Podcast Episode 109

Finding Purpose After a Tragic Accident: Chef Eli Kulp’s Inspirational Story

Eli Kulp | 85 Minutes | June 4, 2024

In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Eli Kulp, the decorated chef and partner of High Street Hospitality Group, host of The Chef Radio Podcast, and co-host of Delicious City Philly Podcast.

Before 2015, Eli’s culinary journey was marked by impressive achievements: he earned coveted accolades like Food & Wine’s Best New Chef of 2014, honed his skills at renowned New York establishments such as Casa Lever and Del Posto, and collaborated with Ellen Yin to launch restaurants in Philadelphia and New York. However, everything changed dramatically in 2015 following a tragic Amtrak accident that left him with a life-altering spinal cord injury.

Listen as Eli candidly shares how he navigated through this unforeseen adversity, the power of perspective, and the importance of fostering a sense of belonging through his podcasts.

Disclaimer: This podcast episode contains a sensitive subject matter regarding suicide. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I’m speaking with Eli Kulp, the decorated chef and partner of High Street Hospitality Group.

Not only is Eli a celebrated figure in the culinary world with accolades such as “Food & Wine’s” Best New Chef of 2014 and a James Beard Finalist in 2016, but he’s also the voice behind “The CHEF Radio Podcast” and co-host of “Delicious City Philly Podcast.”

Eli’s journey took him from the halls of the Culinary Institute of America to the heart of some of New York’s most esteemed restaurants, including Casa Lever, Torrisi Italian Specialties, and Del Posto.

Eventually, he was lured to Philadelphia by the visionary restaurateur Ellen Yin to helm the kitchens at Fork, a.kitchen, and a.bar, as well as spearhead their expansion into New York City.

However, Eli’s life took an unexpected turn in 2015 when a tragic Amtrak accident left him with a spinal cord injury, changing his life and career path. Despite facing challenges that would end most culinary careers, Eli’s passion for food and the culinary arts never diminished.

Join us today as Eli shares how he has continued to influence the culinary world, not just through the kitchen, but through his podcasts and other ventures, proving that resilience and love for one’s craft can lead to new beginnings.

And there he is! Good morning! How are you, chef?

Eli Kulp: What’s going on, everyone?! Kirk, it’s really an honor to be here. I see in your background you have Mr. Auguste Escoffier. Very cool.

Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s great. [Do] you recognized this other guy over my shoulder?

Eli Kulp: Which one?

Kirk Bachmann: Marco Pierre, baby.

Eli Kulp: I can’t quite make it out, but I like it. I like it. Yeah.

Merch Madness

Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to have to be on my game today. You are a seasoned podcast aficionado. I’ve got so many questions. First of all, I’m honored. I’m super stoked to chat with you today. I’ve got questions about “The Bear” on Hulu. I’ve got all kinds of things.

But I was on Insta the other night, as I am often, and I saw that you just wrapped up “Merch Madness.” You guys looked really excited about that. What’s the background behind Merch Madness?”

Eli Kulp: You mentioned I have two different podcasts. “CHEF Radio” was my first endeavor into it, which is 2020. That’s really about me just interviewing other chefs, just sitting in the same room together or virtually and just going through talking about their journeys, how that’s impacted their careers today. Often people leave [after] listening or after being interviewed with “CHEF Radio” is that they’re left with this profound connection because it’s chef-on-chef.

Now, my other podcast, “Delicious City Philly,” that was one that I started about a year-and-a-half after “CHEF Radio.” That was really because I just wanted to have a fun podcast that feels a little bit like drive-time radio for foodies. So it is myself and two co-hosts, Marisa and Dave, and we’re all different in our walks of life. Marisa is a very popular producer on a local rock station here. Dave is an extremely passionate and dedicated person when it comes to all things food. He loves to eat. He’s not a chef whatsoever, but he’s got a great following on Instagram under @feedingtimetv. He’s a great follow. Together, we just make up this rag-tag crew.

We try to have these fun little opportunities for engagement. Along with the excitement of March Madness, one of the things Dave is really passionate about is merchandise. He supports a lot of restaurants by buying their merchandise. He started doing that during Covid because it was one way he could support restaurants. He’s always decked out. He always has some really cool merch.

So I was like, “Dave, what do you think about doing a Merch Madness?”

He was like, “Hell yeah! Let’s do it.”

It worked out great. It was fun. It was a way to engage our audience. Podcasting can be a very lonely sport. A lot of times it’s one-directional, so we really try to make an effort to find ways to engage our audience in a way that they’re going to get something out of it. We always have little giveaways, little online contests. It’s great. It exercises a different side of my brain when it comes to podcasting.

Details in “The Bear”

Kirk Bachmann: What’s amazing is because it’s podcasts – it’s audio and visual – but it just gets you excited. It gets you pumped up. It relates to something.

You said something really interesting there, that you like to jump on with chefs and just talk about what’s going on. I’ve learned a lot in the last few years. We started doing this podcast during the pandemic mostly just to connect with chefs and see what’s going on, whether it’s a country club in New York or a restaurant down the street here in Boulder, Colorado. What I loved about it – and I’m certainly not an expert – but I’ve got to tell you, chef: just sitting back and letting the guest be the start. No politics. No controversy. Let’s just talk. I can’t believe that I get to do this. It’s really interesting. It’s really cool.

So I’m going to put you on the spot. This wasn’t on the script. I’m watching some of your shows, and I happen to love “The Bear.” But I’ve got a few comments. Season One was a little tough. We run a culinary school. We’re trying to talk about kindness and changes in the kitchen, respect and all of that. Season One was a little intense.

I was particularly enamored by it because years ago when I was working with Le Cordon Bleu cooking schools, we had a school in Chicago that was literally three blocks from “The Bear” – the restaurant – Mr. Beef. Everybody went to Mr. Beef. I was so blown away that they were trying to do a series out of Mr. Beef, which was basically a dump. I couldn’t believe it.

They mentioned Escoffier in one of the first couple of episodes. But I’ve got to say, Season Two, Episode Four, life changed for me. They filmed over at Ever with the approval of Curtis Duffy and all of that. Oh my gosh! Hospitality became so important.

In this episode that I was watching, you were talking about “The Bear” in your comments. You were also talking about Thomas Keller’s Blue Apron, and the green tape, and the towel over the shoulder. Give me your philosophy around all of that. First of all, let’s start with “The Bear.” Fan? No fan?

Eli Kulp: I hesitated to watch it for a long time. I really don’t watch cooking shows, TV. It’s like doctors; they’re not going home and watching “Grey’s Anatomy” after a shift. For me, I always shy away from that type of stuff, if for no other reason, because I feel like a lot of times it’s blown out of proportion. It’s a little silly. All that.

After about 940 people asking me if I’ve watched “The Bear” or not – and actually the week that I decided, “Screw it! Let’s do it,” three people had asked me. This is just going back a month or two ago. It’s pretty recent [that] I watched them.

Very quickly, I realized they obviously have people on staff that know about fine dining, culture, whether it was the fact that he was at Eleven Madison Park, the little things that stood out to me that, for the most part, ninety-nine percent of people watching that show, if they’ve never worked in fine dining or they don’t know the history of fine dining in America, there is going to be so much that goes over their heads. It kind of made me a little sad because that was the coolest part about the show. Not the craziness and the camera work or the frenetic pace that they’re working at. That does exist. There are plenty of kitchens that still work like that for one reason or another. But the thing that really stood out to me was the fact that there are all these little Easter eggs, so to speak, in the show for somebody who has worked fine dining for long enough that you pick up on it. I thought that was really cool.

