As one kitchen door closes, and another has opened wide for Nicholas Elmi, who was chef/partner at Le Bec-Fin, which ended its 42-year run under Georges Perrier Saturday (3/3). After renovations under new owner Nicolas Fanucci, it's due to reopen this spring.
Elmi, 31, has found employment as chef at Rittenhouse Tavern, expected to open in April inside the Art Alliance on Rittenhouse Square (18th and Rittenhouse). The space previously was Gardenia after spells as Opus 251 and Le Jardin. (Eater.com had the news Sunday; Elmi had wanted to release it Monday [3/5] out of respect for Le Bec-Fin's Georges Perrier.)
Rittenhouse Tavern's general manager will be Dan Elliott, a veteran of Rouge and Oyster House who just helped to open Hickory Lane in Fairmount.
The deal for Elmi seems like fate.
Restaurant Associates, which is setting up and overseeing the restaurant, had been searching for a chef for months. "I had kind of gotten a bit disillusioned [with the applicants]," said Ed Brown, the chef managing Rittenhouse Tavern on behalf of Restaurant Associates. When Perrier cinched the sale of Le Bec-Fin, and it was clear that Fanucci wanted his own chef, Elmi's buddies encouraged him to look up Brown.
What followed was a tasting at the kitchens of the Kimmel Center, which Restaurant Associates also manages. "His turbot dish with a red wine sauce blew my socks off - perfectly cooked and clean and simple," said Brown, a French-trained seafood specialist who signs his emails "best fishes." Elmi also prepared roasted squab and charred squid. These dishes won't be on Rittenhouse Tavern's menu, both men said. Rather, Elmi prepared them to demonstrate different cooking techniques.
Rittenhouse Tavern's style will be American brasserie - reasonably priced enough for regulars, yet appropriate for special occasions.
"That's more in my wheelhouse," said Elmi. "The idea is to be simple and elegant and fun. ...We're not going to fall into 'farm to table.' We'll be highlighting the best product we can."
Elmi said it was his turn to have his socks blown off when he toured Rittenhouse Tavern's tricked-out kitchen. "You picture yourself doing what you need to do there," he said.
Elmi, a Boston native, started working in kitchens as a 14-year-old. Elmi went to the Culinary Institute of America and interned for Perrier at his late Brasserie Perrier. He returned after graduation in 2001. Next came jobs at Lutece, Oceana, and Union Pacific, followed by a return to Perrier's fold to work at Mia in Atlantic City. From there, he went to Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris. Next, in 2008, he returned to Philly to take the exec chef's job at Le Bec. He and his wife live in Collingswood with their daughter, who's almost 2, and newborn son.