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NYC Expat Eli Kulp on Philly's Ascendent Dining Scene

Photo: Jim Graham

Two years ago, Eli Kulp left a coveted job as chef de cuisine at New York City's Torrisi Italian Specialties and moved to Philadelphia to helm the kitchen at the locally beloved Fork. Kulp — a Pacific Northwest native — has spent those years exploring the cuisine of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania Dutch country, opening new restaurants such as the popular High Street on Market, and revamping the restaurant and bar menus at the AKA Rittenhouse Square hotel. In the meantime, he's racked up accolades from critics both local and national, including a spot in this year's Food & Wine class of Best New Chefs.

In the following interview, Kulp talks about his decision to move to Philadelphia from New York. He also reflects on what he describes as the "upward trajectory" of the Philly dining scene, and questions why Pennsylvania's regional cuisines haven't gotten the respect they deserve over the years.

Had you lived in Philadelphia before moving here two years ago?
No, never. The only reason we came down here is for the job, and it was one of those things where it was an easy move. It's very convenient — from New York it's only an hour and 15 minute train ride. You're moving away, but you're not really moving away, you know what I mean?

You've talked about the economic incentives and disincentives and all that, but what was it that ultimately made your decision to go to Philly?
It was just opportunity. It's a relatively easy transition, and I felt that what I had to offer would fit in here really well. If you can strike that balance of giving your guests something that is relatively ambitious and that is interesting yet serves … I think what we do really well is that we keep the food pretty humble. I just tell people, if you want to hear the story on why we do the food a certain way, we'll tell you the story behind it, because I think our food is pretty thoughtful. But if you just want to come in and enjoy yourself and enjoy the people that you're with and have a great dinner, you can do that, too.

That's how we set up our service staff as well, greeting people, understanding what they are out for. If they're out for an experience and they want to hear all the quirky details of why the chef did this and that, then we definitely have that information. We don't want to make it a place where you come and you get told what you're eating and why and all of that.

What kind of research did you do when you were first considering coming to Philadelphia about what people wanted?

I didn't have to skirt my ambition in Philadelphia.

It was a lot of gut feeling stuff. I talked to a few different chefs, like Michael Solomonov and Greg Vernick, I ate around at a lot of different restaurants just to see what the climate was. Ultimately … I didn't have to skirt my ambition, you know what I mean? I didn't have to dumb down. I can still come down and challenge myself and also sort of challenge the status quo of what was being served in Philadelphia.

What I thought, speaking with these guys and speaking with [Fork] owner [Ellen Yin], was that there was an upward trajectory happening in Philadelphia. I think it actually started probably from the early 80s to 90s, then it slowed, but then I think it sort of picked up a couple notches in 2012. Greg Vernick was from Jean Georges, and Josh Lawler was coming from Stone Barns and he did Farm and Fisherman. Talking to these other guys that were around town that had broken out of the typical mold. It was just sort of an opportunity at that time.

Fork, Philadelphia, PA. [Photo: Trevor Dixon]

What I like about it is this proximity to Manhattan, because Manhattan is a place where I spent almost 10 years. We still get people that knew where I worked in New York that have come here. That happens all the time. Once you're down here, you realize how many people commute back and forth. The two cities are connected in a lot of ways. If you are only in New York, you might not know that.

You were just talking about the opportunity to break out of the mold. Was that something that was getting harder to do in New York?
I've been seeing all these articles about chefs leaving New York, and my name is in a lot of those. I don't know where it started, but I started answering the questions almost immediately when I got to Philadelphia. What's the difference? What's the benefit? Is Philadelphia better? Everyone wants to know, is one food better than that? You've probably seen how I got myself in a bit of hot water. [I was] trying to be honest, and it sort of backfired.

For me, as far as leaving New York, I think it was a curiosity. I'd spent a good amount of time in New York. I knew that I could stay there and be very successful. I wasn't really looking to leave New York. This just sort of fell on my lap, and I was just like, well, let's give it a shot. Let's do the best we can down there and just see what happens, and if I fall on my face, I have a good network of people in New York that I could come back to and and move forward.

When you're around that ambition, you just get that itch.

I'd spent two years at that point with Rich [Torrisi] and Mario [Carbone] at Torrisi and really saw that go from two guys on Mulberry Street to … When you're around that ambition, you just get that itch, you know what I mean? I think I had that itch, and this came up. It was definitely the right decision. I think we're doing some really fantastic things that we're really proud of. Even people that come here from New York are always very excited about it.

For example, we did this farm dinner in South Jersey near Princeton this last weekend. It's a collaborative dinner that we do with this cheese-maker, and there was a couple from Gramercy Park in Manhattan. They had eaten at High Street. They're just like, "There's really nothing like that in New York." In New York, I'm sure it would do really well as well, but I think people can come down and experience something completely different than they would even get in New York.

There's something about that relationship that I really like. I like the fact that we get people that want to spend a weekend out of the city. It's quicker to get here than it is to go to East Hampton. Granted, it's maybe not as beautiful, but…

More history, though.

Philadelphia's finally realizing that it has something special.