I know that Dave Beran, who’s a chef – he was in my “Food & Wine” best new chef class. He was at Next in Chicago. He’s very good friends with the producer of “The Bear,” so he actually sent – I’m forgetting the actor’s name that played The Bear – Jeremy Allen White. He actually sent Jeremy Allen White to his restaurant Pasjoli in Santa Monica to train under Dave, which was great. Dave said he was awesome. Dave said he put his head down and really wanted to learn. He was up there scrubbing the hood in the night with people. He really dug deep into the role, and it showed. It really showed.

I think, for the most part, it’s a great show. The second season, yes, it’s really about him finding the stuff. He had to relearn the idea of what being a chef today is versus what he was trained as.

Kirk Bachmann: Going a little further on that, there were little innuendos for sure. The green tape, the ninety-degree, using scissors to cut the tape. I try to do it as much as I possibly can here at the school. First, there’s a few things. First, there’s a cost to green tape, or blue tape, versus basic tape. What are your thoughts on that? It’s probably not practical in everyday life, but in a restaurant that is designed for fine dining, incredible experiences, do you believe that it helps with the culture, the mentality, doing everything perfectly, and really stopping to think about even something as simple as taping off, that you’re going to use scissors instead of tearing?

Eli Kulp: Yeah. A hundred percent. Hundred percent. I truly believe that those little details matter. It’s not that the guest experience is going to be one percent less better if we don’t cut the tape versus tear the tape. What it does is it teaches everyone in your kitchen that there is intention in what you do. Intention is really important. All those small little aspects of the way you put the towel in your apron, the way you move, the way that your towel should never not be folded in a perfect rectangle. If it is, I’m coming at you. That might seem like a small detail or unnecessary, but what it does is it teaches you to think about every aspect of what you’re doing. Not taking anything for granted.

There’s a part in there that a lot of people don’t know about. When the dishwasher came out into the kitchen, he’s like, “Everybody take the tape off your containers before you send them back.” That’s a thing! That’s something you teach. In my kitchen as well, because it’s not the dishwasher’s job to take your tape off the container because once it gets there, it gets wet. It gets sticky and everything else. It’s all these little details that make up a great kitchen. They’re so important.

Those are the things with “CHEF Radio” that I want to talk about and describe to people why it is so important because, if you’re not working in a restaurant that has lineage that would trace back to why you do these things, then you’ll never know.

Thomas Keller is a genius on so many levels. He’s the greatest American chef that was ever born. The details that he’s produced out of his kitchen make such a difference. In my kitchen, I had a framed sign: “Sense of Urgency.” He has the same thing in his kitchen. As chefs, emulating the greats can get you so much further than if you’re trying to figure [it] out on your own.

All those little details matter. They make up the foundation of a great organized kitchen. It shows that if I’m a chef that’s saying, “You need to cut the tape,” and I’m doing it, they’re going to think twice about the next time they put something in the walk-in. Making sure it’s that ninety degrees. It’s not just throwing it on a shelf in there all disheveled. They’re going to think, the next time they see something on the floor, the corner of the grout in the back of the walk-in, they’re going to think, “Okay. I need to look at that detail a little deeper. I need to get back there and clean it.” Those little things.

I truly believe discipline and attention to detail is the absolute bedrock, the foundation, of being great because you can’t build your house on sand. You have to have the real foundation.

Kirk Bachmann: So well said. I’m stealing at least three or four of those. Intention with everything you do or what you do. That’s the key right there. I absolutely love it. For this next generation of cooks and chefs that come up, unless we are the ones to share those stories with them – you’re right. Thomas Keller is the greatest chef born on American soil – and we’ve got to pass that word on. Absolutely love it.

Speaking of standards and quality, I’d be super remiss if I didn’t mention that we actually met for the first time in January in New York City, where you were inducted into the Disciples of Escoffier. What an event! Met your family. We were at Jean-Georges Tin Building, which was just fabulous.

For our listeners, the Disciples of Escoffier is an international gastronomic society dedicated to honoring the memory of Escoffier. What’s cool about the organization – and there are people all around the world that are a part of this organization – but it brings together professionals: professional chefs, even culinary enthusiasts who are committed to maintaining and promoting not only the traditions of French cuisine and Escoffier, but also standards of excellence.

Gosh, it was such a cool honor to see you that evening. Jean-Georges made an appearance!

Eli Kulp: He did. After I left, of course. It was all good, though.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh! You had left the building by the time? Yeah, he showed up really late. You’re right. You’re right.

Eli Kulp: I had morning appointments back in Philly, and I wasn’t able to stay up in New York that night.

Food from Sustenance to Passion

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. He had some big event. He was opening up a new restaurant, and he shows up with – I don’t know – it was a tattered copy of “Le Guide.” It was wrapped in a rubber band. He softly opened it up for Michel Escoffier to sign. It was pretty cool.

Let’s dive into your restaurant group and podcasting in just a second. Can we go back to young Eli? I read that you grew up in a small rural town, Washington, and food wasn’t really your focal point. When did that all change? Walk us through when you decided, “Hey, I’m going to culinary school. I’m going to go to the CIA, and this is what I’m going to do.” I always love these stories.

Eli Kulp: Yeah. My parents: neither of them are from the Pacific Northwest. They were traveling across the country in their Volkswagen bus, and they came across this little tiny town in the middle of nowhere in Washington state called Mossyrock. That’s where they settled. They found a small piece of property. They purchased [it] for $8000. They had a single-wide old blue, metal-outsides trailer. Our house was on wheels. You could see the wheels. I remember, the back of the house actually had taillights, so when you hooked it up to move, it already had the taillights on there ready to go. Easy-peasy. Just move it one place to the next.

Growing up there, food was more sustenance than anything. We had a vegetable garden. We lived off the land. We had goats. We had ducks. It was one of those things where it wasn’t foreign to me, this idea of fresh vegetables, food. I know where it came from. I remember cutting chickens’ heads off and watching them run around. As a kid, it’s almost funny, hilarious, but it gave me respect for where food comes from, knowing that.

However, in our town or anywhere close to our town, there was not anything even close to good cooking happening. The town had five hundred people in it. A lot of rednecks, hillbillies, big trucks, loggers, mill workers. The timber industry is the king around there. My dad was a logger. I remember watching him lace on those logging boots, head out the door early in the morning, get back late at night just to put food on the table.

We grew up beneath the poverty line. I say that, but we weren’t poor. My mom made clothes. We just made it all happen.

When I was fourteen years old…we had motorcycles growing up, but we didn’t have a lot of money, and I wanted a new dirt bike. That was my goal. My dad said, “You’re going to have to find a job. If you want something like that, you’re going to have to find a job because we don’t have the money for it.”

At that time, a woman, a very intrepid spirit, had moved from one of the larger towns in Washington state into this small town. We did have summer tourism. We had tourists that were coming in the summer because we had a lot of lakes and recreational areas. The tourism industry was decent size for a small town. The population probably doubled during the summer. So she came to the city and was like, “I’m going to open up a restaurant.” It was called the Irish Rose Cafe. It had linens on the table. It had linen napkins. My first job, my dad said, “Go see if they have a dishwasher job.” They did have one, luckily, so I got in there. They gave me a cummerbund, a bow tie, a white shirt, and they said, “All right. You’re going to bus tables, and you’re going to wash dishes.” I was like, “All right.”

Here I am in this small town in this little out-of-place restaurant doing this, and I end up staying there all the way through high school. I would take one sport a year, so I would take some time off for a few months once a year, and then I would work the rest. I was able to buy my dirt bike and buy everything that goes along with it. By the time I left there, I knew what I wanted to do.

I didn’t go directly to the Culinary Institute. I actually went to a small vocational college down near Portland, Oregon. I did my first culinary school there. After that, I stayed in Portland for four years, and then up to Seattle for another four years before heading to the Culinary Institute in New York.

