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Philadelphia chef Nicholas Elmi calls his food "very focused," "thoughtful" and "clean-tasting." He backs it up with a delicious menu of five-ingredient recipes.
For eight seasons, I recapped every episode of Top Chef for eater.com. My tongue was planted firmly in cheek, yet somehow I still managed to draw viewers' ire. Commenters called me names and angrily corrected even my smallest culinary confusion. One time, an eliminated contestant wrote me a rapid-fire series of Facebook messages calling into question my manhood, my career and my basic human dignity. Curiously, she also included a link to her press kit in case I still wanted to promote her business online.
I watched this past season, set in New Orleans, as just a fan. I liked the chef who ultimately won, 33-year-old Nicholas Elmi, from the start. I wasn't alone: In the well-organized Top Chef fantasy league I played in, Nick was drafted first, though Nina Compton took home the win, on points. (I could explain our elaborate points system, but I'd need a few more pages.)
Recently, I caught up with Elmi, who is now back in the kitchen at his Philadelphia restaurant, Laurel, and has reunited with his wife and kids—the mere mention of whom on the show could always be counted on to bring the homesick chef to tears. Here, a recap of Elmi's best and worst dishes, his thoughts on subtle flavors versus hot-sauce overload, and the recipes he came up with when F&W challenged him to create a menu using only five ingredients for each course.
Background: Elmi was born in Massachusetts; he trained at French restaurants, including Guy Savoy in Paris, and worked as executive chef at Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia.
First Dish Ever Cooked: Pasta cacio e pepe, when he was 13. "I have five siblings, and we all cooked for our family. I took a home ec class taught by an Italian woman, and that dish was one of the first things we learned."
His Culinary Style: "At Laurel, we call it French-inspired American food. I think it's very thoughtful. A lot of what I've done over the past several years has been stripping my food down. We don't need eight, nine, 10 ingredients on the plate; we need three, maybe five. My food is very focused and clean-tasting."
Dishes the Top Chef Judges Loved: Elmi's gnudi, his funnel cake and his shrimp bisque with scallop noodles—the dish that probably won him the Top Chef title during the Hawaii finale.
Smartest Move: At the finale, using a piece of crispy chicken skin to top his opakapaka (Hawaiian pink snapper) for salt and texture.
Worst Dish: Cornish game hen with chocolate and corn-silk nests.
Frequent Top Chef Critique: The judges regularly criticized Elmi's food as under-seasoned.
Elmi's Defense of His "Under-Seasoned" Food: "A lot of my training has been in very clean, very simple, very subtle flavors. A lot of the food in New Orleans, especially from the other contestants, was about big, huge, bold flavors. Then you taste my food and it's like, 'Oh, it doesn't taste seasoned.' Of course it doesn't taste seasoned! You just ate hot sauce!"
Moment of Selflessness: Elmi volunteered to taste crawfish for a rival chef with a seafood allergy.
On Beating Fan-Favorite Nina: "Obviously, a lot of people were pulling for her. She lights up every room she walks into. She's a great person, man. Fortunately, on that particular day I just cooked better than she did."
On Not Being the Fan Favorite: "I'm an intense guy. Not only do I demand a lot from myself, but I also demand a lot from everybody else in the kitchen. Do I want to change anything about myself? Not particularly."
Max Silvestri is a comedian, writer and eater. Follow him @maxsilvestri.