clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

How Nick Elmi Won Top Chef and Philly Critics in Laurel's First Year

One year ago, Nicholas Elmi was opening his first solo restaurant and just beginning to taste Top Chef fame. Now, he's thinking about how to stay relevant in the long run — and planning to open a second restaurant.

EVEN HAVING SEEN Nick Elmi on television, it's hard to imagine him on television. He seems a bit too soft-spoken for it, and maybe a little too willing to be frank and, well, human. Still, not much more than a year ago, there he was, playing the reality TV game on the eleventh season of Bravo's Top Chef. And as it turned out, he played it well enough to win the whole thing.

At the same time, Elmi was opening his first restaurant. Tiny Laurel debuted on East Passyunk just a month after Top Chef NOLA premiered. Though he was sworn to silence at the time, his intended opening date ended up being pushed off by a few weeks because he had to be in Hawaii to film the finale and actually, you know, win.

By the time the finale aired in February, Laurel had been open for three months, which also happens to be prime-time for reviews. The same week that Elmi was publicly anointed Top Chef, Laurel received a strong three-bell review from Inquirer critic Craig LaBan. Even before then, it wasn't easy to get into one of the restaurant's 22 seats. After, the restaurant was selling out as many months' worth of tables as they offered, almost the moment they opened the book.

Chef-owner Nick Elmi with Laurel GM Alice Tran, who also worked with him at Rittenhouse Tavern.

DESPITE THE SUCCESS, of course, there are limitations (and causes for frustration) with a restaurant so small. Currently, Elmi is expanding Laurel as best he can. He's now in the midst of building out a second kitchen to relieve the crowded conditions in the existing space. (The space has been carved out of a record shop's storage room whose back door faces Laurel's, and whose owners are luckily neighborly.)

And he's looking to expand in a much bigger way, too. He told us he's been looking for a space for a second restaurant for several months already. Here now, read our conversation with Elmi about his most successful year ever and the story of Laurel, one year in.

Eater Philly: Certain details were sort of shrouded in mystery during Laurel's opening, in part because Top Chef had just begun airing and you couldn't talk about that. How did the whole opening process here overlap with the show?
Nick Elmi: So, the filming of the show was from about May 25 to July 13 of last year, and then taping for the finale was something like October 3 through 14 or so. I had looked at this space in April — before I left Rittenhouse Tavern — and had talked to Lee Styer [chef-owner of the space's previous inhabitant, Fond] about it, but he had plans for it. After I came back from taping that summer, I spoke to him about it again. It was empty, and he wanted to open up another restaurant, but he was so busy over at Fond.

We were just hanging out here every day, drinking beers and building a restaurant.

So, it worked out. We took over around mid-August and immediately started working on the space. I hadn't been working at Rittenhouse since May, and I got back like mid-July, so I had about a month off and was going bananas not doing anything. Then it was like 10 to 12 hours a day, five days a week, doing all the doors and the painting and building the furniture, with my business partner and very good friend, Jonathan Cohen. We were just hanging out here every day, drinking beers and building a restaurant.

I didn't know when the finale was. We wanted to open in October, but the finale ended up being in that time frame, and we had already scheduled for my sister's wedding in Jamaica for 11 days in late October. I couldn't open, then close for 12 days, open for a week, then close for 11 days. So I just said, fuck it, let's do it in November. We opened on the fifth of November.

Early on, if you weren't here, you just closed the restaurant. How long was it before you were able to let it run on its own? It seems like you've been traveling a bit more recently.
A little bit, yeah. It was probably about 6 months before I took a day off from service. And even now, I took half of a service off the other night and I'm still freaking out. I think I've still only missed like 6 or 7 services in the first year.

But at a certain point, when you're taking reservations so far in advance, you can't just say you're going to shut down if you need to be somewhere.

It was probably six months before I took a day off from service.

Yeah, that's the only thing that sucks about it. We got to that point where we were booked 90 days out, so I can't just close the restaurant because I want to do this event in DC or that event in LA. I finally ended up just hiring extra people.

