A Supper Soiree

“Party, Party, Party! If hosting a dinner party is your thing, this will “Top” them all. Yes, pun intended, as the Bravo TV’s 2014 Top Chef winner Nicholas Elmi will be your host on September 20 in the executive home at BG Equestrian Resort on Hwy 475 in Ocala. This dinner is for you and nine guests. Donated by: Bravo TV’s 2014 Top Chef Winner Nicholas Elmi and BG Equestrian Resort. Value: Priceless, once-in-a-lifetime event.”

This intriguing description identified one of the auction items in a fundraising event at Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala. The April 2014 gala was billed as “A Night in Central Park” and was the school’s fifth annual such event. The live auction included items ranging from trips and exquisite jewelry to the exclusive dinner prepared by Nicholas Elmi.

When Dr. James (Jimmy) and Katie Paraiso spotted the entry in the auction program, they immediately knew which one they’d be bidding on. Their son Andrew, 16, is a sophomore at TCHS this year, but they also have young children.

“Some of the things up for bid were trips, which sounded fabulous, but that wouldn’t accommodate our family. Our youngest is 3, and we weren’t going to be jet-setting to New York City with a 3 year old!” laughs Katie Paraiso. “We are Top Chef fans, and we thought this was a great opportunity for us to support the school program and to have a date night out with friends.”

“Every April, we hold a gala event with an auction that benefits our tuition assistance program for families of students who can’t afford full tuition,” explains Penny Baird, director of institutional advancement at Trinity Catholic High School. “About 60 percent of our families receive some type of assistance in order for their children to attend the school. It’s a sacrifice for families to be here, and without support from the community, we wouldn’t be able to do this.”

“President McKenzie’s son, Kevin, is friends with Nicholas Elmi, so we all watched Top Chef intently,” Baird relates. “When Nicholas won, Kevin asked him if he would participate in our event as an auction ‘item,’ and Nicholas said, ‘Sure!’ It was a great opportunity to have him in our auction, and we’re hoping to have him again, if his schedule permits.”

Sure enough, the Paraisos secured the winning bid, and that was how, on September 20, a handful of fortunate Ocala residents found themselves enjoying a one-of-a-kind evening, savoring a custom meal prepared by the 2014 winner of Bravo TV’s enormously popular show, Top Chef.

The dinner was held in the 10,000-square-foot Great House at Bobby Genovese’s BG Equestrian Resort on South Highway 475 in Ocala. Genovese operates the 100-acre equestrian facility as one of a dozen exclusive private retreats used as custom travel destinations. He graciously donated the use of the executive home so the event could be hosted in a local setting that felt like a getaway spot.

“It felt like we were getting out of town without leaving Ocala,” says Katie Paraiso. “The property was absolutely gorgeous, very tranquil, serene and relaxing without being ‘uppity.’ We’d never been there before, and it was so warm and inviting.”

As expected, Elmi pulled out all the stops, whipping up a stunning five-course dinner that the guests couldn’t stop talking about.

Events like this are nothing new to Elmi, but he enjoys putting his signature flair and attention to detail on each item, creating a memorable evening for all involved.

Because his grandparents live in Florida, he’s visited the Sunshine State numerous times, but this was Elmi’s first trip to Ocala’s Horse Country, and he brought along his wife, Kristen, and their two young children.

“We got to do the ‘Disney thing’ afterward, and that was a first. It was fun, but a lot of work with two little kids,” he adds.

For the dinner, Elmi prepared some of the same in-demand dishes that he regularly makes at Laurel, his own restaurant back in Philadelphia.

“When deciding on the menu, I like to do things that are ‘tried and true.’ You want dishes that you’re comfortable with, especially when cooking off-site,” says Elmi.

“Some of the sauces take up to three days to make, so I made the gnocchi and all the sauces here (at Laurel),” he explains, adding that these items were overnighted to Ocala just before the dinner. “All the last minute work was done at the event.”

