Chef Eli Kulp finds new normal after 2015 train derailment

ByAli Gorman WPVI logo
Monday, May 13, 2019
Eli Kulp: Four years after train derailment
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Eli Kulp: Four years after train derailment. Registered Nurse Ali Gorman reports during Action News at 11 p.m. on May 10, 2019.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- One of Philadelphia's star chefs has found what he calls his new normal.

It was almost four years ago when Eli Kulp was on that fateful Amtrak train that derailed in Port Richmond, killing eight people and injuring hundreds. That crash left Kulp paralyzed.

He would spend more than a year doing rehabilitation, trying to get movement back and trying to make sense of what happened and why.

Now, he says he's in a much better place.

The renowned chef and restaurateur is back in the kitchen at High Street on Market, and Fork in Old City.

Food and dining have always been his passion.

He describes it as "a symphony of pieces that come together."

But he started to resent that passion and the ambition to open another restaurant four years ago in New York, thinking if he wasn't so driven, maybe he wouldn't have been on Amtrak train number 188 on May 12, 2015.

Kulp was in the second car that night; He remembers it vividly.

"Even when the train began to sort of shudder, and then flying through the air, hitting the area of the train on my neck. I knew, I knew that I was paralyzed, but I didn't obviously know the extent of it," Kulp said, adding, "There was a time I was lying there and I was questioning whether I was going to make it or not."

Kulp would spend the next 18 months doing hours of physical and occupational therapy, slowly regaining some upper body movement.

"You feel like your entire world has been wiped out and you're starting over," Kulp said.

It wasn't easy, but he says with the help of others, including his restaurant team, over the past four years his depression due to the devastating injury started to subside and strength set it.

"Slowly working on getting grief put aside and allowing the positivity back in, and eventually the scales tipped and you're able to sort of see the light at the end of the tunnel," Kulp said.

That light led him back into the kitchen.

He now spends more time mentoring up-and-coming chefs. It's something his business partner Ellen Yin with High Street Hospitality Group says is invaluable.

"It's great because Eli is an incredible leader, so people really respect him and he has an amazing experience. It's a different role so there's an adjustment but we are still pushing forward," Yin said.

Yin was a finalist this year for a James Beard Award for outstanding restaurateur. She says it's a testament to the success of the entire team.

Kulp says ultimately it's his passion and that ambition that has helped him get back to where he is today.

Plus, his 7-year-old son Dylan who's always happy to ride on his dad's lap.

"Seeing him go through this along with me, even though he was only 3-years-old, at the end of the day he gets it and is extremely helpful," Kulp said.

He also thinks this experience will lead his son to have a lot of compassion and empathy towards others, and that is something that makes Kulp proud.

He says the resentment he felt for his career is gone. He knows now he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.