I did that because I chased money very young. I think by the time I was nineteen or twenty, I was a “sous chef” at an Irish Pub, which didn’t mean much because it doesn’t matter if you’re a sous chef or a chef; if you’re cooking crap food then you’re only going to get so far. I realized that once I was in Seattle. “I need to make a change.” It was great. It was fun. We had a blast working because work, party, have fun, hang out, all that. But I wasn’t doing what I needed to do, and when I was 25 years old, I realized that. “Okay, I’m going to head out to New York and see what I can do.”

I always had this desire to check out the East Coast. I had a friend who also went to the same culinary school and then went to the CIA, so I was inspired by his path. After that I just stayed in New York.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I love that story. I just pulled a map up when you were talking because – I don’t know that we talked about this. I went to the University of Oregon. I worked in Portland – I’m much older than you – but I worked in Portland back in the day, and I’ve got kids up in the Northwest. I’ve spent a lot of time. I’m looking at the map: Cannon Beach, Astoria, Mossyrock – not far from I-5. That’s a super cool area. You’re not too far from a lot of stuff.

Did you go to a community college, vocational school, in Portland before…?

Eli Kulp: Exactly, yeah. I was actually in Vancouver, Washington, which is basically a suburb of Portland, right across. I’m not talking about Vancouver, B.C. It’s on the very southern border. It looks at Portland across the Columbia River. It’s just a bedroom community of Portland at this point.

Kirk Bachmann: Vancouver’s cool. Vancouver, traditional port town, but it’s really become popular because it’s a little less expensive than Portland. When’s the last time you were there?

Eli Kulp: Oh man! It’s been at least twenty years since I was in Portland. I spend most of my time, when I go back, in the Seattle area or where my parents are, still in the hometown. A lot of my friends moved. We migrated together for this job up to Seattle, so a lot of them are in that area.

Hopefully, this summer I’m actually going to be driving up the coast from Los Angeles and hitting some spots. So then I plan on stopping in Portland and checking out some restaurants for the day.

A Look at What’s Out There

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. It’s a great restaurant scene. The Northwest is beautiful. I love it.

Talk to us a little bit about culinary school. Did it meet your expectations?

Eli Kulp: I say this about culinary school: you get out of it what you put into it. That’s it. Simply, you can go and have fun and hang out and barely get through it, and then at the end you spent $48,000, and now I’m just working a line cook position at Disney. Or you can put real effort into and get the most out of it and really use your resources to set you up for the right path.

For me, did I need to go to CIA? Did I need to spend that money? Probably not. At that point, I had more ability than I realized. Once I got into culinary school, and once I got into New York kitchens as an extern – I remember somebody coming up to me and saying, “You’re an extern? You clearly have experience.” I was like, okay, I can cook next to these people who have been in New York for multiple years. Some people just have a proficiency in it. Cooking has always come easy to me, the cooking side of it.

What the CIA did for me, going there, was it allowed me to take a little bit, learn the history of food, learn the traditions, the stories – learn about Escoffier, learn about the people that had come, the Paul Bocuse the other great chefs that have come before us. Also I remember, it was the first time I had heard the idea of modernist cooking.

One of the first courses you take there is Gastronomy. I remember basically pulling it out of a hat to research a chef. The chef that I had to research – a lot were more historical or past chefs – but the chef that I pulled was Ferran Adria, who I’d never heard of before. When I started reading about it. I think the “New York Times” did an expose on him, talked about the carrot foam that he was doing. This was the first [I’d heard of that.] “Foam?! What are you talking about, foam? Putting foam on food? What does this mean?” I started looking more into it, and I remember doing a demonstration of this carrot foam for the class. Not that I’ve ever really delved into modernist cooking. I do think I’ve taken a lot from the different methods or methodology that they’ve achieved certain things, whether it’s the perfect crispiness on a guinea hen, or the knowledge of how something cooks. I do believe that knowing what’s happening at a chemical level, at the molecular levels of what’s happening to something while it’s cooking, while you’re marinating, is really important to have.

I think what the culinary school did was it really set me up and gave me an understanding of what’s out there in the world, what are the possibilities. It also allowed me to find a really great spot to let in New York for my first kitchen to get that experience. The people that I met there are still people that I talk with today. We all have worked together in kitchens together over the years. Those relationships really set me on the right path.

I don’t regret going to the Culinary Institute whatsoever. For me, it wasn’t really about the skills I learned in all the classes. Honestly, I took very little from that that I would still use today, however it did put me on the right path versus me trying to go to New York and find the right kitchen. Back then, there wasn’t eater.com where you could just find the 36 essential restaurants to a city; you had to really know where to go. I didn’t really know where to go. I probably would have just landed in some average kitchen and very well possibly may have never found my true capabilities working in a fine dining restaurant for chefs who had worked for Daniel Boulud.

When you work for a chef that worked for Daniel Boulud, you’re not just inheriting Daniel’s food; you’re inheriting the food that he learned before. You’re inheriting knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation. If you’re working for just some slob chef who worked for other slob chefs, you’re getting that passed down to you. Looking back, that’s really what the most important aspect of going to the CIA was for me.

A Contrast of French and Italian

Kirk Bachmann: Did you feel like you transitioned from French fine dining to more of an emphasis on cooking Italian at Del Posto? I read a quote where you said, “You can’t cook Italian food angry. If you’re mad, go cook an Italian supper.” Did you segue into this Italian theme?

Eli Kulp: The first three chefs I worked for in New York were pretty insane French-style kitchens. Each of them, I felt, was worse than the [last] when it came to their communication style, their abusive culture. [While] I learned a lot from those kitchens, I also learned a lot of what not to do or how not to be. I think sometimes in our industry, those are even the more important lessons that you have to allow yourself to learn.

I spent about two years in total between these three restaurants. One of them was Oceania. Again, the chef had just left. He was a sous at Daniel prior to that. He got a ton of amazing press and write-ups. It was a beautiful restaurant. I learned a ton there, especially sauce work and that type of work. He was also, in my opinion, a sociopath. He was cruel to people. He really was cruel. In fact, if that were to happen today, he probably would be in jail with certain assault charges. For me, that was my first look at what happens in a New York City kitchen.

From there, I worked for a chef named Laurent Tourondel, who had a bunch of great restaurants. French. Another chef, it was just like chaos in these kitchens, yelling and screaming and everything else.

Then I walked into Del Posto. A good friend of mine today still, Mario Carbone, was working there. I had met him at the last place I worked prior to that because his girlfriend was a manager there. He would come in, and we would talk and whatnot. He was a sous chef at Del Posto. He had worked for Mario Batali since he was eighteen years old. What happened, really, was the restaurant I was at, where I met him, got a horrible one-star review in the “New York Times.” I just had to bail. The ship was sinking; I just had to get off the ship.

So I asked Mario, “Hey, do you have any positions there?”

He said, “Yeah, sure. Come in and stage and meet Chef Ladner.”

So I came in. On my first day there, I walked into the kitchen, and Chef Ladner, who is very tall – he’s probably six-foot-five and lanky. I was the first one in the kitchen as far as I knew because I had gotten there early. I just saw him sitting at the pass. He was very gently just pushing up and down a salad spinner, small salad spinner. He had some greens in there. I remember walking in.

“Hey, Chef. How are you? I’m Eli. I’m here to stage.”

He kind of looked up at me, and he pushes his glasses up on his nose. “Okay. Welcome.”

That moment, I thought, “Okay, this is different.” Immediately different. I said, “Can I ask what you’re doing there?”

“Oh yeah. Check these out. These are these micro-greens.”

I was like, “Oh. Never seen a micro-green before.” It was literally some of the first micro-greens that had ever been produced from the Chef’s Garden, who essentially started the idea of micro-greens back fifteen years ago. Immediately, I was like, “Okay.”

