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Interview: Talking Food and Grief With Chef Eli Kulp

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Life changes in the instant.

Chef Eli Kulp on roof with microphone and laptop
Eli Kulp / Photo by Yong Kim for the Philadephia Inquirer

I started the Food + Grief Project with one goal: Focus on how a loved one’s death changes our relationship and connection with food. It did not occur to me then that food and grief takes other forms, forms where a physical death may not have occurred. But no one better exemplifies this type of food and grief — and its counterpoint, resilience — than chef Eli Kulp.

In 2015, chef Eli Kulp was riding a wave of good press, awards, and success. After years working hard and harder to become a successful chef, Eli Kulp became executive chef at Fork in Philadelphia in 2012. By 2014, he opened casual sister outpost High Street on Market, and in short order, earned the the number two slot on the Bon Appétit “Hot 10” for High Street, and was awarded “Best New Chef” from Food & Wine.

From there, Chef Kulp decided the time was right for a New York City outpost of High Street. Work got underway, and the chef began commuting back and forth between Philadelphia and his new home in Manhattan. On the evening of May 12, 2015, Kulp was seated in the quiet car of Amtrak #188 when the train violently derailed at 106 miles per hour, resulting in one of the worst train crashes in American history. Eight people died and over 200 were injured — among them, Eli Kulp.

Chef Kulp became quadriplegic and confined to a wheelchair. His life as a chef — standing on the line, using his hands, running around his kitchens — was over. In addition to the trauma of the accident, Kulp grieved his loss of identity, the loss of well-honed chef skills, and of the future he had envisioned. But from a very dark place, a new vision, new abilities, and new meaning and perspective emerged.

Today, in addition to overseeing four restaurants and inspiring others from his experience, Kulp recently launched the Chef Radio Podcast. The podcast features in-depth and very real discussions among chefs and restaurant pros about issues ranging from the impact of Covid-19 to discrimination in the workplace. (It’s great. Subscribe.)

In one of my favorite poems, “In a Dark Time,” Theodore Roethke writes: “A man goes far to find out what he is.” Chef Eli Kulp has gone far since 2012. This inspiring, adaptable fighter allowed himself to grieve his loss and find a new way forward. Below is our interview.

You may also like: How I Got My Own Food + Grief Project Wrong and Interview: New York Times Reporter Amelia Nierenberg

train wreck interior chef eli kulp passenger
Photo via New York Times, Joseph Kaczmarek/ Associated Press

The Food + Grief Interview: Chef Eli Kulp

This interview took place on May 26, 2020. This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space.

Lisa Ruland [LR]: I have so much I want to talk with you about, but let’s start with your new podcast. Congratulations. I have really enjoyed listening. What was the inspiration for it? Why did you want to do it?

Eli Kulp [EK]: The podcast was really an “aha” moment for me. The Philly chef community was always a really supportive community, but I’ve missed a lot of the interactions I wish I could have had. So for me, this idea is a way for me to connect in a more meaningful way to the industry, and a way I could create conversation and help deliver a message in a way correlating with my mission of creating a more mindful industry, and help bring people to the microphone who’ve gone through trials and tribulations in their careers, whether it’s stories of success or challenges that people can relate to. 

And with Covid-19 happening at the time we were supposed to launch, we were concerned it might come off a little tone deaf because our launch date was when things went off the rails. But the reaction has been nothing but positive. I think what people will get is a genuine and honest and meaningful conversation that takes people to a deep place between two chefs or restaurant people. As a listener, you’re getting a real conversation, it’s not a journalist interview. From what I’ve read, people feel like they’re a fly on the wall of great culinary minds. So it’s been a positive thing. It’s kept me challenged and stimulated in a time that otherwise might be really depressing, being at home not interacting with restaurants. 

LR: You spoke so movingly and honestly in your introductory episode to your podcast about the accident and its aftermath. I really respect that because you were fearless in putting out there how you felt suicidal, and about being in a very dark place of grieving. But grief does carry a stigma. Why is it important to you to be able to just put your experience out there so honestly?

EK: I don’t think I had the intention to break down a stigma per se or be brave. I just want to be honest, and I think that anyone who hears it, if it touches base with someone, it makes me proud that I can do that. As far as anyone who would judge someone like that, they’re not the type of person I’m going for. I think the stigma of mental illness and the ability to be honest about those important topics is very different today. There is way less stigma attached compared to even 10 years ago, and I think people are being more honest about their thoughts and how they feel. 

It’s something that continues for me, the grieving process. Even this morning, I woke up feeling kind of down because my body ebbs and flows with nerve pain, and the wear of the chronic pain subconsciously wears you down mentally and you have to take a minute and find your center and be grateful for what’s out there. 

Meditation and feeling grateful are really important to me in making sure I don’t go down the rabbit hole. And it ebbs and flows, it comes in waves, and you just have to hit it head on and deal with it and carry on. 

LR: There’s the famous quote by Joan Didion about grieving the death of her husband and daughter within one year: “Life changes in the instant.” This applies to both of us in very different ways. Do you ever think about the parallel universe of “What if . . . ?” Like, what if the accident didn’t happen? I think that may really be another way of asking about acceptance — how you found it, did you find it, are you still working toward it?