The menu featured:

Watermelon and tomato salad with goat cheese and ponzu (a Japanese dressing)

Ricotta gnocchi with pancetta, garlic and grana paeano

Roasted Wahoo with chanterelles, corn and a delicate lobster sauce

Grilled rib eye with red wine braised shallots, crispy fingerling potatoes and sauce Bordelaise

And for dessert, Elmi created a simple, but spectacular caramelized white chocolate pudding with dehydrated chocolate cake made with wild rice.

“It was so neat to see how everything was put together. Everyone was impressed,” says Katie Paraiso. “We had a blast and the food was amazing. My husband and I had just been to Chicago the weekend before for a conference and ate at a five-star restaurant, but the food was nothing like this. Every course was unbelievable. Nick was awesome. He’d been traveling and preparing all day; it was a lot of work. He was very humble and personable, just like a ‘normal’ guy and not at all intimidating.”

“We’ve never had a private chef cook for us before like that. It really was a special, once-in-a-lifetime type of event,” says Cindy Ellis. As friends of the Paraisos, Clay and Cindy Ellis were delighted to be invited to the dinner. Clay is an attorney in Ocala, and Cindy works with him.

“We’ve watched Top Chef before, but we hadn’t watched the past season closely, so I wanted to have a little information before we met Nicholas,” relates Ellis, who did what anyone would have done in that situation: She Googled him, learning more about his Top Chef victory, as well as his restaurant in Philadelphia.

“Nicholas was very approachable. Obviously, he loves food. You could tell he was really passionate about what he put out and making it the best it could be,” she says. “There was a server, but Nicholas came out to describe each course to us, and he personally brought the steaks out.

“The ingredients of some of the dishes were unexpected but delicious,” Ellis adds, “and the venue was beautiful, a very warm and private setting. We were looking out over the rolling hills at sunset.”

“The location was absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t even know anything like that existed in Ocala. I knew we were going to an equestrian resort, but I didn’t really know what that meant. It was the perfect setting for this type of event,” says Jessica Decker, a registered nurse who attended the dinner with her husband, Rob Decker, an orthopedic surgeon in Gainesville. Because of their medical careers, he and Jimmy Paraiso often refer patients to each other and have become friends.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but the evening was more fun and exciting than I thought it was going to be,” Jessica adds. “Nicholas was very warm and welcoming. And oh my goodness, the steak was the best steak I’ve ever had. My husband and I have traveled all over the world and eaten at some very good restaurants, but this was the best, hands down.”

Decker was so impressed with the first course, the watermelon-tomato salad, she decided to try making it at home the following week.

“I actually tried to replicate that amazing salad. It wasn’t Nicholas Elmi’s watermelon salad, but it was good!” she laughs.

The Deckers hope to enjoy more of Elmi’s culinary magic in the not-too-distant future.

“We might be going to Philadelphia next year, and we definitely want to eat at his restaurant, Laurel,” says Decker.

“It was a great event, and hopefully, we’ll get to do it again next year. We might get a bit more elaborate,” hints Elmi with a smile.

Because we had the Top Chef winner in town,it only made sense to get to know Nicholas Elmi a bit better. But first, a little background.

Born in Bradford, Massachusetts, Elmi’s first job in the culinary world wasn’t a fancy one. At 16, he was tossing pizza dough at Joseph’s Trattoria in his hometown and then went on to work for two years in the kitchen of Wentworth by the Sea Country Club in Rye, New Hampshire. Once he knew cooking was what he wanted to do for a career, he went on to work in some of the most respected French kitchens, both here and abroad, including Oceana, Union Pacific, Le Bec Fin and Lutece. In Paris, he trained under world-renowned master chef Guy Savoy at his flagship restaurant of the same name.

After being chosen to compete in the 11th season of the hit cooking competition show Top Chef (the casting process is not something contestants are allowed to discuss!), Elmi traveled to New Orleans in May 2013 for two months of filming. Pitted against 18 other contestants, Elmi worked his culinary magic throughout the 17 episodes while cooking for celebrity chef judges Emeril Lagasse, Gail Simmons, Hugh Acheson, Tom Colicchio and Padma Lakshmi, as well as guest judges Curtis Stone, John Besh, Susan Spicer, Paul Prudhomme, Eddie Huang and French chef Hubert Keller.

