The Chef at One of Philadelphia’s Best Restaurants Swears You Can Cook His Food at Home

Laurel is one of Philadelphia’s most acclaimed restaurants, and with chef Nicholas Elmi’s new cookbook, now you can replicate some of the dishes at home.
January 11, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
From the cookbook: Surf clam with truffle custard and yuzu.
Courtesy of Neal Santos

In 2014, Nicholas Elmi won season 11 of Bravo’s Top Chef. Elmi—who has cooked in acclaimed restaurants from New York to Paris and spent over a decade working for legendary chef Georges Perrier in Philadelphia—now owns three restaurants in the city: Laurel, In the Valley, and Royal Boucherie. Elmi’s first cookbook, Laurel: Modern American Flavors in Philadelphia, was published in September.

But before all that, it started with tequila and $5,000 in cash.

In 2013, Elmi had just finished filming the show, which had yet to air, and was playing poker with Lee Styer, his friend and former sous chef at Perrier’s landmark Le Bec-Fin. At the time, Styer was relocating his own restaurant, Fond, to a bigger space, and after hours of drinking tequila together, he agreed to give Elmi the lease on his old space for $5,000. Despite the rounds of liquor, Elmi, who no longer drinks, still vividly recalled the agreement, and the next morning he arrived at Styer’s restaurant with the money.

Four months later, Elmi opened Laurel on Philadelphia’s East Passyunk Avenue. Though the neighborhood’s dining scene is thriving now, back then it was just starting to bloom, and Laurel was one of its pioneers.

Chef Nicholas Elmi
Courtesy of Neal Santos

Rooted in French technique, the modern American restaurant highlights the region’s best ingredients with six- and nine-course tasting menus. After opening with an à la carte menu, the chef added a tasting menu a few months later, and then made the difficult choice to offer only a tasting menu. At the time, Philadelphia didn’t have many tasting-menu-only restaurants. (Marc Vetri’s namesake Italian spot was perhaps the only notable exception.)

“Everybody is telling me no,” Elmi recalls. “They said, ‘There’s a reason why no one else is doing it. This is Philadelphia. You’re not going to get away with this here.’ And I was like, You know what? All of you are wrong.”

Inside Laurel’s kitchen.
Courtesy of Neal Santos

Elmi had data to back him up, though. Most diners were opting for the tasting menu anyway, and this direction was more aligned with what he viewed as the ethos of the 22-seat Laurel. Situated on a tight block in South Philly, the building was once a row house.

“This used to be someone’s house,” says the chef. “And if you came to my house, you would sit down and you eat whatever I cooked for you.” With this format, Elmi and his team had the freedom to really show diners what they could do.

It turned out Elmi’s instinct was right, and the new structure was a boon for the restaurant, landing it on a roster of best restaurant lists in both local and national outlets. Tasting menus also make up the format of Elmi’s first cookbook, which he worked on with Adam Erace, a Philadelphia-based food and travel writer. (Erace contributes to several publications, including Fortune.)

From the cookbook: black trumpet mushroom–stuffed Dover sole with chicken jus and whey onions.
Courtesy of Neal Santos

It represents one year at Laurel, with four tasting menus that each reflect the region’s changing seasonal ingredients. Erace’s goal in approaching the book was to present Elmi’s highly creative, technique-driven recipes in a compelling, comprehensive way. For his part, Elmi’s goal was to give readers at least one great idea or technique, which is what he looks for from a cookbook: “I want anybody, from a novice to an experienced chef, to be able to go through this book, and at least get one or two ideas. It’s building your repertoire and expanding your knowledge.”

The Drunken Farmer cocktail.
Courtesy of Neal Santos

And while there are recipes like cardamom leaf–cured bream with peaches prepared four ways—pickled, pureed, salt-cured, and steeped with chamomile—that might appeal to more experienced chefs, the duo underscore that the book is for home cooks too.

Elmi recommends starting with the ricotta gnocchi, which is also Top Chef judge–approved: “Once you get that technique down, it’s a recipe that you can use over and over again. It’s super simple, and it keeps really well.” Elmi adds that gnocchi are perfect for dinner parties, where you can make them ahead of time and pull them out of the fridge to warm up with sauce right before serving.

From the cookbook: duck breast.
Courtesy of Neal Santos

Erace suggests the caramelized white chocolate pudding, but he also says the lobster, served with bourbon apple glaze, is a good start. Plus, the glaze is versatile enough to be used with other proteins. “You can pull the recipes apart, and take your favorite things,” he says. “It can make you a better cook.”

Besides giving readers ideas and techniques that can boost their culinary skills and offer a window into Laurel, Elmi hopes the cookbook communicates something about his city’s dining scene.

“For me, this was an opportunity to show what Philly is. Not that we’re championing and pioneering what’s going on in Philadelphia. More like we are Philadelphia,” says the chef. “I think it was cool to be able to say, ‘This is what can happen in Philadelphia.’”

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