In the beginning, for the first six to eight months, it was just me and two people in the kitchen, and it wasn't very sustainable. You know, you want to be able to be a chef and run a business, but holding down garde manger and pastry every night and having a long prep list every day isn't the best way to do that. Five days a week I was coming in and doing garde manger and pastry, and on the sixth day I'd come in and do all the paperwork and pay all the bills. It was just getting to be a little too much. But to hire an extra cook was a huge relief. Now I can just cook, do service every night, get to plate everything — but I'm not bogged down cutting chives and picking lettuce. Which I kind of miss, actually.

How long was it before things started to get crazy as far as reservations and attention from the show? Was that immediate, or not until it was revealed that you won?
I think if you put all the Top Chef stuff aside, we would still be very busy. That's our goal, and we're so small. We're not trying to make it feel like the restaurant is exclusive, we're just trying to make it a great experience. We could probably squeeze more seats in here, or do three turns a night instead of two, but we don't really feel like doing that.

That said, within a month of opening, we were probably booked out at least a month. Which was nice, to be able to think, hey, at least we've got a sustainable business for the next couple months. By January, we were probably booked 60 days out — come February [when the finale aired], we had to cap it at 90 days. People were trying to make reservations five or six months in advance, which was not realistic. I don't know what I'm doing next week; I can't imagine a lot of people know what they're doing six months from now. People were making a reservation and then 89 days later saying, "oh, I forgot I had a reservation." Even though we're trying to be very diligent about giving people a week heads-up.

At first I tried to believe that everyone was good, and we didn't have a cancellation policy in place. We just thought everyone was going to show, which was very naive of us. But eventually we did implement a cancellation policy, which has gone a bit more towards protecting the business. That's one instance where we have to take ourselves into consideration before the customer. Because when we're only doing 40 people on a Saturday night, if we have a four-top not show, that's 10% of our revenue. And for a restaurant like this, where we run about a 10 to 15% profit, any profit that we thought we were going to make for the night is out the window. Now we just charge people who no-show.

Has the Top Chef allure died down yet? Do people see this restaurant as what you're about, rather than being "Top Chef winner Nick Elmi"?

Top Chef was, like, an eight-week period of my life, compared to the eighteen years of my life when I've just been cooking.

Yeah, this isn't "a Top Chef restaurant," if that means anything; it's just a very serious restaurant. Not serious in the sense that we take ourselves too seriously, but we just want to be thought of as one of the upper-echelon restaurants in the city. I think in the past year, we've gotten pretty close to that. Obviously you still have people who come in just because of Top Chef — which is great, I would never shy away from it. But more and more, we do see more people who come in who have no idea about it: They just saw reviews and thought this was the place to be, and still waited 60 or 90 days for a table. That makes us feel pretty good.

But [the hype] has certainly died down. Probably from February until about August, it was very much like that: we want to take pictures in the kitchen, we want to have you sign this — but by now, not so much. Which I think is a good thing, personally, but I guess that remains to be seen.

I don't mean to take the focus away from Top Chef — it was fun, and it was a great experience. But that was, like, an eight-week period of my life, compared to the eighteen years of my life when I've just been cooking. So I need to stay true to that now.

You mentioned to me earlier that you looked at the space that ended up becoming Lo Spiedo, so it sounds like you considered a variety of spaces, larger spaces. How much of Laurel's identity was informed by the fact that you found this space and it was plausible, and how much was because this is what you came in wanting to open?
It's probably a little bit of both. Once I caught onto the idea of opening a smaller space, I really fell in love with it. And knowing that it is my first business — not just being a chef but a chef-owner, and being responsible for other people and an actual business and part of a community — I don't want to act like I was scared, but I did want to have complete control over everything. And I think that the best way to do that was to keep it relatively small. The first six months, there was certainly a big learning curve, but we got through it. The past year has been pretty awesome. Professionally and personally, it's easily been my most successful year.

