Shola vs. Blatstein: The Saga of the City’s Most Mysterious Chef

Culinary mystery man Shola Olunloyo became an underground sensation in Philadelphia with his mythic private dinners, wowing everyone from Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie to Penn president Amy Gutmann. So why did his year-long effort to open a restaurant in Northern Liberties end with developer Bart Blatstein changing the locks? A saga of foodies, finances and egos in the era of the celebrity chef

Not everyone feels quite so negatively about Shola. “A lot of people think he’s a rude, condescending, pretentious bullshit artist,” Roman allows. “My sense is that he’s sometimes a little too smart for his own good. But if you can get past all the crap, he’s sincere and genuine and passionate about the work.”

Shola’s older sister, Kemi, says he “doesn’t dwell on his past.” For that matter, neither does Kemi, who’s wanted in Georgia, where there are four outstanding warrants for her arrest; the most serious charges involve threatening a judge and cruelty to children. She lives in Canada and tweets on behalf of crime victims. (Her Twitter handle is the evocative @Snitchlady.) The Toronto Star has described her as a “six-foot thunderbolt in a sleeveless dress, red lipstick and brown wig.”

Kemi says Shola has always been a stickler for detail, though not necessarily a stickler for fact. “He tells people that he’s many years younger than he actually is,” she says, suppressing a laugh. “He even asked me to remove his age from a Facebook page I set up.” Shola is as fiercely protective of his birth date as he is proud of his birthright. When he cooks private dinners, he occasionally trots out a yellowed newspaper clipping that shows his grandfather, the Nigerian chieftain Samuel Akinyemi, shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth on a state visit.

Shola’s father, Victor, was a child prodigy who attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, earning a PhD in mathematics. (He has taught at Oxford and Cambridge.) Eventually, he returned to Nigeria and, in 1983, became a governor before being ousted in a military coup. He has seven offspring by Shola’s mother, Lady Chief Olufunlayo Shola, and two by his “junior wife,” Ronke Shola. According to an approving piece in a now-defunct Lagos magazine, he “recorded so many children outside wedlock that he is believed to rank with the greats.”

Some press accounts have Shola born in London, but Kemi insists that he, like her, is a native of Nigeria. They moved to England as toddlers, she says, and grew up in Oxford, children of privilege. As a teenager, Shola went back to Lagos to attend King’s College, a boys-only prep school. In 1984, he arrived in Philly and took classes at Penn Center Academy, a now-closed YMCA-run high school on Arch Street. The following year, he enrolled at Drexel, where he studied finance before dropping out in 1990. “Shola decided he wanted to be a chef,” reports Kemi, “so he flew to France and went to cooking schools.”

When Shola resurfaced in Philly, he apprenticed in some very serious kitchens. He labored on the line at Deux Cheminées and Le Bec-Fin and briefly worked as a chef in Stephen Starr’s Blue Angel and, unhappily and even more briefly, as head chef at Neil Stein’s Bleu.

Shola built his reputation by cooking fanciful meals of his choosing for select groups at StudioKitchen, a kind of prix-fixe supper club in his home. He began hosting the intimate dinner parties 10 years ago out of a Powelton Village rowhouse, and a dedicated band of epicures—including Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and Penn president Amy Gutmann—quickly flocked to him like seagulls to a baguette.

The allure of StudioKitchen derives largely from its exotic, backroom chic. Part speakeasy, part 11th-grade chem lab, the atmosphere inverts the classic restaurant experience—­seamless, odorless—by exposing the machinery. Rather than the diner or the food, the emphasis is on the chef. The diner is given the privilege of watching him work.