EK: I actually just had a phone call with a young lady who was on the same train as I was. She was in the car in front of me, which was the most mangled car. She reached out to me on May 12 [the anniversary of the crash] and she’d been wanting to contact me for a while. And we talked about the “what ifs.” Hers was that she was at home for Mother’s Day and was going to take an earlier train but stayed late and took the later train. And she was a young woman in her early 20s living her best life in New York City. And she rode the train so much that she knew she could buy a regular ticket and just move to the business car without anyone checking. So for her, her “what ifs” are, “What if I didn’t cheat the system and move cars? Did I do this to myself?” She was thrown over 100 feet from the train into the woods and woke up in a dark forest with people on top of her.

For me, the “what if” is, “What if I wasn’t so ambitious and didn’t want a restaurant in New York City as well? What if I didn’t lose my focus on what was so important, and wasn’t was on such a trajectory?” I had worked 15 to 20 years to get to the point where I was getting recognized for my work. I had just won Best New Chef, got the Bon App thing, so there were all these positive things happening, and all this just came crashing down. 

But at the end of the day, there’s just “wrong place, wrong time.” It immediately puts you in this community of people who have had to deal with major grief or major loss. And we get so immune to the noise of shootings on the evening news, how many people died in this and that. But every family from now on will have triggers and what ifs. So every time someone hears about a house fire on the news, or a murder, or a rape, it triggers. So you’re immediately in this population of people who never had to deal with something like that. It’s someone else. But then you’re that person. 

LR: Do you feel like you found people who understand your grief?

EK: The only people who truly understand grief are the people who have gone through something similar. So it’s important to find people or support groups who get it and who have come out on top. Otherwise people can sit there and support you and give condolences, but the people who really understand are the people who have gone through before and can help you see that it can be ok and there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

LR: I want to talk about your relationship with food. Your relationship with food changed in a physical sense as a chef, but your emotional relationship with food seems like a real evolution as well. 

EK: That was really sort of where I had some of the most difficult times. I had this idea that my ambition and love of food and working with food was at the root cause of my being in the accident. And before I accepted it as “It is what it is,” here I was sitting at home after rehab — that is often the worst time for people — and then you come home and then, “Oh, shit.” 

LR: Like it hit home for real.

EK: I had all this time on my hands and was scrolling through the TV channels. And it was this incredibly depressing time and I didn’t want to have anything to do with cooking. And it was such a weird time. High Street on Hudson was already in the works when the accident happened, and one day I was just sitting at home bored out of my gourd, and after about an hour and a half figuring out public transportation and busses with my wheelchair for the first time, [my friend and I] got to the construction site. 

And I didn’t feel any of the things I was supposed to be feeling. It felt so awful, and such a depressing thing. I remember taking the bus back home and just being so deflated, not knowing why, but having this resentment of this restaurant. I had to go through the first couple years being part of a restaurant I really didn’t want to be a part of. 

Ultimately, I believe the demise of that restaurant was because I could not be there as a chef. It was so hard, and a sad process. I felt like I couldn’t do what I knew I could do otherwise to help them get out of the weeds and quality control every dish and make it the restaurant I wanted it to be in the first place. No doubt the trajectory of the restaurant would have been different. It’s been a very different restaurant. 

LR: You just passed the five -year anniversary of the accident on May 12. (I’m in the middle of my bad stretch myself: Erik’s [my late husband’s] birthday was on May 18, and tomorrow is the 6-year anniversary of his death.) What have those anniversary dates been like? How was this one?

EK: I don’t put a lot of emphasis on them. I think it’s just my character and who I am. I consider myself a staunch realist, so I don’t let myself get too far one way or another, and it’s also helped me get to where I am today from five years ago. I don’t even remember it until halfway through the day. I think it was around noon and I saw it on my phone like, “Oh man, it’s May 12.” So it’s important for me to not put a lot of emphasis on it because it’s a way for me to sort-of lock it away because creating a big to-do doesn’t’ do me a lot of good. A lot of people have their rebirth days or celebrations this day and deal with it in their own ways, but I don’t let myself get too high or too low. 

The more emphasis you put on it, at least for me, it feels like you’re living in the past instead of focused on the future or the present and being present and being able to just use that day to just, you know, do positive things. 

chef radio podcast logo host eli kulp

LR: Making it all worth something to let something good come from the bad. You’ve referred to this as making it our superpower. You are definitely using your superpower. What legacy do you want people to take from your tragedy?

EK: I think about it a lot. I think whether or not you’ve gone through something like this or not, other people in their 40s and 50s think about what they want to be known for: Having the biggest car? Biggest house? Biggest company? 

I had aspirations of having a medium-sized restaurant group, just five or six restaurants, something between $15 to 20 million a year total revenue. But things change, and you start to think about what’s important in life and the legacy you want to have. I want to be recognized as someone who went through tragedy. I want to shed a light on some areas of the industry that needed change, and use that influence as a recognizable figure in the culinary industry to affect positive change. 

A lot of times, us chefs are so focused on building our businesses. We already have a thousand fires to put out every day and we can’t see the forest for the trees. But to get people thinking from the jump that “Ok, I want a restaurant group, but I also want to give back to the community. How do I do that from the ground up?”

If you can create a dialogue with your employees about it being about creating a community, I believe that that is a superpower that restaurants have and need to have to be successful. You have to stand out, and this is a beautiful way to stand out. It can really have a ridiculously positive impact.

Chef Eli Kulp in podcast booth with microphone and laptop
Photo courtesy Radiokismet

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