Fast forward another two and half years at Del Posto, I left there with a profound appreciation for the way that Italians look at food versus maybe a French contemporary chef would look at food. We received four stars, the first Italian restaurant to get four stars in thirty or forty years. Because Italian food, if you look at it by the same measuring stick, it’s hard to cook Italian food in the same way that those contemporary French restaurants that can produce beautifully plated and super manipulated food. The carrot that looks perfect. You’ve got that that looks perfect. In nature, that’s not how it works. Carrots aren’t meant to be perfect, and even though we might carve them into the perfect size that we want by using labor, it doesn’t make it any tastier.

Working at Del Posto and really understanding how the complete package of the restaurant can equate to a four-star dining experience was a great lesson. It wasn’t just about how beautiful the food was. It was just as much beautiful ambiance, the plateware, all the different aspects. And the food, of course, had to be delicious, had to be executed at a high level, and we did that. It just wasn’t done in the same manipulative fashion that a French kitchen would have earned it. It was beautifully just a carrot roasted that had just been scrubbed and still had its ridges on there. It was roasted perfectly or grilled rather than peeling that baby carrot until it’s exactly the same, or every one looks exactly the same, and they still have their little green top on it a half-inch long. You spent five minutes on every carrot, getting it there. This is just a different approach to that same idea.

The New York Experience

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. I was getting tingles listening to you describe that experience. I had one wonderful experience at Del Posto back in the day with my wife. It was so almost surreal. When you walk in, the bar is to the left and they had these booths to the right. We had that first booth. My wife and I had bolognese and a million other things, but the bolognese was absolutely unbelievable. On top of all that, to the left at that bar, Mario Batali was sitting with friends in his classic orange vest.

I don’t know if you remember. There’s a staircase that’s kind of weird. At the front door, there’s a staircase that goes downstairs. My wife was facing the door, and she’s like, “Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud just walked down the steps.” I thought, “What am I doing here!?” There must have been some sort of event downstairs.

Eli Kulp: You know what that was? That was a New York experience. So many times things happen in New York that just wouldn’t happen in other cities, whether it was a celebrity walking in or some other meeting of minds of all these luminaries, whether it is in our industry or otherwise. Things like that happen in New York every day, and that’s why people would go there. The experiences that you will have in New York City versus other cities are just different.

People say, “Do you still need to go to New York City to be a great chef?” No, you don’t have to, but if you can, do it. Because there is still simply no other place maybe on the planet – maybe a couple of cities on the planet – where you’re able to get the concentration of talent and like-minded people that have incredible ambition and are willing to risk so much in order to achieve so much. There’s no other place in America, that’s for sure. The risk-reward aspect of potentially even opening in New York versus opening in another city is great because you have, at your fingertips, you have all the different publishing houses. You have all the different magazines and websites. Everything is there. The concentration of wealth that can support your vision potentially is there as well.

New York is a crazy place. You also have to be careful in New York because it’s easy to get wrapped up in that lifestyle. I’ve seen a lot of chefs who went to New York, and they just had to leave New York because they got too deep into the party scene. They weren’t controlling their habits. Eventually, they went from having a lot of potential to leaving New York with their tails between their legs because they didn’t have great experiences there. They got too wrapped up in the New York scene versus staying focused, keeping your head down, and just learning from the best.

Rise to the Challenge

Kirk Bachmann: There is a push there. I grew up in Chicago. Similar push but different. I fully, one-hundred percent agree.

Let’s transition to 2012. You moved to Philly where your career takes off exponentially. A “Bon Appetit” article mentioned, and I quote, “Kulp’s cooking helped invigorate the Philadelphia dining scene and push it into the national spotlight.”

Two-fold question – and congrats, of course. What drew you to Philly, and how do you push the dining scene into the national spotlight? What were some of the concepts that took Philly by storm?

Eli Kulp: I was working at Torrisi Italian Specialties up in New York, which was this tiny little restaurant in Nolita. It had 22 seats in it. What that restaurant lacked in size, it made up for with ambition and desire to be great. Ten-fold. It was Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone. They are the ones who opened it with $250,000 and a bunch of help from their families. They scrounged money together. It was this tiny little place, all in 900 square feet. You had 500 square feet upstairs in the dining room, and you had another 400 downstairs, this really low-ceiling, tiny little spot. We crammed everything we could in that.

From that restaurant, so many things spawned off. Their company now is global. It’s one of the leading, most sought-after reservations in New York City, whether it is at Carbone or at Torrisi. They took over the Four Seasons in New York City. Now it’s called the Grill. They are gobbling up these iconic restaurants. Now they are currently running Marea. I’d say it was Del Posto Number Two, so to speak, as far as Italian food and the ambition that they were going for.

I was originally written into the ownership papers for Carbone because they had recruited me because we all worked together. Once Torrisi took off, they were looking to grow outside of Torrisi, so I came down and I ran Torrisi with Rich Torrisi. Mario Carbone started working on some other projects.

I told them, “Listen. I’m here for your guys. I want to support you guys. I love you guys. I love what you’re doing. However, I will take a pay cut. I will transition my career to help you guys, but it has to be a two-way street.” They were like, “Okay. Great. Yes. We will help you get your restaurant one day if you help us achieve ours first.” Makes sense.

The way it worked out, I just realized one day, “You know what? I love these guys. I can sit here and be in this company for a very long time and make a great living.” But I needed to prove to myself that I could do it on my own. And when I say “on my own,” I mean as a chef, not necessarily…everybody needs a good partner. I think that’s what I found in Philadelphia.

I wasn’t looking to leave New York, but a recruiter that I was using for placement had recently been in touch with a lady down in Philadelphia. He said, “Would you ever consider moving to Philadelphia?”

I was like, “No. Why would I do that?”

He’s like, “Listen. Can you just take this call for me and do me a favor?’

“Okay. Sure.” So I ended up talking to my now-business partner after twelve years, Ellen Yin. I remember talking to her.

Fast forward a couple months down the road. She would tell people, “I called Eli to interview him, but he ended up interviewing me.” Because I wasn’t going to just leave all of my connections in New York just to go to Philadelphia and be lost in the food world because I’m not able to cook at the ambition level that I really wanted to.

Two things were important to me. One of them was that I did not have to dumb my food down if I went to Philadelphia. That was really important. I didn’t know the dining scene there, and I wasn’t sure what it could support, but I did know that a couple of other chefs had recently [gone] down there from New York. They were opening things, and there were some cool things happening, once I started doing a little bit of research on it. Up to that point, I hadn’t.

And the other important thing was it was a place where I could more easily raise a family. New York, as good as it is, is not conducive to growing a family. It’s really hard. You can do it. People do it all the time. Plenty of kids grew up in New York. It’s just a little more challenging. You’re not going to have a lot of space. You’re probably not going to have a backyard. That’s why you have Central Park. That’s why you have Prospect Park in Brooklyn, so you have outdoor space. The reality of it is, it’s just different. It’s challenging. I wasn’t against it.

But I was like, “Hey, let’s give it a shot.” So after speaking with her and feeling like I could produce food that I wasn’t dumbing down, I said, “All right. Let’s go for it.” From there, it was great. I didn’t have to do that. I felt the food that I was doing was as good as food I was cooking in New York. People could get that experience, not only in the kitchen if they came and worked for me, they were getting New York City kitchen experience because I wasn’t changing my expectations as a chef. I wasn’t changing as a leader, but I also wasn’t changing the food. I felt really proud.

What Torrisi did for me was open this idea that you can cook food that is really focused on an interesting idea or concept that you’re looking at the food around you in New York City as inspiration. What they would do, even though the restaurant was through-and-through Italian, because they were two Italian-American chefs, the food that they were cooking was a blend of New York City and Italian. For example, Jamaican beef patty ragu on a turmeric-based cavatelli, which emulated the flavors of the Jamaican beef patty that you would get all over New York City, especially in Queens. We would do different food inspired by different neighborhoods, but we’d cook it in a very authentic and approachable way through the Italian lens.

