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

More exclusive than the Philadelphia Club, StudioKitchen has no advertising, not even a sign in front of its current location, an apartment down the hall from Shola’s in Northern Liberties, and is only accessible to diners willing to seek it out—you must book the table online and wait for an opening. The dates are irregular and subject to whim.

“If Shola feels comfortable with your group, he’ll tell you everything you want to know about the process of cooking, expound on the composition of the food, maybe let you have a taste or watch his ‘anti-griddle’ in action,” says Towne, a StudioKitchen­ regular. “It’s like an advanced seminar in culinary theory and a hilarious gossip session about what’s exciting, or not, at restaurants all over the country.”

Surrounded by immersion circulators, liquid nitrogen tanks and enough sophisticated electronic gadgetry to jump-start Frankenstein’s monster, Shola is less a chef than a kitchen magician whose tricks involve foams, gels, soils and oddments like maple-cured fish roe. His audience pays $120 to $150 a pop to watch the spectacle of raw ingredients transformed into a sumptuous meal.

“I’ve eaten at StudioKitchen with people from other cities, including New Yorkers, who are usually loath to admit anything good happens outside their borders,” Towne says. “I ask the out-of-towners to step back and just think about the food. They always say the meal was great and totally worth traveling to Philly for.”

Is Shola’s cuisine really that special, or is the praise mere magical thinking by diners caught up in the thrall of the ambiance and his charisma? “Plenty of chefs here are attempting this stuff,” Roman says pointedly. “We just don’t announce it.”

  When not conjuring scrambled corn with Santa Barbara sea urchin or moscato floats with lemon-Brie ice cream, Shola often swans around town like an iPad-brandishing boulevardier, holding forth on the “mouthfeel” of his creations and, as the Inquirer reported way back in 2003, “plotting and replotting his own eventual restaurant.”

In an era that has seen Marc Vetri and Jose Garces build empires and become national celebrities, Shola has been readying for his close-up. “There was lots of pressure on Shola to transfer StudioKitchen to a restaurant setting,” says Roman. “People were in his ear all the time. If you hear that over and over, eventually ego takes over. In this business, ego always has something to do with everything.”

Shola has walked away from several deals that he didn’t feel were exactly right. Lurie was once said to be on the verge of bankrolling him on Washington Square, but the two never came to terms. According to a onetime coworker, Shola balked at a non-compete clause and a provision entitling Lurie to a piece of any future books, restaurants and other ventures he might pursue. He refused to allow StudioKitchen profits to be part of a deal. “Shola agonized over the decision for years,” says the coworker. “He was adamant that no one could ever own him.” (Lurie declined comment.)

During the autumn of 2009, Shola forfeited a hefty security deposit he’d put down on a North 2nd Street space, telling landlord Alan Casnoff that his investors had dropped out. Then, the following spring, he teamed with Gagandeep Lakhmna, a friend who also attended Drexel and, at the precocious age of 40, is already something of a legend in Philly real estate.