Eli Kulp trades toque for talks to inspire others at GREATPHL festival

The second annual GREATPHL opens this week. The inaugural B.PHL opens 10 days later. What’s the difference? Philly chef Eli Kulp’s presentation helps explain.

Philadelphia chef Eli Kulp (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Philadelphia chef Eli Kulp (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Eli Kulp made his name as a nationally recognized rising star chef at Philly restaurants Fork and High Street on Market. Then in 2015,  Kulp was on an Amtrak train that derailed and crashed in North Philadelphia.

Eight people died. Kulp was permanently paralyzed.

This weekend Kulp will speak at the second annual GREATPHL (pronounced “grateful”) festival, but he will not use his time on stage to talk about the future of the restaurant industry  — about which he has a lot of ideas. He will rather focus on personal resiliency.

“It’s not about food. It’s about life,” he said. “This event is really focused on trying to inspire humans. When you get around other people who want to not only have an impact on themselves but on people around them, you can’t help but be inspired.”

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Kulp is still actively involved in the kitchens of Fork and High Street, creating menus and supporting chefs. But he cannot cook professionally anymore. He never fully recovered the use of his hands and gets around in a wheelchair.

“Now that is me. That won’t change,” he said. “You can let it destroy you, or use this opportunity to mold you and change you and reshape your perspective, and look at the what the future can be.”

GREATPHL will be a marathon ideas festival, featuring 30 presentations and performances, non-stop for 24 hours. It’s designed to be a single, focused experience with a multiplicity of perspectives, not necessarily on topics you might expect. In its wake, another ideas festival with a similar name, B.PHL, launches its inaugural run with 200 presentations in 14 locations over 3 days.

Christopher Plant, a commercial real estate broker who created GREATPHL chose Kulp and the other speakers. He wants to bring a bunch of people — in this case between 500 to 1,000 – into a room to share an experience of endurance learning.

“It’s based on not establishing what many festivals go for: this fear of not missing out, FOMO feel. Overwhelming people with a gigantic population of people and things,” Plant said. “I wanted to so something more focused and brings people together.”

The GREATPHL19 lineup starts with Conor Barwin, a former Philadelphia Eagle, who has started the nonprofit Make The World Better, which revitalizes public spaces, primarily playgrounds.

It continues with a roster of local entrepreneurs and creative thinkers, like the founder of Philly’s fast and healthy restaurant chain Honeygrow, an LGBTQ rights lawyer, and the founder of an organization supporting first responders with PTSD.

The presenters are broken up with several musical and theater artists, including Chris Davis, Brian Shapiro, the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra, and the Ill Fated Natives.

Plant is setting apart his festival by excluding the word “innovation” from the title and any material related to the event. “Innovation,” he said, tends to be used and abused by a particularly insular segment of the socio-economic population.

“It’s a code word for a lot of things that may or may not be true,” he said. “What I’m doing is a response to festivals where I don’t think there is any real engagement with anything other than a highly segmented audience. I want to put something together that would bring in a lot of different people.”

The other festival this month, B.PHL from Oct. 15 – 17, is coordinated primarily by Independence Blue Cross with an array of partners, including the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia. Its 200 presenters were not curated but self-selected themselves into the program.

IBX Director of Innovation Michelle Histand said she had to cut off the list once it reached 200.

“Anyone could submit a session,” she said. “We just made sure it tied to a broad definition of innovation: something new or novel in a field that creates value or the creative process.”

The B.PHL festival is pulling in big names: Abbi Jacobson, co-creator of the Comedy Central series “Broad City,” Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph, the former head of innovation of Disney Duncan Wardle, and a former janitor at PepsiCo, Richard Montanez, who rose to executive when he invented a new flavor of Cheeto.

The festival casts it net broadly, including sessions about mail-order ballet pointe shoes, the science of sleep, STEM careers, using creative thinking in the boardroom, and agricultural technology.

The future of fashion. The future of news. The future of museums. The future of Medicare. The future of education. A workshop called “31 Ways to Innovate Anything.”

Histand wants to spotlight Philadelphia has a hub of innovation on par with Boston and New York.

“Philadelphia does a great job of telling our story as an underdog. That’s charming only to a point,” she said. “We have so much happening here, so many innovative functions, formal and informal. We can do a better job of telling that story.”

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