Eli Dunn was born into the restaurant business, helping his mother run her former Massachusetts mainstay Phoebe’s Fish and Chips from the time he was a teenager until he ran the kitchen as head chef. Now, the chef/owner of Eli’s Kitchen in Warren, Rhode Island (who credits Upserve analytics with providing valuable business insights into his operation) is taking his talents to television, competing on Food Network’s Chopped on Nov. 27 at 9 pm. But first, he dishes with Restaurant Insider about how the strategy for running his own kitchen was perfectly aligned with his attempt to take home the $10,000 prize.
What sorts of cuisine are you typically whipping up at Eli’s Kitchen?
Somebody on Yelp once said that we’re comfort food with global influences. I like that. I felt like that described us in a nutshell. Really my business model from the very beginning was inclusivity, so I really wanted to have something on the menu for everybody, which is difficult to do. It’s a lot of work. I’m obsessed about, if I’m going to do something vegetarian, I’m not just going to throw a salad on the menu; I’m going to try to make something really delicious, as delicious as a burger. I think I’m borderline obsessive about trying to reach a certain ethnicity or food preference. I try to represent it as best I can. … We do accessible comfort food. Our little motto is, “Source responsibly, cook with love, and share with others.” That really defines my cooking ability. Cooking is not just service for me. I’m not motivated necessarily by profit or increasing revenue. It’s more about making people happy.
Where does that mentality come from?
I started working in my mom’s restaurant when I was 15. I had done everything from wash the dishes to prepping to bake the bread, serving, to eventually being the head chef the last five years or so. It’s just in my blood. I’ve been cooking my whole life. [After Phoebe’s closed] I became one of the brunch chefs at Julian’s in Providence in ‘04. I had only really ever cooked seafood up to that point. That was the first time I ever worked in a place where they were doing what we do. They cater to everybody. I learned about vegan cuisine, vegetarian cuisine, brunch, all that stuff. That was my introduction to the world outside of fish and chips and fried clams.
Without giving away any spoilers, how did your experiences help you prepare for the challenges on Chopped?
The way we cook here, we do our set menu, but we do expanded specials every single day. Some restaurants would have one or two specials a night. We have anywhere from nine to 12 specials a night: three small plates, two large plates, and desserts. Those specials are created using the simple formula where we go into the walk-in with what we call the “use list,” and we’ve got different categories. We find all the random special extra stuff we have, a mixture of stuff from local farms and stuff that is leftover from other dishes. We just create a special on the fly using all the different things that we have. It’s really good for food cost, it’s good for cross-utilization of product, it’s a really good way to get cooks engaged. I knew that. That’s how they do it at Julian’s so that’s where I learned.
That’s the premise of Chopped right there.
That worked in my favor, going into a competition like this where you open a box and you have 20 minutes to figure out what to do with this weird stuff. The thing that I think was the scariest or I was the most nervous about was just having cameras in my face.
What made you want to participate in a cooking competition show then?
I got a casting call for Chopped in the fall of last year. I think I turned it down at first because I just didn’t feel like I could fit it into my schedule. But I did a little more research and I realized it was only being filmed for one day. My staff was like, “You’ve got to do this.” They talked me into it. Because, truth be told, I had never really watched a lot of Chopped. I love Food Network and I love Top Chef and some of the other ones, but I hadn’t really seen a lot of Chopped, maybe once or twice. But once I got the casting call, it marinated for a little while, then I reached out again and said I definitely want to do this.
Did you learn anything about yourself as a chef through this process?
One of the things I think really came out of the preparation of doing the show is it really helped me understand why I love cooking, why I do what I do. I think I’ve opened a restaurant because that’s what I wanted to do, and I love cooking. It’s just been really organic. I’m not the kind of person that’s real analytical and cerebral. That’s just not who I am. I’m a real-feel type of cook. Being forced to think about why I cook, what’s my style of cooking, really helped me learn more about myself as a chef. It helped sharpen my focus. In a way, that affected my cooking at the restaurant. I started with: Cooking is an act of service. That was a big thing. That was when I condensed everything that I was thinking about down into one line: Cooking is an act of service. … So that was something I really thought about, and that was something I said when I was on set. I think that’s probably what I got out of it. It really helped me see down to the micro level what it is I love about cooking.
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