Can you point to something specific that's made you feel the most successful or proud?
Just the simple fact that we can run a successful business and I still get to spend time with my family. Sundays are completely and utterly off-limits. We've had people ask about catering events or buying out the restaurant, but the rule on Sundays is, "Don't call me, and if I call you, don't pick up." It gives us a full day to decompress and it's my one day I get to spend with my family. And I never really had that. For me, it's been really great to reconnect with my wife and my kids.

The rule on Sundays is: Don't call me, and if I call you, don't pick up.

Professionally, it's been more about just keeping our heads down and not listening to anything that anybody said, just doing what we think is right. To do that, and to maintain a clear focus about what the identity of a restaurant should be, makes it a lot easier. Instead of having a lot of other people saying we should be doing this or that. We can say no, we don't do that, we just want to cook and stay within this vein — and so far, so good.

What have you have had to ignore? What have been some of the bigger criticisms or suggestions you've heard?
I think our biggest struggle, even to this day, is that once people were making reservations 90 days out, it almost stifled our creativity. Because people would come in and if menu item X wasn't there, they were upset, because they read about it. But that was three months ago. You read about it in February, dude — it's April. Vegetables change. We need to be able to grow.

So we've designated the dishes that are our stalwarts, that we're kind of going to stick to. For example, the albacore tuna slowly poached in olive oil and finished with horseradish snow is still basically the same dish, though some elements change. The gnocchi has been the one dish that hasn't changed since we started. Even though it's the most rustic dish we have on the menu, if we took it off, we'd feel weird about it. So, we're not doing that.

You read about that dish in February, dude — it's April. Vegetables change.

But because we have such a small menu, it's hard to not want to change stuff all the time. When we converted into doing only tasting menus on the weekend, it was a huge relief. It was like, hey, we can do whatever we want. We start game-planning and messing around on Tuesdays, which has been a really great creative outlet for us. We don't even give people menus during the weekend now. People just come in and sit down, and we start cooking.

As far as actually running the restaurant, how much of a learning curve was there for you on the business end?
I think Le Bec and Rittenhouse were pretty good classes for me. I started at Le Bec at the end of 2008. We had just hit our financial crisis and nobody went to Le Bec anymore. Despite the fact that Le Bec was a fabulously successful restaurant for almost 40 years, I don't think they ever learned how to save money. They were just making money hand over fist for so long that they didn't actually know where it was going. The first year or two at Le Bec was just about, how do we stay open? Literally: We don't have enough money to stay open, how are we going to make it happen?

Le Bec was a fabulously successful restaurant for almost 40 years, but I don't think they ever learned how to save money.

And then at Rittenhouse, I took more of a step up as far as managing financials, which is good. When you work for a corporation like that who monitors every penny, it makes you do the same thing. So when I started here, it was such a smaller scale compared to Rittenhouse and compared to Le Bec Fin, but a lot of it was already embedded in what I did in my daily life anyway.

But with those other companies, we were on anywhere between 45- and 90-day terms — here we're on, like, a week. We're COD with everybody. I prefer to just pay people as it comes in. Our meat shows up, we write a check for the meat, and that's it. So it made it a lot easier, to go this small. Obviously if you're going from a restaurant that does $80,000 a week in sales to this, where we do like $15,000, that makes it pretty simple.

Is there anything you wanted to do here that you found you couldn't? That was just never going to work in this space?
Yeah. We are a French restaurant, and I wanted to do a lot more tableside service. And we are actually going to grow into that, but right now we don't have the space.

Behind the curtain to the back right, adjacent to both kitchen and bathroom, is a server station Elmi describes as a "catastrophe."

Being able to do the kitchen is actually going to relieve this station here, so instead of this catastrophe and the curtain, at some point in the next six months it's actually just going to be a nice china cabinet. And then we'll have side stations out in the dining room. Whether we're pouring sauces or making sauces tableside, or presenting and carving things, we want to start getting into that. But this space is really tight. So it's hard — we can't have a Le Bec Fin gueridon coming up to a table here, but we can do some.

Those are the kinds of improvements we're looking for. We've gotten through our first year and had a successful first year, but we just really need to push so much harder now, just to stay relevant in that second year. If we look up and we're only booked a week out in a couple of months, we'll know we're doing something wrong.

