Adam Erace Adam Erace battles adult on-set diabetes and cankles as the restaurant critic for the Philadelphia City Paper. He also writes about food and travel for publications like Details, Fodor's and Southern Living. He lives in South Philly with his wife, Charlotte, and two rescue mutts, Lupo and Marco.
TOP OF THE POPS: Nick Elmi with his daughter Grace and son Wesley at Laurel, Elmi’s East Passyunk restaurant.
In the 10th episode of the current season of Top Chef: New Orleans, when tasked with cooking a dish that reminded him of home, Nick Elmi made his daughter’s favorite — gnocchi with pancetta, Parmesan and peas.
“I feel a form of guilt because I missed a lot of my daughter’s first year,” the 33-year-old owner of Laurel on East Passyunk told the camera. “I missed her first steps, her first words — basically everything, because I was working so much. My kids are only gonna be this age for such a short period of time, and it goes really, really fast.” Here, Elmi’s voice, normally as even as a carpenter’s level, cracked like a windshield struck by a pebble. “And I’m missing a lot of it.”
When you think of dads being away from their kids, you think of the workaholic attorney in the corner office, the high-powered CEO, the traveling executive living out of suitcases and Courtyard Marriotts. White-collar, corporate-America stuff. Not chefs. But a cook’s hours are long, life-gnawing and arduous. Days start early and end late. Weekends are work nights. Thanksgiving and Christmas are about as sacred as Groundhog and Arbor days. It’s not a schedule that you’d call family friendly. Yet many chefs sign up for fatherhood, a second full-time position even more challenging than steering a busy kitchen through the weeds.
When Grace, now 3, was born, Elmi was still chef of a slowly sinking Le Bec-Fin. “It was tough to begin with, with the recession, then having to count pennies just to keep the business open,” he says. “Every day, Georges [Perrier] was threatening to close, and it was just me and a sous chef, 14 hours a day, six days a week. My wife would just send me pictures while I was at work — the first time she stood up, the first time she crawled. You get your first child’s life through small texts and pictures.”
During his year as chef of Rittenhouse Tavern, Elmi’s schedule was more lax, and when his wife, Kristen, gave birth to their son, Wesley, almost 2, he “was taking almost two days off a week,” he says. “I was able to hang out with them and see things happen.”
Then came Top Chef, which filmed this past May through July. “It was hard to go and hard to be away,” Elmi says. “Before going, I called Kevin Sbraga and asked him: If he knew everything he knew today about the show, would he do it again?”
“Top Chef was one of the hardest things I’ve done,” says Sbraga, who has two kids: Jenae, 8, and Angelo, 3. “But if you don’t strike when you can, you can miss out.”
Sbraga wasn’t talking about missing out on the experience, the chance to be on TV or become a household name. He was talking about the opportunity to provide a better life for his family, the driving force for him opening his restaurant, Sbraga, and its new little brother, the Fat Ham. “I’ve talked to a lot people who’ve been down the same path. They’ll spend the first couple of years working a lot, but down the road it pays off. In 15, 20 years, I’ll be able to provide my kids with a college education,” he said.
When Jenae was born, Sbraga was sous chef at Washington Square; moved over to become the chef at the Ritz-Carlton when she was a few months old. “It was easier working for someone else” while being a dad, he says, and both restaurant organizations were “very respectful of work-life balance.” When he added owner to his resume, juggling the needs of family and restaurant became more challenging. “You take on all this responsibility. There are times that I could go home, but I feel like I need to stay to make sure every dish goes out right.”
With the opening of Laurel, Elmi is in a similar boat. “It’s difficult, because I just went through the entire summer not working at all; I was just home hanging out with the kids.” It was an abrupt transition from that carefree schedule to Elmi’s current one of 14-hour days, six days a week. “The first month of Laurel has been so unbelievable and so much fun, but I would rather be home building stuff and playing trains with my kids.”
Being the owner does have its perks, though. When I talked to Elmi two days before Christmas Eve, he was in the car en route to New Hampshire with Kristen and the kids to spend the holiday with his parents. When Jenae and Angelo had Christmas plays last week, Sbraga left the restaurant to be a proud dad in the audience.
For the two Top Chef veterans, the best way to be a dad while being a cook is to make a clear distinction between the two roles. “I don’t have it all figured out,” admits Sbraga. “The most important thing when I’m with my kids is to focus on them and not on anything else.”
It’s a quality-over-quantity thing. Sundays, when Laurel is closed, are family activity days at Casa Elmi in Collingswood. “We’ll go apple picking or go for a walk in the woods, hang out in the yard,” Elmi says. “The kids don’t care what you’re doing, they just want you to be there.”
After, he’ll make dinner. Maybe gnocchi — the gnocchi that won him the episode’s elimination challenge.
Whether Elmi wins Top Chef — and many speculate the dark horse will — he’s already a champ. So are the hundreds of other cooks who drive their kids to school before a 14-hour shift and pack their lunches after one. Being a decent dad is hard enough. Doing so while cooking professionally — that’s something really worth an award.
French fare done just right by Bibou's Pierre and Charlotte Calmels
Most 21st-century parents have one or two kids. Pierre and Charlotte Calmels have five. Roll call:...
The week in eats
Pizza & Beer Happy Hour at Nomad Roman, Thu., March 6, 4:30-6:30 p.m., pay as you go ...
New restaurants and cafes
Baker’s Jar | We’re happy to say that the cupcake’s moment in the sun has passed. The...