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Nick Elmi, Winner of Top Chef New Orleans, Talks Kitchen Spats, Seasoning Issues, and Winning It All

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Photo: Bravo TV

Last night, the eleventh season of Bravo's Top Chef came to an end, and Philly had its second Top Chef title. Nicholas Elmi, considered the underdog by maybe everyone outside of Philly, came out on top over chef Nina Compton, after a final bout the judges declared one of the show's closest decisions ever.

Compton was named "Fan Favorite," and there's been plenty of uproar about her loss. But to the audience here in Nick's adopted hometown, who have had the chance to try his food (especially at his new BYOB, Laurel), there's little doubt the judges made the right call.

Here, while Elmi was still basking in his big win, Eater had the chance to talk to him about the whole experience, from butting heads over stolen ovens and constantly hearing that he doesn't know how to use salt, to taking his first vacation in five years and accomplishing what he set out to do.

Eater Philly: So last night, toward the end of the show, they threw to that live shot of you guys at Watch What Happens Live, and my boyfriend and I – as soon as they showed you – looked at each other like, "Oh my god, he won!" Because – and I say this with all possible kindness – you looked like you were going to puke.
Nick Elmi: Yeah, absolutely. (laughs)

So I'm just wondering what you were feeling in those last couple minutes, before it all came out and you had to go on live TV and talk about it.
Well, we got to watch it beforehand, and obviously I knew the outcome. The filming for the finale was in early October. But still, every week – and I didn't watch it, I wouldn't watch the show until Saturday night or something, because I'm working during the week and I know what happens – but every single time I watch it, it still stresses me out. I get a pit in my stomach. Just knowing that it was finally over… and then having to go on live TV. That was a pretty daunting task for me at that point.

Was it hard at all to keep the outcome a secret, especially while you were opening Laurel and everyone was freaking out because they thought that meant that you had won?
No, I just tried to be playful about it. If anyone asks me about it, I'm just like, "You've gotta keep watching," you know? But the non-disclosure we signed was pretty strict, and you don't want to do anything to make them want to question your position. When you look at the 45-page contract you signed, it makes it pretty easy to keep your mouth shut.

I'm sure. And how does it feel now that it's done, and all of Philly, at least, is behind you collectively losing it?
Oh, it's awesome. I try to pick and choose my moments when I want to address Twitter and stuff like that, because obviously I wasn't exactly the fan favorite this season. And that's fine with me. I didn't go on Top Chef to be the nicest guy in the world, I went on Top Chef to win it. And that's what I accomplished.
You know, the relationships I have with the other chefs on the show are awesome. Everybody who was there, we're all friends, we all text each other, we all talk all the time. I've become very, very good friends with Nina. And my relationship with Jason is awesome – we're like best buddies now. But the show is what it is. The last couple of days, and last night especially, have been so much fun. And I'm excited.

As far as the drama of the show goes, a lot has been made of the "immunity" episode, but I think that's been talked to death, and it sounds like you and Stephanie have made some peace with it. I was more interested in everything they showed with Carlos and the other chefs. That seemed like it was more based in real-world kitchen dynamics, as opposed to the surreal "reality TV" universe. Was that kind of drama distracting, or were those just normal conflicts that were pumped up for TV?
You have to remember that the kitchen that I'm coming from was Georges Perrier's Le Bec Fin. It was probably the most dramatic kitchen in the entire world. Every day, it was a yelling-and-screaming kitchen. Kitchens are intense environments. And not only that, but I'm a relatively intense person, especially when I get in those four walls, in front of the stoves. You know, you're in a competition, and if anybody gets in your way, you want to stand up for yourself.
Carlos and I, outside of the kitchen, we're good. We're friends, we've talked, when we were filming and when we were in Maui , we'd have a drink together. I mean, we're not best buddies, but we're fine with each other. But when we get in the kitchen, it's like: let's stay out of each other's way. And we butted heads a couple of time, and if things happen, things happen. I understand that things get played up a little bit for the show, but the way I look at it, I stood up for myself, and I did what I thought was right.

In the final challenge, obviously there was a struggle with service, and you lost your cool just a little bit. Were you ever seriously worried about the possibility of losing the whole thing on service?
I genuinely thought I lost. I thought I lost because service was killing me. And it was a build-up—you may not realize from the show, but that service was long. It was a three-hour service, or something like that. There was a multitude of things that went wrong.
But Jay [Cichonski] was awesome. The entire time he was just making fun of me, cracking jokes, trying to keep everything really light. And you've got to understand—I was cooking in the finale, and all of these guys are supposed to be representing me, and it just wasn't going so well. Sure, watching it after the fact, I'm thinking "Why did I have to have my little outburst like that?" But it was really, really frustrating. To be in that position, and feel like you're going to lose it because of somebody you don't even know? But they're the ones representing you and it's like… damn.

Right, but your team obviously helped you out. Was that a tough choice, or did you know exactly who you wanted there with you?
I wanted to pick people that I was going to have the most fun in the kitchen with. Jay is, hands-down, the funniest "staff" I've ever been around. (Well, him and Scott Schroeder, cooking with those two is always hysterical.) Jay's such a good person, and when you watch the show, he's literally just busting my balls the entire time.

It also seemed like your demeanor changed a little by the time you went back, after the break, to film the finale. Were things easier for you at the end?
So, filming for New Orleans was from May to July, and I spent the rest of July and August just hanging out with my family, not working, reconnecting with my wife and my kids. I spent a long time at home with my parents in New Hampshire, and down the shore with the kids, so it was very good for me. It was the first time I took an actual vacation in about five years. By the time we got to the actual finale, I had already started working on Laurel, and I was just thinking, I have so much to be thankful for. I was so stressed out in New Orleans, that by the time we got to Maui, I just wanted to cook and have fun and see what would happen.

There was a constant theme in your critiques that your food was under-seasoned, to the point where, as viewers, we just came to expect it. And for you, in real time, you must have been hearing it almost every day. How did you take hearing that over and over again? Did you try to adjust your cooking for the judges at all?
I tried to be true to who I am. You're in a competition, but you just want to do what you think is right and keep moving on. I think some of it had to do with the fact that we had a very eclectic group of chefs, with a lot of different backgrounds and cultures, so a lot of people did huge, bold flavors and very spicy food. And that's not my style. My style is very delicate, very light, making sure that you can taste every single aspect of the product. And sometimes that worked to my advantage, and sometimes it didn't.
But by the time we got to the finale, it was like: Season, season, season, season, season! And it ended up working out. I haven't had anyone tell me at the restaurant that nothing's seasoned properly, so I think it's working out well right now.

Your reviews have been mostly raves so far. Are you nervous about your review coming out this weekend from [Philadelphia Inquirer critic] Craig LaBan?
Oh, of course I am. It's what we've been working for. Our goal is to make Laurel the best restaurant that we can make it, and I understand our constraints, as far as space and things like that. But that's my focus: for however long it takes, I just want to make Laurel the best it can be. And this review this weekend, we want to take it in stride, see where we can improve, and move on.

Well obviously, you've faced big reviews before, but I have to think this one's a little different.
This is the first time it's my restaurant. I've been reviewed before where I've been cooking someone else's food. This is the first time I'm being reviewed on just me, cooking my food, exactly how I want to represent myself as a chef. So… I guess we'll see what he thinks!