When the season finale aired in February of this year, Elmi and finalist Nina Compton competed in Maui, Hawaii, for the grand prize of Top Chef title and $125,000, with Elmi taking the win.

The victory made Elmi more of a household name, but he’d already made his mark on the Philly dining scene with the opening of his first restaurant, Laurel, in November 2013, just one month after the final episode of Top Chef was filmed. He opened the restaurant with Philadelphia lawyer Jonathan Cohen as business partner.

Named after the state flower of Pennsylvania, Laurel is an intimate BYOB establishment with just 22 tables serving dinner five nights a week. There, Chef Elmi and his crew turn out French-inspired American cuisine, encompassing much of what Elmi has learned and fine-tuned during his years in the kitchen. The restaurant is small by design, allowing Elmi to focus on what’s most important: food and customers.

Ocala Style: Do you come from a “foodie” family, and have you always known you wanted a cooking career?

Chef Elmi: I’m not from a foodie family. I actually went to college to study economics and accounting. I started cooking when I was young to make some money, and the more I did it, the more I fell in love with it. I came home from school after two years and told my parents, I was dropping out and going to culinary school instead. They were totally supportive of that decision.

OS: You’ve said that your time in Paris at Guy Savoy was a formative experience and helped propel your career in the direction it’s taken. In what ways did this inspire you?

CE: The product we used there was unparalleled to anything else I’d ever done. Everything was fresh and prepared each day from 7am until service started that evening. It was the best product you could find, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with Laurel.

OS: Did you do Top Chef for the experience, for the opportunity or for a combination of both?

CE: A combination of both. It’s relatively stressful, but it’s also fun and there are some rewards that go with it.

OS: What was the most unexpected thing about being on the show, something that viewers wouldn’t know?

CE: It’s a long process, and viewers don’t see a lot of that process. There are only 44 minutes of show, but it usually takes two or three days to shoot one show.

OS: What was the hardest thing about being on the show?

CE: The time away from your family. I spent eight weeks away and didn’t see them at all. My kids were 1 1/2 and 3 1/2at the time.

OS: What was your impression of the Top Chef hosts, such as Padma Lakshmi and Tom Colicchio?

CE: I thought they were great. Obviously, they’re very strict and they’ve done this before, so their standards are very high. You have to be on your game.

OS: Is the show more difficult than it’s portrayed on TV? For instance, how long do the contestants sit in the waiting rooms to get the results of the battles?

CE: There’s a lot of waiting. When it’s time to cook, it’s GO, and the cooking process is actually quite organic, but there’s a lot of standing around. Sometimes you might be sitting for seven or eight hours, but on the show it looks like it was just three minutes. You have to remember there’s a whole production crew, so if we’re cooking at a different place than the Top Chef kitchen—say, a field somewhere—there’s a crew of 150 people who have to pack everything up, go to the location, reset everything up there and then we cook again.

OS: How many hours were you filming each day?

CE: Every day the cameras showed up at 7am, and we usually weren’t done until 11pm or midnight.

OS: Right after you were announced as winner, you said it was “life changing.” How has life changed since you won and has winning Top Chef furthered your career?

CE: I’ve been in the Philadelphia scene for a while, so I was well known here. Being on the show made me more well known on a national level and has given me more opportunities for travel and appearances, but my main focus remains providing the best service possible for my little restaurant here. I’m very happy being a tiny restaurant and have no plans on expanding any time in the near future.

OS: What do you do when you’re not in the kitchen?

CE: I try to spend time with family, but I’m usually cooking. When we have family days, we try to leave our phones at home and spend time together. I cook a fair amount at home, and on Sundays, which are family days, the kids will help me. They’ll peel garlic and pick thyme.

OS: What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?

CE: Keep your head down. A lot of people look at chefs and see 25 year olds making press, but I’d tell those young chefs they need to treat it like a residency and work hard. You don’t become a doctor until you’re 35 and have finished your residency, so if you want to be a chef, you need to try and learn everything you can before breaking out by yourself.

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