When I came to Philadelphia, I applied that same idea to Philadelphia. I’m not from Pennsylvania, but my grandparents were. My family, the Kulp name is a Pennsylvania-based name. Both my grandmother’s side and my grandfather’s side both came through Penn’s Landing, which, ironically, is where I live now. I look at the river that they sailed up on in their ships and got off. I look at that river every single day out my window. For me, it was an opportunity to explore my roots as a Kulp and to understand what the food ways of Philadelphia are, what the food ways of Pennsylvania are, and to start creating dishes that told the story of Philadelphia, of Pennsylvania.

A lot of times the chefs here had been cooking French food, Italian food, as authentic as possible as if it was in France or in Italy. People could go there and experience something different, but nobody had ever looked at Pennsylvania’s rich history as the Keystone State. It’s called the Keystone State for a reason; it’s because the Keystone is that one stone above an archway that holds all the other stones in place. The Keystone State being, essentially, the state that held together the Union. It was the breadbasket of the country before everything went to the Midwest. It was the biggest producer of whiskeys and ryes in America before things went to Kentucky. All these really integral aspects of the country were based right here in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Of course, the Declaration of Independence and the history and all that, the Liberty Bell. All that’s based right here within a couple of blocks of my apartment. There’s this rich history here that was so fun to explore. While I cooked through that Italian lens, the food is, without a doubt, very Philadelphia, very (Pennsylvania-based.

Big Years in Philly

Kirk Bachmann: You’ve mentioned, or I’ve read, that 2014 and ‘15 were big years. What was monumental about those years in particular?

Eli Kulp: When I came down to Philadelphia from New York, people obviously paid attention. “Oh, who is this New York chef come to Philadelphia?” A lot of times, New York chefs don’t do well in Philadelphia because Philadelphians have a chip on their shoulders. However, because I was linked at the hip with Ellen Yin, it was kind of a pass. “Oh, if Ellen likes this guy, he must be okay.” Immediately, I felt that it gave me a leg up and people trusted the food that I was cooking a little bit more. Where if I had just come down by myself, it probably would have been a different story.

You asked earlier what the food that I was doing, what brought a national spotlight to the food, or what did that mean. I think it was simply because my experience with Torrisi and the amount of press and energy that was around that restaurant, and bringing some of that here to Philadelphia, it allowed a real story to be told of the Philadelphia food. It wasn’t just me. There were other chefs that were doing really cool things. Michael Solomonov. Zahav was about seven or eight years old by that time, and they were really taking off. Of course, Marc Vetri, one of the founding fathers down here in the chef industry, I don’t want to take anything away from him. He was also a decade before me doing exactly what I was doing in the sense of putting Philadelphia food on the map. It wasn’t as if I single-handedly turned Philadelphia into a national spotlight. I was just fortunate enough to be able to play a part in that.

I came out in 2012. We reopened Fork. Fork had been open for fifteen years. Ellen had the vision that she wanted to switch it up. She wanted to make it fresh and new again. Bringing me on.

I said, “Listen, I’ll do this, but we need to make a lot of changes to the dining room.” At that point, at that time, tablecloths were being removed from a lot of dining room tables. This new era of fine dining was coming into play across the country. It wasn’t about the fine linens and the beautiful tablecloths and the cushy chairs anymore; it was really about the overall experience in creating something fresh and new. We did that, and we launched that. It was a great success. It was a great response to a restaurant turning fifteen years old and making changes.

Then from there, as soon as I came down here, she had already had this little restaurant next to Fork called Fork, Etc. It was just like a little grab-and-go spot, simple focaccia sandwiches. They were already baking their own bread, so there was already that established in the building. I just wanted to basically pour jet fuel on this idea and see where it goes. I love sandwiches. I ate sandwiches for breakfast as a kid. Tuna fish sandwich, ham and cheese, whatever it was. My brother would be eating a bowl of cereal in the morning; I would be eating sandwiches. Sandwiches, for me, are something that I adore.

The Philadelphia hoagie culture, as we call it – we call it hoagies here. Don’t call them a sub. Don’t call it a hero. It’s a hoagie – it is deep, and people are frenetic and excited about hoagies all the time. One hundred percent, 24-seven. You want to get in a heated conversation, start a debate about the best hoagie – dare I say, cheesesteak. I stay out of the cheesesteak battle. It’s just not my thing. I’ll let other people fight that one. One of the first things I ever had when I came down here was a roast pork and broccoli rabe with sharp provolone, which in my mind is the quintessential perfect Philadelphia sandwich because the cheesesteak has been so bastardized. There are so many horrible cheesesteak shops. There are only a couple that I would ever recommend to somebody to eat.

Getting down here and realizing, “Oh, this is a sandwich town!” They love to put stuff between bread. Immediately, I saw this Fork, Etc., which was doing okay, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. I said, “Ellen, what if we turn this into a new concept, and we also add a dinner component to it.” From that, High Street was born. We were doing really chef-driven sandwiches. It was an all-day cafe. It was really the first all-day cafe that a chef – and I’m not trying to toot my own horn here – but a fine-dining chef that really applied the same level of expectations to an egg and cheese and bacon sandwich as they would a perfect lamb crepinette. Every single detail – where the egg came from, the bread, how we baked the bread, what was on the bread – every single detail was thought of, and we created these incredible delicious breakfast sandwiches and hoagies that people just lost their minds over. It was just crazy. People were just going nuts about this restaurant.

I say one of the luckiest things a chef can do is have a restaurant that you can say it was like capturing lightning in a bottle. Torrisi was that restaurant in New York. High Street was that restaurant for me in Philadelphia. People couldn’t write about this restaurant fast enough. We had an incredible baker who was making these incredible breads. His name was Alex Bois. He had just left Sullivan Street Bakery in New York, moved down to Philadelphia, and it just happened that we got together. He just went absolutely crazy with the bread. So cool. Really chef-driven flavors inside the bread. Looking at bread differently.

“Bon Appetit” was one of the first magazines – it was Andrew Knowlton and he’s the restaurant guy that eats at a thousand restaurants a year, finding the best ones, and he found us. He loved it. That really kind of blew that restaurant up. If you want to rank them, we’re in the hot ten every year. We’re number two on that list. It just went bonkers. It was really cool to see. It was really fun. It was really fulfilling.

Then from there, we took over a restaurant up in Rittenhouse Square. It’s called a.kitchen and a.bar. It’s still in our portfolio now. It’s a great restaurant, wine bar, French-ish, but we’ve had the same chef there for about seven years now. It was great.

2014, 2015, things were great. We already had signed a lease in March of 2015 to expand into New York, which I was really excited about it. It was a little bit of a homecoming. I spent about two years in Philly, and this was giving us, we felt, an opportunity to bring a Philadelphia concept into New York, which was unique in its own right. Not a lot of restaurants have done that. We felt we had a strong brand. People from New York were coming to Philadelphia and eating High Street because they had heard about it and read about it. They were like, “Wow! There’s nothing else like this anywhere.” We felt really great about going into New York. We got our stuff together and signed the lease in March of 2015, which kind of segues into the next part of my story.

In May of 2015, I was commuting to New York, ironically. I was in a train derailment outside of Philadelphia which, as you said earlier in the intro, I suffered a spinal cord injury.

A Life-Changing Accident

Kirk Bachmann: You were commuting around that time between Philly and New York quite a bit. On one of those commutes. If you’re comfortable today, chef, walking us through that day.

Eli Kulp: I have no problem talking about it. It doesn’t bother me.

It was one of those things where life has a way of correcting you sometimes, maybe if you get too far ahead of your skis, too far over your skis a little bit. I’m not saying I was because I felt like the work and the effort, all those years I’d put in before this was giving me the opportunity to go into New York and open a restaurant that I was really excited about. I blame my ambition a little bit for the accident. And I did, for a while, maybe not so much anymore. I think when you’re injured, you try to blame something and find a reason for it. I blamed my ambition, wanting to do a restaurant in multiple cities and all this stuff.

