Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Jason Cichonski has had a pretty full year, including opening his debut restaurant, Ela, being named Eater's Hottest Chef, and becoming one of the most promising chefs in all of Philly. His adventurous food and slick digs have gotten the attention of all of the critics in town, and his jawline and Zach Morris-like countenance have impressed the ladies from 2 to 92 across the area.
Eater sat down with Cichonski to talk about the stress of opening your first restaurant, struggling with being beautiful, and how to avoid being pigeonholed in a very competitive industry.
When did you decide you wanted to do Ela?
Chip Roman had been in to Lacroix a lot when I was running the kitchen, and we became friends. I had already been planning my own restaurant, and one day Chip brought up the idea of us partnering together on a place. Part of the deal, though, was that I would help him open another spot and then he would back me. So, while we were working on what would be Ela, Mica happened, and was supposed to be a casual bistro. But, it didn't work like that. Mica became much more complex, and we did well with it. After getting Mica up and running I focused on getting Ela up and running.
Did Chip pitch you or the other way around?
He already had a working business model, so he approached me. But, I already thought about him as a partner, so it was kind of at the same time.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during Ela's development?
That's easy. The liquor license and getting the neighborhood to be on our side. Dear God, that liquor license process is just so fucking stupid. I know it's been said a million times, but I just can't over-emphasize how shitty it is. And with the neighbors, they had to understand we wanted to be part of the neighborhood, and not be bringing in the South Street bar crowd riff-raff. That wasn't easy, but we're here now, and we're all getting along.
Interestingly enough, the way you write a menu to describe food has also been a hurdle with diners. People know they like salty and sweet, but if you say anything other than chocolate covered pretzel, they get skittish. So, we have to find a way to get people to not turn their nose up at asparagus ice cream (laughs).
What was the biggest change in your kitchen life coming from Lacroix to Ela?
Well, I got a wake up call that I didn't have 15 walk-ins and an unlimited budget for buying product that was astronomical in price. Which is a lot tougher than you think. It's easy to be creative when you can do whatever you want, but that's not a reality for 99% of the chefs in the world. Also, a chef has to learn that people like what they like, and you shouldn't be forcing your own challenging creativity down someone's throat. That was another wake up call.
Craig LaBan really loved Ela and gave you three bells. How stressful was waiting for the review to come out?
I am totally the opposite of laid back when it comes to my restaurant. So, I didn't sleep for days, and was so worried he would hate what we were doing. I like doing some modern technique sometimes and he doesn't usually receive that stuff so well. And, when it came out, I was so relieved, and we saw a big jump in business, of course.
The other issue was that he just reviewed Mica a few months before and we got three bells there, too. I figured he can't give our group two three bell reviews, I don't know why, but I thought that. I assumed that he would think we were over-extending ourselves and he would make a comment about opening too much too fast. Luckily that didn't happen.
Craig always loved you. Do you think that his approval of your modern technique cooking surprised a lot of people?
It was surprising, but I do worry about getting labeled as the molecular gastronomy guy, which is ridiculous. I'm much more of a shallots and salt guy (laughing). Getting pigeon-holed into anything can be really bad for your career as a chef, and I like to use technique that I think is appropriate for flavors I am working with. Not to show people that it can be done.
Most of the techniques we use are old-school Asian, anyway. Just because Ferran Adria did it, doesn't mean it was only part of that movement. Using seaweed-based products to bind things together isn't really new technology. It's been done for generations. But it's important to use it at the right time and for the right reasons.
What were the biggest positive surprises in your first year?
Learning that my cooking team is as passionate as I am about the success of Ela was pretty inspiring. As a chef, most of your cooks are cooking to make a living, and they're all hired guns. But, I have some people who really buy into the success of Ela as their own, especially Billy Riddle, who has been my right hand guy for so long.
So, how have you dealt with suddenly being known as the prettiest chef in Philly?
(Laughing) Well, it has been fun, I guess. But, automatically it makes you the asshole. So, in that regard it hasn't been so great. Most people know it's all silly fun, but not everyone. I would rather be known for my cooking prowess, of course, than anything else. But, I must say that the Eater Hot thing did get me some people who traveled from NYC to see me in person, which is absolutely ridiculous, but kind of fun. It would be for anyone, right?
What's next for Ela?
Well, we are launching brunch, which is exciting, and I got an Asian dinner coming up I'm doing with Shola Olunloyo, but there are no details yet. But, mostly I am still working hard to get word out to the general populace about Ela. We have a lot of industry types in here, which is great, and is absolutely humbling, but I need more regular diners to come by. So, that's always the struggle with any restaurant in this economy.