How Eli Kulp and other Philly chefs overcame the unthinkable

For Eli Kulp, partner at the acclaimed restaurants Fork, High Street on Market, and New York’s High Street on Hudson, speaking at an industry conference with the theme “Live Your Dreams” was no simple endeavor.

“For me, I was living my dream,” he said Tuesday. “I had one dream in my life: I was a successful chef. We had three restaurants, going on four, and then this happened.” That is, the May 12, 2015, Amtrak derailment that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

“It dawned on me, sometimes your dreams have to change a little bit, too.”

The conference was staged by Journee, a leadership-development organization for restaurant professionals, and hosted by the Free Library’s Culinary Literacy Center. It was the first public speaking engagement for Kulp since the crash, and a day filled with stories of chefs clawing their way back from rock bottom.

Cristina Martinez of South Philly Barbacoa, an outspoken advocate for the undocumented immigrants that power the city’s kitchens, spoke about working through fears of deportation and the loss of her son, Isaías Berriozabal-Martinez, in January.

Camera icon Margo Reed
Michael Franco, owner of Baril, speaks about overcoming addiction and more.  MARGO REED / Staff Photographer

And Michael Franco, the owner of Baril, spoke about overcoming not one, but two personal crises with support from his colleagues.

First, there was a drug habit that turned into addiction. “For four years, no one knew. It’s a pretty easy thing to hide,” said Franco, 37.

Finally, he came clean to his friends, and his manager.

“If I was at a desk job, they would’ve fired me. These guys just supported me,” he said. They helped him land a job at Le Bec-Fin, where he rose to general manager.

“The structure, the professionalism of that job … it saved my life,” he said.

Then, he faced an even more devastating crisis after opening Crow & the Pitcher, the two-bell Rittenhouse Square restaurant, with chef Alex Capasso. One day, about a year in, Capasso had called out of work when a bartender texted Franco a photo of the day’s newspaper: Capasso had been arrested on child-pornography charges.

“I thought I was done. My business is going to close. My dream is gone,” he said. “But within 24 hours, I had chefs calling me, asking: ‘How can I help you? Do you need me to take you to the produce market? Do you need me to pick up fish for you?’ ”

His staff and customers stuck with him, too, and the restaurant survived – though, these days, under a new name, Baril, and under Franco’s sole ownership.

Fellow chefs also rallied around Kulp, raising $130,000 for his recovery. But for Kulp, whose imposing, 6-foot-4 frame once earned him the nickname “the Viking” in his kitchens, that help wasn’t so easy to accept.

“I’d become angry at the industry, actually,” said Kulp, 39, who now navigates with a motorized wheelchair. “I turned my back on food, cuisine, restaurants. I blamed that for me not being able to walk again or use my hands again. I felt like my ambition had put me on that train.”

Slowly, he said, he’s found his way back to it.

“But it’s not the same. I can’t get in there physically and touch the food, cook the food, jump on the line, expedite service,” he said.

Before, Ellen Yin, his business partner, managed the restaurants and he ran the kitchen. Now, he’s working hard to find his place on the business side of the operation. He’s still living in New York, and spending much of his time at High Street on Hudson – which, in 2016, was named one of Food & Wine’s restaurants of the year.

“My journey and my rebirth, so to speak, is just really beginning. I don’t have the answers,” he said. “I don’t have the ride-off-to-the-sunset dream yet, because, as I was living it, it was interrupted.”