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When Philadelphia deli meat powerhouse Dietz & Watson approached Nicholas Elmi about cooking for the kickoff event to a new nationwide promotion called “Choose the Table,” the Top Chef winner and owner of acclaimed East Passyunk restaurants Laurel and ITV was somewhat skeptical.

“I asked them, on a range of one to ‘Laurel,’ how creative did they really want me to be with their products?” Elmi recalled. But the answer that came back — “Around a six or a seven” — dispelled his reservations about participating. He is also a fan of the concept behind the campaign, which is designed to highlight the importance of gathering with loved ones for meals.

“I’m not at home for dinner every night,” Elmi admitted, noting he has two restaurants to run, “but when I am, I’m a stickler about the whole family eating together. No phones.”

An American College of Pediatricians study cited by Dietz & Watson found that teens who eat more frequently with their families are less likely to experience depression, more likely to get As and Bs in school and a lot less likely to use tobacco than kids who don’t dine with their parents. And because not all children are in situations where family dinners are possible, whether because of poverty or neglect or otherwise, D&W has partnered with No Kid Hungry as part of the Choose the Table campaign, pledging to provide the DC-based nonprofit with 1.5 million meals for kids in need.

Chef Nicholas Elmi and ‘Chef Roc’ cooked at the Choose the Table kickoff dinner Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

The focus on family is more than just a clever marketing concept.

Founded in Philly by Gottlieb Dietz in 1939, D&W is one of the few successful fourth-generation-run companies operating in the US. Last year, CEO Louis Eni (Dietz’s grandson) told the Philadelphia Inquirer his parents had instilled those values early, telling him and his siblings, “Don’t forget. The third generation is where most businesses go out of business.”

The encouragement worked; brother Chris Eni joins Louis at the top of the company structure as COO, along with their sister Cindy Yingling as CFO. Fourth-generation family member Lauren Eni (Louis’ daughter, 31) is now VP of brand strategy, and Christopher Yingling (Cindy’s son) is VP of finance. Ask any of them what happens when one of the immediate family decides not to join the business, and the answer is simple. “We don’t know, because it hasn’t happened yet.” Even if they explore other interests — Cindy’s younger son Tim Yingling currently runs a video company, Giddyup Bronco Productions, but he was there shooting footage at Power Plant Productions during Monday night’s Choose the Table kickoff event.

The rest of the Dietz & Watson family was at the dinner too, thrilled with what Elmi had managed to create with their cold cuts. He turned bratwurst into a rich crumble served over grilled lettuce, and used chopped sopressata to flavor ethereal ricotta gnocchi. Rosemary ham was paired with Italian sottocenere cheese in a panini, and kielbasa added spice to a pork loin served with bacon-braised kale. Even dessert had a D&W ingredient: Horseradish sauce, which gave zip to yuzu curd with green apple espuma (foam).  The Choose the Table promotion will include a series of tastings like this across the country, each featuring a different high-end local chef.

At the launch dinner in Old City, there was one important person missing: Company chairperson Ruth “Momma Dietz” Eni.

The matriarch of the Philadelphia deli meat powerhouse, whose face and voice became known nationwide thanks to the Momma Dietz marketing campaign — “If it’s not good enough for my family, it’s not good enough for yours” — suffered a stroke last month.

But don’t worry: 92-year-old Momma is a fighter — and she’s already made huge strides toward recovery.

Per Eni’s daughter Yingling, her mother is cogent, able and mobile. “She picks up her walker to go up stairs,” Yingling said, shaking her head. Within two weeks of being hospitalized, Momma Dietz even got up to go to the bathroom herself because she didn’t want to bother the nurse at her assisted living facility in the middle of the night. “Then she fell,” Yingling said. “She was fine, but she’s lucky she didn’t break a hip!”

Even Momma Dietz’s doctor is amazed by the speed of her recovery so far. “He told me she was his hero,” said Yingling. Her family is hopeful she’ll be back at her regular desk at Dietz & Watson’s Wissinoming headquarters — and back sharing dinner with her family — sometime very soon.

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...