That day was a unique day. I was actually living up in New York at that point for about a year with my wife and new child because her job didn’t transfer to Philadelphia as it was expected to. It was too hard on her, so we ended up keeping an apartment there. I was commuting to New York. For people that might be hearing this and thinking, “Wow, that seems like a long way,” it’s really about a 75-minute train ride to Philadelphia from New York. Vice versa, a lot of people do commute. A lot of reverse commuters that people live down there and will go up there a few times a week. I was doing that.

I had actually come down on what would have been my scheduled day off. It was a Tuesday. I came down because I cooked a luncheon for some ladies who were a part of this forty-under-forty class that I was a part of for the Philadelphia Business Journal, which just highlights people younger than forty who are doing interesting things around the city. They asked me because there were a group of about ten ladies who were on that list, and they wanted to do a luncheon. I was like, “Sure. I’ll come down.”

Came down, cooked it. I stayed around for service. It was a slower night. Every time I would commute, I always took the eleven o’clock train, but because this was a different type of day, I took the earlier train home, which was the train that ended up crashing. I remember getting on that train and getting cozy. I was in the second car behind the engine. You had the business class car, then you had the quiet car. It was really quiet at night for the train ride for that time of day. I was actually really struck by how empty the train was when I got on it. “Wow, look at all these empty seats.” So I got in the first seat, a double seat where a group of four can sit and they can look at each other and talk, but there was nobody on the train. There were only about twelve people in that train car. I took that seat, got cozy.

About nine minutes into the train ride, the engineer, who thought he was on a straight stretch heading north, hadn’t actually left Philadelphia, and there was a left-handed curve coming up that was rated for fifty miles an hour. However, he accelerated to 108 miles an hour, and as soon as he hit that curve, the train wasn’t able to stay on the tracks. It launched off. Quite the accident.

The car in front of me, the business class car, it really looked like a tin can had just been opened up. It was almost unrecognizable because it also had hit a concrete barrier [which] had just ripped it to shreds. Eight people lost their lives on that train. Really horrific injuries that happened.

For me, I was right behind that train car. What happened with me when the train was turning left and veered off the track to the right, it launched me in the air, and when I launched, I thought, “Well, this is it. I’m dead.” How could you not feel that? But what happened, I turned about 45 degrees in the air so that my neck hit squarely on the luggage rack across from me. I basically fell into a heap of dead weight. I tried to get up as soon as I could, but nothing moved. I was pretty certain at that point what happened. I hit my neck. There was this crazy electric feeling, sound that went through my body. I tell people, it’s like if somebody turned an amp up to ten and just railed on all the strings of an electric guitar. That sound went through my body. I felt that. I kind of knew what had happened. I hoped that wasn’t the case, but when you can’t move everything and you knew you hit your neck, that was pretty obvious.

That was really it. I had one little scratch below my knee, and that was the only injury I had. I wasn’t injured in any other way. After about forty-five minutes before I was rescued, but I was essentially buried under the luggage rack above me. People couldn’t see me. It was dark also. I was yelling for people because I knew people couldn’t see me. I was yelling for other people’s attention. What happens when you have a spinal cord injury that high, it’s not just paralysis of your other muscles, but also things like your diaphragm. You wouldn’t think it would be on that list of things that would get knocked out, but it is. It’s a muscle. So here I am, trying to yell, but I could barely even make a sound because the diaphragm wasn’t working. Because of that, people couldn’t really hear me. Once they did, they were like, “Ma’am, we hear you. We hear you.”

I was like, “I’m not a ma’am. I’m Eli Kulp.” I gave them the restaurant name. “Call my business partner. Let her know.” Because I [thought] people would recognize the name, so at least they knew I was there.

Once I was rescued, it was actually one big fireman dude. I’m like 220-something pounds. Some dude just comes in and grabs me up. I actually met the guy who did that. They got me on a stretcher. Before you know it, I was in the hospital in surgery, thinking maybe there is some hope that they would fix me in surgery. But nothing ever happened.

People think, “Oh, you’re paralyzed. You lost the use of your legs. You’re in a wheelchair.” No, I’m quadriplegic. That means all four limbs are affected. My level of injury is from essentially the chest down, which impacts my ability to use my hands. I don’t have any hand function. It might look like I use my hands for some things, which I can, but the fingers don’t move in any way that I can use them for certain things, like grabbing things, which is really what separates us from hoofed animals, for all intents and purposes. Things like that are impossible.

It was very quickly [apparent]. It was the number one thing I thought of as soon as I got hurt. “My career is done.” Then it was like, “Okay. I have a son. I have a family. How does that impact it? Of course. I didn’t know how injured I was, either. I could have been bleeding out. I didn’t even know it. It was definitely a very intense point in my life. A lot of question marks were there as I was laying there, waiting for somebody to get me out of there.

Finding an Anchor

Kirk Bachmann: So appreciative of you sharing this story, chef. You mentioned, and I quote, “that after an accident like that, you need a why. At the end of the day, there is now why.” How did your perspective on life change that day?

Eli Kulp: I think a lot of times when there is an accident like this, there is a reason. After going through rehab and being around hundreds of people who were going through a similar thing like this, a lot of times [I’d ask] “Oh, what happened to you?” “Oh, I was diving, and I hit something underneath the surface.” Or, “I was drunk, and I fell off a balcony.” It was all these what-ifs. But there were people like, “I was literally mowing my lawn and a branch fell out of the tree and hit me and now I’m paralyzed.” There is no “why.” It’s just wrong place, wrong time. Unfortunately, as humans, we’re vulnerable like that. You see it every night on the news. You see it every single day that somebody dies from some random thing. Gunshot that they were just nearby. Whatever it is.

For me, it was figuring out what that was. “What do I blame?” I was so mad that this happened. For me, I blamed my ambition. I really stopped even thinking about food and restaurants for a while. I couldn’t stomach it. This massive part of me was carved out, and I no longer had the ability to do that. It was just so painful.

Unfortunately, another side effect of the injury was that my personal life started to fall apart. The wife I had at the time, things were not going well with that. Not only was I dealing with this realization that my career was over as a chef, I was also trying to figure out how do I become a single dad in the middle of all of this with someone who wasn’t being helpful on that end. There was an extreme amount of challenges that I was going through at that time.

I can look back now and say, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but, man, I’ll tell you what: that almost killed me. That was almost it for me. I almost didn’t have the ability to move forward and was contemplating suicide on a daily basis. In fact, I had a spot picked out on the East River that did not have guardrails set up that if it got to the point where I wanted to, I could just wheel myself right into the river and that would be it. I thought about it many times. It was to the point where if I didn’t have my son there, who was three years old at the time of the accident, I really didn’t have a reason to stay around. It’s hard to say, but I’m not the only one who has ever felt like that.

Every day, people feel like there’s no reason to move on. Sometimes you just need somebody to throw you an anchor. For me, it was this therapist who was at Mt. Sinai Hospital. I started going to these group get-togethers of other people who had injuries. Everybody trying to figure out their new lives together, using each other, leaning on each other. This one therapist, Angela Riccobono who is still there – she’s still changing people’s lives on a daily basis – but she was the one that was able to paint the picture for me.

She said, “Listen. Here are all these other people who also went through extremely challenging times. Look at them now.” She had photos of people getting married afterwards. All these examples. Sometimes you just need examples of other people getting through it. Even though it might be hard to picture that. [You think,] “I’m so bad off right now. I can’t imagine that being me.” The reality of it is, it just takes that one person to believe in you and show you that there is light at the end of the tunnel for you to get through.

Small achievements. It’s the small wins every day. Starting to feel like you are more resilient. You do have a purpose. You can still help in some way. It might be different, but it can help. That’s why I don’t mind telling my story because even if it is one person who gets inspired by it, then that’s great.