The audience here must be giving you some freedom now, if you're branching out into more varied, off-menu tastings.
I think it's about trust. They come in once and get a really good meal, then they come back for a tasting and are likely to just sit back and enjoy it.

We want it to be very much like walking into a friend's house. If a friend invites you over for dinner, you don't show up and say, "Hey, I want a steak" while they're standing there like, "Aw shit, I cooked fish." You just sit down and eat whatever they put in front of you. And that's kind of what the idea is. We want people to just come in and relax. It's not overly elegant or hoity-toity.

Does you take that into consideration at all when it comes the food? It's not a stuffy place, but your food is very refined.
It's a really weird line. We do have a lot of people,especially people I've been cooking for since Le Bec, who are an older clientele and their expectations of what I do, and where I do it, are a little different. Then they come in here and see our hostess wearing a sundress and our servers wearing short sleeves. But what, just because someone's in a tuxedo, that makes the restaurant nice? I don't think that's true. If they're giving you great service and they're giving you great food, then you win. We're not trying to be a fine dining restaurant, we're just trying to be a great restaurant.

What, just because someone's in a tuxedo, that makes the restaurant nice? I don't think that's true.

But these were the kind of things we actually argued about before we opened. My partner said, "You can't not have uniforms." Why? I'm going to make everyone wear black, like every other restaurant in the city? I hate that shit. Or the white, with the apron? It's stupid. Let people be comfortable, tell them to dress professionally, like they're going to work, and let them be them. We want people to have some form of individuality while they're working here. I express myself through the food; I need them to express themselves through the service. And they do a great job. We have essentially the same staff we had when we opened a year ago. It's one of the things I'm most proud of. If they're happy, it means we're doing our job.

As far as the timing goes, opening Laurel didn't hinge on you winning the show, financially I mean. But did the prize contribute to or impact the plans in any way?
No, not at all. But people said that to me over and over again: We know you won because you're opening a restaurant. And I'd tell them, that had nothing to do with it. I was planning on and had been trying to open a restaurant for like four years. It's just timing — and we're learning this more and more now — that timing is everything. I'd had people lined up, investors lined up for four years, but then this ended up working out where it can just be me and one person. I wouldn't want to get into a situation where I had ten investors. Being able to start this way, and have complete control over everything, was the reason why we did it.

The money you win on Top Chef is great, but if you have a family with two kids and you don't work from May until November... well, a lot of that money goes right back in the bank to pay for May to November. That was money I won for my family, to put away so that my kids can go to school. None of it went into the restaurant.

You've said expanding the kitchen will allow you to do some catering. What kind of requests do you get?
Anything from "come to our house and cook for ten people," to weddings and stuff. And we have to say no, just because we don't have the space. Even when we do events like Feastival, where you have to do 700 portions — we don't have space to put 700 portions of anything, anywhere.

You know those puzzles, where there's one little space open, and you have to slide all the tiles around until you somehow hopefully end up solving it? That's how we feel every day.

How do you do it, then?
You know those puzzles, where there's one little space open, and you have to slide all the tiles around until you somehow hopefully end up solving it? That's kind of how our kitchen is. I don't know what they're called, but that's how we feel every day. Every time you need something, it's always in the back of fridge, and you have to take everything out, grab the one thing, figure out how to put everything back. It takes up the bulk of your day. I'm just over it. Even if it doesn't contribute a significant amount financially to the restaurant, having that extra space is going to be so much better for us. Mentally, I think it's going to be a little bit freeing.

Have you come up with any really creative solutions, having put up with it for a year now?
Nope! We hang stuff from the ceilings downstairs, hanging racks so we can store more stuff downstairs. In the kitchen we just keep building shelves up. It's pretty funny. Everything in there is movable, because to get the trash out we have to drag we have to drag huge trash barrels through the entire dining room. Everything gets shoved off to one side so we can get the trash out. Then it moves back. Which I hate, but it works.

Making breakfast before the staff arrives, Elmi gets his tiny kitchen-puzzle to himself.

