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

A SCRUFFY, WILD-HAIRED Indian émigré, Lakhmna haunts the Piazza with a stare that could kill kittens. The Philadelphia Business Journal honored him in 2006 for his development efforts. Three years and one real-estate bust later, the Inquirer summed up the legacy of Lakhmna and the two other owners of Creating Real Estate Innovations as “delinquent construction loans, foreclosures and sheriff’s sales, hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills, and dozens of pending lawsuits, judgments, and Internal Revenue Service and mechanics’ liens.”

The biggest loser must have been Abington Bank, which foreclosed on a $15.1 million loan to Lakhmna’s outfit for an 11-story condominium on American Street, where Shola lived for a time.

Despite his well-documented troubles, Lakhmna wasn’t totally toxic. For the past couple years, he’s worked with Blatstein on projects. It was Lakhmna who had the idea to bring Shola, with his underground cred and fervid following, to the Piazza, where experimental food means Krispy Kreme-sandwiched burgers with chocolate-covered bacon at PYT. Blatstein offered up a prime spot near the old brick brewery. A draftsman remembers Shola showing him around the Piazza, spreading his arms wide and exulting, “Bart owns everything!”

Plans were drawn up for a 40-foot glass-and-mahogany facade that would stretch across two gutted art galleries. The restaurant would feature wide-plank white oak flooring and rift-cut white oak cabinetry. Black walnut chairs and tables would border the sleek, polished chef’s banquette that would supplant StudioKitchen.

A Speck insider says Shola initially budgeted an optimistic $450,000 and that an informal deal was struck in which Blatstein would make a $200,000 loan once the space was roughed out.

What made the arrangement unusual for a Philadelphia restaurant, according to one restaurateur, was that Blatstein’s contribution didn’t kick in until the plumbing­ and electrical systems were roughed in to inspection. Typically, the restaurateur gets involved only after the landlord builds out a space. Then again, this was no typical restaurant.

The tenacious Blatstein is a bit of a tall poppy. “The foodie blogs are completely unfair to Bart,” says tenant Owen Kamihira, owner of Bar Ferdinand and El Camino Real. “They print terrible things about him because he’s an easy target.” Some of Shola’s acquaintances counseled him against getting entangled with Blatstein. One was Inquirer wine critic Deborah King, whose husband, sculptor Ray King, had spent three and a half years in court battling the developer.

“Partners are problems,” says Roman. “They all want to put their two cents in. Suddenly, you have to be cautious about what affects the bottom line.” Roman hoped that Shola would stick with the rarefied jewel-box of StudioKitchen or controlled, guest-chef gigs. “Why take on headaches?” he asks. “You have to be nuts!”

Of course, Blatstein’s sanity has been questioned, too. Tommy Up—nee Tommy Updegrove—was an event promoter with no restaurant experience when he launched PYT in the summer of 2009. “Bart was crazy enough to make a loan to me,” he says. After seven months, Updegrove says he was five months behind in rent. Blatstein gave him a timetable to pay or shut down.