Kirk, if there’s one thing I want people to take away from this, it’s that perspective is everything. No matter how bad of a day you’re having, there’s probably somebody else that is going through something worse than you at that time. For me, looking at the world in general, the days that I still struggle, I have crazy neuropathic pain that can consume me on some days, to the point where I can’t even leave the house because my muscles are so tight. My muscles will have spasms. My whole body will almost convulse forward. It’s almost dangerous for me to be out and about. I’m in a powered wheelchair and I have to make sure I’m not running people over. Even on those days, I still think, “This sucks. This is so bad.” But you have to have perspective. You have to understand that you’re not the only one going through something. There is probably somebody else going through something worse.

Even if that doesn’t give you a lot of solace and calm you down, you’ve got to remember: it’s just today. There’s always tomorrow, and there’s an opportunity for it to get better. If you are able to find people that can help you and that you can allow yourself to be vulnerable even on the worst days, and say, “You know what? I need help. I can’t get through this alone,” there’s going to be somebody out there for you. There’s going to be somebody that can respond and say, “You know what? Hey. I got you.” I think those are lessons that I really took from it, and that I really want to make sure that people know because there is a lot of pain. There is a lot of suffering out there. Sometimes you just have to have the ability to say, “I can’t do this alone anymore.”

Kirk Bachmann: I’m so thankful for your story, chef. You said, just a moment ago, “Light at the end of the tunnel.” You saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Persevered. You found a way to keep your passion for life and the culinary industry alive, which is astonishing. Remarkable. It’s easy for me to say, but it goes far beyond resilience.

I’m curious, today as we chat, how your relationship with food has changed in those years since the accident?

Eli Kulp: My relationship with food, I think, has evolved. I don’t do a lot of cooking, even with the restaurant group. Even though I’m still a partner, I’ve actively challenged myself to find other ways of fulfilling my creative itch. I think as chefs, one of the biggest chefs that we love to do is lead people, and we love to be a way that we can change people for the better every day we go in. That’s something I know that I can still do even though I’m not in the kitchen.

I also was lucky enough to be a partner in a company when I got injured. A lot of people don’t have that luxury. A lot of people may just be a line cook. If you get injured, you didn’t have an opportunity to build your name, your reputation. I’m thankful that I had that so when I did come across the idea of podcasting, for example, that I did have a platform built in. People were like, “Oh. I know this guy. Let me tune in.” I realized that. That was a luxury that I had. Even though I can sit here and say, “Anybody who goes through an injury like me should be able to achieve what I did.” That’s not realistic. I had a great partner. We found ways to continue using my abilities within the companies to help shape it even today. But for the most part, I’m not in the kitchen like I was.

Also, I think restaurants aren’t built for people with disabilities. They’re simply not. Luckily, all of our restaurants were accessible. But being in the kitchen? There’s only a finite amount of kitchen space, square footage. Pathways are really – especially the ones that are the highways in the kitchen – if I’m in the kitchen, I’m blocking one of those. I wasn’t getting the same fulfillment from being in the kitchen as I was before.

All of these little details that I started to figure out. It doesn’t feel the same. I want to be there, but it doesn’t feel the same. I’m still trying to put a round peg through a square hole. I was trying to get back what I had as a chef. I realized one day, “You know what? It’s not possible. It simply isn’t possible.” I had to say, what else can I do? Thankfully, I came across this idea of podcasting.

For me, it was a chance and an opportunity to once again get reconnected to the industry that I so dearly missed and the people that make the industry go. Even though as chefs we often work in our own kitchen so often we don’t have a big social life, but even those moments when you’re at an event together, and you’re hanging out with other chefs and you’re connecting with them. Or you have other opportunities to do collaborations with them. I was missing those. For me, that was a major hole in my heart. Podcasting has allowed me to reconnect with the industry that I had spent twenty-five years in by the time I was injured. That was a big hole.

That hole will never be filled. I’ll say that straight right now. It just won’t. It may be covered up a little bit, or it may be filled in slightly, but that hole of not being able to achieve what I really wanted to achieve as a chef, I’ve come to the realization and I’m okay with it, that it’s just not going to be the same ever again.

Reconnecting and Relating

Kirk Bachmann: If I can go towards the entrepreneurial heart, if you will, your success as an entrepreneur: High Street Hospitality Group, working with Ellen Yin, the podcasts. I met Shari Bayer around the same time I met you and had her on the show, as well. She’s doing great! She just interviewed Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse, but the big difference is, it seems like she goes THERE. That’s a sweet gig.

I’m really curious. Thank you for indulging me today and taking so much time. It’s just fascinating chatting with you, chef. I’m humbly going to say from one podcast host to another, what’s the most exhilarating thing for you when you have the ability to be on the other side of the microphone and listen to somebody’s story?

Eli Kulp: I think it’s being able to relate. Every chef has their own unique story, their own unique journey. Often you’ll hear, just like me, I was fourteen years old. I got a dishwashing job at a pizzeria or a cafe, and it went from there. Sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you’ll hear, “I had my doctorate,” or “I was going for my Ph.D. and I just wasn’t in it.” I just recorded with Missy Robbins of Lilia in Brooklyn and Misi Pasta. She was in D.C. at Georgetown. She got a phone call from the late Charlie Trotter because she had a friend that had worked there. She was like, “Maybe I want to dabble in this.” That was how she got into cooking, and look at her go!

Every story, every journey is uniquely and personally that chef’s story. However, when you’re able to connect with somebody and find relatableness between yourself and the guest, it just helps create this feeling of belonging to the industry still. For me, being able to do that on a weekly basis and being able to tell the story of these chefs, it’s an incredible honor. I hear from people all the time. “Oh yeah, of course I’ve known Missy and I’ve known Daniel Boulud, and you think you know them, but you don’t really know them until you spend an hour-and-a-half to two hours with them telling their story. Then you’re like, “Oh. Okay. Now I have a respect for you on a much deeper level.”

Because with podcasting, podcasting is great. We don’t have limits. We’re not beholden to a one-hour news segment, or a half-hour segment, or a fifteen-minute segment, or even a five-minute YouTube clip. Podcasters have an infinite amount of ability to sit there and just talk until you’re done. “Okay. We’ve covered it all.” Then you’re able to splice that up and turn it into something uniquely yours, and there’s still a creative process that’s there.

For me personally, reconnecting at a level where chefs come into the podcast thinking one thing, and then they leave and many of them will be like, “Wow! That was therapeutic. I hadn’t thought about a lot of those details in a very long time.” There is this sense of belonging for me, and that’s what people want. That’s why people work in great cultures – because they create a sense of belonging. For me, being able to do that maybe on a smaller scale with a podcast, but then the thousands of people that tune into each one, they get a sense of that. They’re getting a peek behind the curtain.

A lot of times, chefs will be like, “Listen. I’ve done a lot of podcasts.” A lot of times it’s more of a journalist angle to it, but they’ll leave “CHEF Radio” and be like, “Wow! Thank you. That was great. We connected on a really great level that we all felt that we were speaking the same language.” For me, that’s very fulfilling.

How to Make a Perfect Industry Better

Kirk Bachmann: So well said. You reminded me: a few weeks ago we had the chance to chat with Ferdinand Metz, who was probably the president of the CIA when you were there or thereabouts. That went live this week. It was interesting. I’ve known him for years, but it was such an easy conversation. I could see him getting more and more comfortable and wanting to talk more. He had so much to share. His book is out now. It’s phenomenal. But you’re spot-on.

I read in a past interview along the same lines, chef – and I promise you, just one or two more questions. I could just talk all day with you. It’s super easy. I read in a past interview that you – and this is your quote – “Wanted to shed a light on some areas of the industry that needed change, and use that influence as a recognizable figure in the industry to affect positive change.” Personally, I don’t know if there is a better legacy to leave for the next generation than positive change. More than anything, I want to thank you for those words.

