after year.
Q: Why did you choose to make Philadelphia your home and the place for your first restaurant?
A: I moved to Philadelphia when I was 19 and fell in love with the city immediately. I tried leaving several times. I lived in New York City, Paris and Atlantic City for God’s sake! I just kept getting drawn back to Philly. It’s such a real city. I love the honesty of the people here.
Q: How would you describe Philadelphia’s food scene to someone new to it?
A: Beyond the diversity of the city and the food, it would have to be the quality of the chefs who live and work here. Some of the best chefs in the country live here, whether they’re originally from Philly or a transplant.
Q: How do you like to spend your down time around town?
A: I like to spend it walking around the city on a Sunday with the family. We never have an agenda but always end up doing some- thing fun. Candy in Old City, light festival in Chinatown, ice skating at the pier. There’s always something fun going on in Philadelphia.
Q: What are some locals-in-the- know spots you would recommend to people visiting Philadelphia for the first time?
A: Palizzi Social Club has the best Italian/American food in the city. But you have to be a member!
Q: What’s your favorite place in the world to visit? What makes it so special to you?
A: My wife and I love to go to Tensing Pen Hotel in Negril, Jamaica. It’s quiet, and there’s literally nothing to do there except relax and be together.
Q: What’s one thing you can never travel without?
A: Workout gear. I usually travel with my Muay Thai gear and try to find different gyms to train in when I’m traveling.
Q: If you could wake up tomorrow anywhere in the world you’ve never been, where would you be?
A: Japan. I’d love to explore the future and the food.