Have you given any thought yet to the possibility of opening another restaurant?
Yeah, I'd love to. You know, we didn't open a 22-seat restaurant to make hundreds of thousands of dollars. Bringing the staff on that I have — they're extremely good, very experienced people. My sous chef, Eddie Konrad, was my sous at Le Bec for four years, he was the sous chef at Del Posto for the past two years, then moved back to the city to do this with me. The idea was, let's do this for a year, maybe a year and a half, and then we'll open up another restaurant for him. That'll be his baby - I'll be there to assist him, but we want to open Eddie a restaurant. He's spectacular, he's really talented, and there's no reason he shouldn't have his own showcase.

Our next place is going to be bigger, more expansive.

We've actually started looking at spaces. It's just a matter of timing. It took me three years to find this space. There are so many different factors that go into it: Finding the right spot, finding the right location, being able to manage the amount of money it's going to take to build it out and get it up and running. Everything kind of came together with this space. Having it already have been a restaurant makes that a lot easier, and not having a liquor license. But our next place is going to be bigger, more expansive.

Are you trying to stay nearby?
I don't think so. I don't think I'd want to compete with myself. We've looked at Center City, Fishtown, Queen Village — well, all over the city, really. We've probably seen every available space in the city over the past four or six months. And we're just going to keep looking until we find the right spot.

Any idea what kind of concept yet? With Eddie coming from Del Posto, are you looking to do a different kind of food?
Yeah. Eddie and I have similar experiences, but a little bit opposite — I started out cooking Italian food, then went into French food; he started cooking French food, went into Italian food, and now he's back here doing this. We have an idea about what we're doing, but we're just going to wait until we find our place. Then we'll let you know.

So who else is crammed into the kitchen with you here?
So, Eddie is my sous, Mark Hennessey is one of my line cooks, and we just hired Kyle McCormick, who was the sous over at Will for a couple of years. One day a week, my wife's cousin who's in culinary school comes in and cooks with us. And then Joseph, our dishwasher. I don't know how it happened that for the smallest kitchen in the world, we probably have the biggest dishwasher in the city. He's like 6'4" and probably 230 pounds. He worked with me the entire time at Rittenhouse and then came down here with me, he's the sweetest guy in the world.

If you're able to start catering, will you have to bring on more staff for that?

That's a play-it-by-ear kind of thing. I know enough people in the city where if I need somebody for a night or two nights, that's not a problem. If we start growing, yeah — well, hopefully, if I was busy enough to have to hire a banquet chef, that'd be awesome. A banquet chef, a pastry chef — I'd be so happy! I wish I was that busy. But right now, I think we're just going to do it ourselves.

It doesn't seem like anyone can afford a pastry chef.
In the city, for sure, right? It's weird, it's like a dying breed. And it's sad. You don't see the intricate, garnished pastry that you used to see, like the dishes that Freddy Ortega was doing at Lacroix. It's a dying art.

Just because it takes so many resources — money, space, time?
When restaurants started going through the crunch between 2008 and 2010, you had to take a look at everything. I think at a normal restaurant only half the people that come in get dessert. If you're doing 200 people a night, and only 100 are getting dessert, and each dessert costs what, nine bucks? You're making maybe $900 a night on desserts, and you're paying somebody $50-60,000 a year, plus two assistants, to do it? That's a lot of money. People just realized it wasn't worth it. Tell the chef he has to figure out how to do desserts, and he hires one guy to knock it out for him, and that's it. It's too bad, though.

You do the desserts here yourself, and you do them very well, I think. Did you just start figuring out how to do pastry when you opened here, or did you have experience with that already?
Well, I had some experience doing desserts before, and I always had an interest in doing it. I like it because it just seems so much more finite: this is the recipe, this is the ratio, this is exactly how you do it. Whereas cooking has to be a little bit more organic.

