When the coronavirus pandemic hit Philly in mid-March, forcing restaurants to close their doors and lay off employees, chef Eli Kulp decided it was bad timing to release the first episodes of a podcast he’d been working on. But then he thought, “bad timing... or great timing?”
The chef, who co-owns the High Street Hospitality Group, didn’t picture himself as a podcast host. But after the 2015 Amtrak train derailment left him a quadriplegic, Kulp was forced to completely change his path. In the process, he gained a perspective that he now thinks applies to restaurant owners who are reevaluating their livelihoods in the face of COVID-19.
After working in New York City, Kulp came to Philadelphia in 2012 to lead Fork, Ellen Yin’s pioneering Old City restaurant. In May 2015, just as Kulp was hitting his stride and starting to earn national recognition for his cooking, he sustained a devastating spinal cord injury in the Amtrak crash.
It was after he visited a friend’s coworking space, which houses a podcast studio, that Kulp decided to start his own podcast. In January, he began recording interviews with Philly chefs.
In one episode, he talks to Rich Landau of Vedge about introducing shishito peppers to Philly’s restaurant scene. In another, Palizzi Social Club’s Joey Baldino comes on to discuss South Philly’s best food. Jennifer Carroll, known for her multiple Top Chef appearances and her restaurant, Spice Finch, joins Kulp to chat about foraging for ramps and morels. The latest episode brings in Joe Beddia of Pizzeria Beddia fame.
But Kulp also steers the conversations towards weightier subjects, like gender equality and addiction. And when COVID-19 interrupted everyone’s plans, he brought the chefs back for second interviews, this time addressing the pandemic’s impact on their businesses. The word “pivot” comes up a lot on CHEF Radio, echoing Kulp’s own experience of having to pivot from his original plan.
The readjusted podcast gives listeners a candid look into the minds of some of Philadelphia’s most iconic chefs in the midst of an incredibly challenging situation, both personally and professionally.
During one interview, Nick Elmi, a Top Chef winner and owner of Laurel, ITV, and Royal Boucherie, discusses his mixed emotions about the stay-at-home order in place in Pennsylvania. “Fifty percent of the time, I’m elated, and then the rest of the time, I’m having like a nervous breakdown,” he tells Kulp. He describes “moments of sheer happiness” while spending this unexpected free time with his kids, but then reality hits: “I might fucking lose three restaurants.”
In another episode of the podcast, star chef Mike Solomonov reveals that the best meal he’s eaten in Philadelphia was at Fork, when Kulp served duck meatballs and giant clam ceviche. But then he gets more serious. “People are like, ‘This has got to be the hardest thing you’ve ever been through,’” Solomonov says of COVID-19. “And I’m like, ‘No, dude. My little brother was killed in action, I’ve gone through heroin and crack addiction and recovery. This fucking sucks, but … no, this doesn’t even touch it.’”
At one point, Solomonov switches from interviewee to interviewer, asking: “Your life, Eli, is the epitome of … ups and downs and adjusting and resetting your expectations. ... What does coronavirus mean to you?”
In response, Kulp compares the current situation to the Amtrak accident, calling this time “the triage stage.” The challenge now, he says, is figuring out what rehabilitation will look like and managing the anxiety of not knowing “what’s on the other side.” Even after his own long rehab and eventual return to work, the chef says he still grieves for the time when he could cook and plate food during dinner service: “Since I was injured, I’ve had to find new ways to create fulfillment in my life.”
Kulp tells Eater he see the podcast as a “silver lining” that lets him contribute to the industry he loves in a different way. Since CHEF Radio launched in early April, it’s had more than 3,000 downloads, and Kulp says he’s gotten positive feedback on it.
He’s been thinking about the sayings “whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” and “big storms make oaks grow strong roots.” There’s truth to those cliches, he says.
“Five years from now,” Kulp says, “I think we’ll all look back and say that sucked and that hurt, but it made you stronger.”