They get the Liberty Bell. There's just no beach here, though. I think Philadelphia's finally realizing that it has something special, and they're promoting it, and people are seeing it, and they're appreciating it. It's sort of snowballing. There's something nice about that relationship that's the proximity to New York. I never felt like I gave up on New York in the first place.

[Photo: Neal Santos]

Right. It's more like an adventure thing than one city being better than the other.
Yeah, I hate that question. People always ask, "What do you like better? New York or Philadelphia?" I get that question all the time. It's crazy. They're like, "Please don't go back to New York." It's just funny to me because it's not like I live in Arizona or something. New York is just an hour and 15 minutes away. They know what New York is. They don't need me to answer that question. It's almost a rhetorical question because you can't compare New York to any other city in the world. It's one of the greatest cities in the world. That's all there is to it.

Philadelphia's neighborhoods are really growing, too.
You see almost the same effect that Brooklyn saw in the early 2000s with Williamsburg. As more young professionals come into the town or stay here — that's the other thing also that you have to remember, this is like a huge college town. Villanova, St. Joe's, UPenn, Drexel. So I think what you've started to see already and you're going to see going forward is a lot of people staying here. You can have a great apartment and a great house that's in close proximity to the city, and you don't have to compromise your social time. You have places that you can go and get a true interesting and unique experience. You don't have to go to Chicago or New York or LA or San Fran to get that.

You were successful already in New York, but now in Philly, being named Best New Chef, now you're sort of like a representative of the city within two years.

I felt like the ingredients down here had been looked over.

Yeah, that part of it is kind of funny because I never pictured myself as that guy, I guess. I'm very happy to be that guy. Just like Philadelphia, I've come up over the years. Something I really attached to was the ingredients down here, because I felt like that was something that had been looked over. Nobody really took it seriously, both the history and the culture, and also the really talented and passionate producers. Every day, I'm amazed by the cheese-makers and farmers. Just the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch and the cuisine down here, it's pretty cool.

I saw the trailer for the "Our Terroir" menu that you did, and that was really cool. How did you research for that?
Working at Torrisi, that was sort of our schtick, I guess, looking at historical influences at a very local level in New York. It's a neighborhood to neighborhood type thing, and Rich and Mario being two Italian-American guys, that's where it all started from. And then realizing that it's a really cool culture of Chinatown and Little Italy meeting, and it just made so much sense there. It was just this perfect little story.

I was sort of coming off of that. Even before I got [to Philadelphia], I was doing tons of research and just peeling back the layers and putting a little bit of a story to the food. Once I settled in, a little over a year after I had been here, we started digging a little deeper. We wanted something to represent this area and not worry about borders. South Jersey, Western PA, Philadelphia.

A little bit north from here, I found a guy that produces saffron. It was actually given to him from his grandmother, willed to him. Talking to him, we found out this incredible history of saffron in this area. There's actually this group of Pennsylvania Dutch, they refer to them as the Yellow Dutch. Just really peeling back the layers and looking at the rich history of local culture and food in this area, I think that was where the "Terroir" came from.

[Photo: Jason Varney]

Has there been much of that, restaurants looking at the history of the Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine?
Unfortunately, no. That's what really surprised me was like here you have this amazing micro-culture. I'm not even talking about the Amish and Mennonite and all that. That's a whole other layer, but there's this incredibly rich history of immigrants.

My name, the Kulp name, actually is from Pennsylvania. There are at least 5,000 Kulps in the country, and I think almost 4,000 of them live in Pennsylvania. My grandmother and grandfather left Pennsylvania. They lived in Central PA, and they went to Buffalo for a few years, and then they moved out west to Washington State. So I felt a little bit of a connection there. I think people really responded to that. It got people looking at it a little differently. It's almost like nobody gave it respect, you know what I mean? Nobody ever even gave it the time of day.

It wasn't all about Pennsylvania Dutch. Kennett Square was the mushroom capital of the country at one point. We did a dish focused on that. We did a dish focused on the Pine Barrens, which is just this really cool almost mythical area of New Jersey. It was actually made famous in a Sopranos episode. It's like this crazy micro-climate in South Jersey, so we did a dish sort of based on that.

Georges Perrier and Jean-Marie Lacroix had a massive influence on Philadelphia.

I was always surprised that more people didn't give it that, but I think a lot of it was just this massive influence that Le Bec-Fin and Lacroix, Georges Perrier and [Jean-Marie] Lacroix, had on the city. These two guys were kings here for years. Almost everything came from them somehow. Marc Vetri obviously had a big impact, but those two guys had such a huge impact on the city. Every cook that came up in Philadelphia had this extremely French influence on them. Everybody sort of looked past it.

Then again, maybe they didn't have the network that they have now. Now we have these co-ops, I can get stuff produced by Amish people brought to me three days a week. We use John Cope's corn. It's been around since like the early 1900s or 1800s, but it's a dried corn product from Lancaster, and it's shipped all over the world. That's a really cool dried corn product, and we make polenta out of it. Honestly, it's one of those things, a new set of eyes comes in, and they see you completely differently. I think that's what happened here.

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306 Market St, Philadelphia, PA 19106