Two-time Chopped champ Eli Dunn shocked Rhode Island’s tight-knit food community when he announced he was closing his eponymous Warren restaurant. But after six years – two of them post-Food Network fame – at the helm of running a successful eatery, the acclaimed chef spent more time cooking up spreadsheets than meals.
“The evolution began before the pandemic,” he explains while using a rare day off to whip up some cider donuts and apple butter in his home kitchen. “Being a father of two small kids, running a successful business by myself, I was getting burnt out. I lost touch with what I loved about cooking.”
Before the pandemic hit, he decided to hire a head chef and hand over the operational control of his restaurant so he could free up his time for other things. Then COVID happened, and the restaurant shut down. “It was stressful,” he notes. “But those few months were a revelation. I hadn’t spent much time with my family over the past six years.”
“When people ask if closing the restaurant was a casualty of COVID, I say yes, but not the way you think.” He says it gave him permission to “color outside the lines.”
When Eli’s Kitchen reopened in early summer 2020, he brought in Sam Duling as head chef and pivoted to a takeout model. That’s when a panicked request came in for a catered event because the original caterers bailed. In the past, these invitations were a hard no. “But now I had some free time.”
The first event was a small, funky wedding with 15 people. That one weekend gig turned into another, and before he knew it, he was fully booked for the summer. It reignited his love of cooking and opened his eyes to the possibilities of micro-catering.
Dunn sold Eli’s Kitchen to chef Duling, who re-christened the restaurant as Hunky Dory in the spring, to focus solely on his new venture.
It’s apparent from Dunn’s career that he likes the micro-model. Eli’s Kitchen sat 30. He caps the private events at 50. “I intentionally keep things small. You lose something when you get big. It’s hard to keep the intimacy.”
Dunn collaborates with the client and creates a completely customized menu. “We start with a discovery call on Zoom, where I find out the usual things about dietary restrictions and allergies but then we get really granular. Did you go on an amazing trip when you were young and what was the food like? What are your formative food experiences? I want to evoke that nostalgia.”
Nostalgia could mean food eaten during an excursion to Thailand or something closer to home, like IKEA and their Swedish meatballs. Whatever it is, Dunn wants to replicate the happy memories tied to the food enjoyed in that moment. Food becomes an immersive experience that triggers the emotions as well as the senses.
Plus, it lets Dunn flex his creative muscles. “It’s more satisfying for me, because I get to cook something different every time.”
Dunn notes that when he cooks, he’s not chasing James Beard Awards. He simply wants to feed people and see them smile. “This has 100 percent fueled my passion again.”
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