So before I let you go, obviously, we have the big ultimate dish question, but I’m curious [for] so many students that will listen – and chefs, and entrepreneurs, and influencers that will listen to our chat – any words of advice for aspiring cooks?

Eli Kulp: For sure. For sure. Our industry has gone through some serious reckoning over the last five years. I think there’s always an opportunity to make our industry better, any industry, to improve and all of that. I think, though, with “CHEF Radio,” it’s a balance for me. I don’t look at our industry and think, “Oh my God! Look how toxic our industry is as a whole.” Sure, there are bad apples just like in police officers, right. Maybe 0.001 percent of police officers are now changing everybody’s viewpoint on police officers. We know that there might be a percentage of chefs that are horrible and have done really bad things. I don’t think that our industry is as bad as people have wanted to paint the pictures.

Journalists are eager to pin the next sensational article that points fingers at our industry and says how horrible and inequitable and how toxic every kitchen is. That’s just not the reality of it. I want people to understand that you can still achieve the level of skill that it takes to be a great chef today in restaurants and kitchens that are supportive, that have the right mindset, that create a sense of belonging and a culture that you want to be a part of, and a family atmosphere. That was always a goal for me. Sure, I was a hot-head at times, but listen, it’s a passionate industry. At the end of the day, journalists on the outside looking in, they don’t get it. Nobody gets it unless you’ve been in it. For them to sit there at their desk jobs, and they’re probably working from home on the couch on their laptops working 20, 30, 40 hours per week as they wish as a freelancer because maybe they have the ability to. For them to sit there and try to poke holes in our industry and shine this whole dark light on it, and this blanket assumption, it’s just false.

Yes, there have been some good changes that have come from this, but there also have been some negative, almost forced-down-our-throats changes that I just don’t agree with. One of them is this idea that working over forty hours, we need to have this work-life balance in our industry. Listen. If you’re passionate about something and you love what you’re doing, the only balance is to do more of it because it means something to you. It feeds your soul with this love and dedication to the industry. Do you think Picasso became a great painter because he painted one painting every two weeks? No! Same with Van Gogh. You have to compare chefs to artists. We’re not business people. We’re not looking to be the next CEO of a Fortune 500 company. We got into it because it means something to us and when we got into it, we felt different. We felt that love. We felt that camaraderie. We felt that we were going into battle together and we come out battle-tested with friends that you’re going to have for the rest of your life because you went through these experiences together.

For me, it’s not about saying, “Oh, our industry needs some change. Look how bad it’s been. I want to be the chef that does that.” No. Let’s call spades spades and make sure that the people who are the toxic ones are getting out of the industry, but don’t sit here and tell me blanketly, “You know what? Our industry needs to change,” because so much of our industry is perfect. It really is perfect.

Sure we’ve inherited broken systems of tipping and this archaic accounting that we have to figure out and rectify. But at the end of the day, we are hospitality people. We want to make people happy. What a [great] job is that? That’s what I want to highlight. I want to highlight the chefs who are still passionate. You know what? No. I’m not going to listen to all that noise. I’m not going to sit here and be worried about getting canceled because I’m expecting more out of my cooks. As any great leader does, a great leader’s job is to show someone what they can do because so many people don’t know what they can do. They don’t know what’s possible. Any great chef, any great leader, is going to get the most out of their people, but they’re also going to show those people how great they can be. Because a lot of people just don’t understand. They don’t know that greatness exists inside them; they just need somebody to pull that out of them.

And if you’re going to tell me that you can do that working forty hours a week and roll into your kitchen at 3 p.m., pull out all your prepped mise en place and start cooking on the line, I’m sorry. I’m not agreeing with that. I think there is a balance of the quality of life and the expectations of kitchen life. However, we can’t forget the good. To be a good crafts-person, you simply have to out-work the person next to you. That’s it. You have to think of it that way. I will never budge off that. I’ve worked 100-hour weeks. I’ve felt exhausted. At the end of the day, I loved it, and I did it because I wanted to, not because somebody told me I had to.

Eli Kulp’s Ultimate Dish – and Beware Shiny Objects

Kirk Bachmann: So well said. “A great leader’s job is the ability to show people how great they can be.” Probably the sixth quote I’m stealing from you today.

I don’t know. There’s a book that I got pulled into on Instagram. It’s by an author named David Cook, who worked for the San Antonio Spurs as a life coach and such during their run. The name of the book is “Greatness.” I’m going to send it to you. I want you to look at it. It’s really a brief book, but it kind of talks about what you and I are talking about today.

You know what I’m going to do when we’re done here today? I’m going to go in the kitchen, I’m going to go into one of the student’s paths, and I’m going to grab some tape, and I’m going to show them how to do it with scissors. I’m so motivated.

We have been talking for quite a while, just an absolutely spectacular chat, chef. I’m so appreciative. I cannot let you leave, though, until I ask you the magic question. The name of this podcast is The Ultimate Dish, so in your mind – whether it’s a hoagie or a beautiful Italian dish or a memory – what is the ultimate dish?

Eli Kulp: It’s probably somewhere in Italy. There was a vineyard that we visited on the coast of Tuscany near Bolgheri. It was part of the company that produces the Super Tuscan Ornellaia, which is one of the best wines in the world. They had this one vineyard, and it was called Belle-vue. It just means “beautiful view” essentially. It overlooked the Mediterranean. I would say it would probably have to be at this one spot there. It would probably have to be a bowl of bucatini all’Amatriciana. Simple ingredients: red onion, guanciale, some fresh tomato cooked down a little bit, and some bucatini. I think that, right there, would be the ultimate dish for me. Hands down.

Kirk Bachmann: You set the scene! That’s what got us going right off the bat. Beautiful response. Really beautiful chat. I wish you continued luck. I’m going to continue to learn podcast skills by watching and listening and having fun like you do.

Eli Kulp: Be careful. I don’t know that much. Just like everybody else, I’m walking blindly in the dark here. But I’ll tell you what: if nothing else, even if one or two people listen to my podcast, I’d be happy. Thankfully, there are more than that.

Nobody wakes up one day and says, “I want to be an inspiration.” Very few people do that. You become an inspiration by doing something unique or different, or showing people that you can get through difficult times. There are many ways to inspire people. People always ask me, “How does it feel to be an inspiration?”

I’m like, “Honestly, I’d rather not be an inspiration because I’d rather just keep my head down and cook.” But here I am. I am in a wheelchair. I understand how people can look at my situation and be like, “All right, if he can get through that, I can get through this.” Just like I use my perspective to make sure that I understand if somebody else is going through something rather challenging, I can use that to inspire me, then absolutely. If that means inspiring people, I’m here for it.

Kirk, I’ve got to say thank you for allowing me to meet [and] first of all, get to know you. It’s been great. And Escoffier, being inducted into the family, so to speak, included in the family of Escoffier was really a true honor and one that I will remember forever. I appreciate what you guys do. It’s important that the next generation hears these stories.

Don’t take the bait, guys. Don’t take the shiny objects. Instagram. Social media. All of those things, they are all shiny objects that just distract you. You need to be a good crafts-person before you can be a great chef. You have to understand the importance of seeking out great leaders and working for them. If you work hard, put your head down – eyes down, ears open, head down. That mentality. As much as it might be hard, the “yes, Chef” mentality, listen. It’s there for a reason because these chefs want to make you great. Allow them to make you great. Just find the right people to work for. If there’s one thing people can take away from this it’s don’t take the bait of – just because you put “chef” in front of your name on Instagram doesn’t make you a chef. Sorry to break it to you.

Kirk Bachmann: So well said, chef.

Well, you inspired me. I know a lot of our listeners are going to be super inspired by our chat. Let’s stay in touch. Thank you again. Best wishes, always.

Eli Kulp: Love to, Kirk, any time.

Kirk Bachmann: Take care, chef.

Thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.

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