The best thing anyone ever told me was, "cows aren't square." Meaning that you're not going to get perfect cuts all the time, your tomatoes are not going to taste the same, you need to be able to constantly move and adjust. A good example of that is when you're in culinary school, and they give 25 different kids the same recipe, and get 25 different results. You have to have an intuition when it comes to food. Pastry can be a little bit more rigid. The butter's the same every time, the flour's the same, sugar's the same. If the recipe doesn't work out, you're the one that messed it up.

And yet, to have someone who is trained in pastry — they have their own sort of intuition and feel for it, and you miss out on that when you don't have someone who's able to commit to it all the time, every day.
Exactly. You just have to figure out what you can do. That's why our dessert menu is so small: It's a cheese plate, and then two desserts. We try to make it two desserts that we know how to do really well, and we can knock it out. Things that I can do myself — and not only can I do them, but I can train other people to do them. They may not be the most intricate things in the world, but they're still very good.

Have you changed them much, over time?
The white chocolate pudding has stayed since the beginning. We've been just adjusting that a little with the seasons. As far as the semifreddo, the quince turned into a citrus, turned into a coffee semifreddo, and now it's turning into kind of a grapefruit meringue thing. That's what I've been trying to work on this week.

Second restaurant aside, are there any changes or news coming up on the horizon here?
We're thinking about getting smaller. I want to take this table [a large round table at the back of the restaurant] out, and put a smaller table in here. With the sound paneling, it doesn't usually get too noisy in here, but you definitely know if there's a six-top in the dining room. For some reason when six people are sitting around a round table, they have a tendency to raise their voice a little bit more than if they were sitting at a square table. So I think we're going to take this out and make it just a four-top. That would push it back down to 20 seats.

We're thinking about getting smaller, pushing it back down to 20 seats.

No one's ever complained about it, but it annoys me when the dining room's loud. I want people to enjoy themselves and have fun, but a six-top can take over a small dining room. Now I just need to convince everybody that this is a good idea.

Again, we didn't go into this restaurant to make a ton of money. We do want to make money, don't get me wrong, but you can only make so much money. We're trying to establish ourselves and create a dining experience, and if doing an extra two people a night makes or breaks us, then we're doing something wrong. So taking out a couple of people a night isn't going to bother me. I'd be more bothered if someone said, "I'm not going back there because it was so noisy." That would piss me off.

How are you liking the BYOB thing? Did you come in specifically wanting that, or was that just a logistical reality?
I think it was more of a logistical thing. I would love to be able to have wine service, but we can barely fit food in here, so where are we going to put wine? If we grew into a situation where it was financially responsible to get a liquor license, we would, but I don't see that happening any time soon. That's why our second restaurant will have a liquor license. Hell, two liquor licenses, I don't care.

I want to open a bar. My brother works for the guys who own Time, Garage, Bar, Vintage, and Growlers, and he loves it. He has so much fun doing it. But you should see what they do, financially.

Unfortunately, I fell in love with food.

When I was probably 24, I came back from New York City, and I started working at Loie, where Zama is now. We were a part of Four Corners, run by Avram Hornik. He hired me to be the sous chef — the chef there was going to take more of a company chef role, and I was going to take over Loie and turn it into more of a fine-dining French restaurant. Then I fell snowboarding and shattered my shoulder. I couldn't cook for like six months. But instead of firing me, he just made me front-of-house manager. Within a couple of months, I was kind of like, the manager of all his Center City places, and he showed me everything that had to do with running bars, financially. You make so much money! And the costs are, like, nothing! And I'm thinking, this is awesome, I would love to do this.

But unfortunately, I fell in love with food. It's so funny, because my kids come in on Saturdays now and hang out with me while I prep, and the whole time I'm thinking, Please, please don't get any ideas. Go get a responsible job. This is not how you want to support a family.

Hey, it seems like it's working out for you. Maybe the third place can be a bar.
Just beers and shots. Jäger and PBR.


2001 Ed Bluestein Boulevard, , TX 78721 (737) 529-8441 Visit Website

After 20 Years, Center City Restaurant Week Must Seriously Shake It Up

New Owner of Jim’s West Speaks on Serving the Most Controversial Cheesesteak in Philly

Philly’s Most Anticipated Fall 2023 Restaurant Openings