Shola vs. Blatstein: The Saga of the City’s Most Mysterious Chef
THE GRAND OPENING WAS POSTPONED.
And now Speck Food + Wine, the hotly anticipated modern urban restaurant, is a modern urban legend.
Plans took shape in the spring of 2010. Presided over by Shola Olunloyo, the city’s most mystifying chef, the bistro was supposed to be the fine-dining showpiece of Bart Blatstein’s Piazza at Schmidts in Northern Liberties. Then, in March of this year, Blatstein locked Olunloyo out, effectively closing Speck before it even opened.
The million-dollar fiasco seems like a simple tale of a virtuous artist, an avaricious businessman and their inability to compromise. We all know how that story ends.
So much for simplicity.
A RESTAURATEUR WITH intimate knowledge of the Speck project describes it as a “Machiavellian triangle,” with Blatstein as the all-powerful king, developer-investor Gagandeep “Gagan” Lakhmna the archbishop, and Olunloyo the adventurous but ultimately expendable prince. Olunloyo declined to be interviewed and also discouraged many supporters and friends from talking. When we sent him a list of 48 statements from this story for fact-checking purposes, he replied that all but four were inaccurate, but refused to elaborate.
Fittingly, the tale was set on the scalloped bricks of the 80,000-square-foot public square—inspired by the Piazza Navona in Rome—that Blatstein unveiled in 2009 on the site of a shuttered brewery. The complex has five eateries, and Speck, with its avant-garde cuisine and its “chef’s counter” offering ambitious nine-course tasting menus, was supposed to be the gastronomic novelty.
And it would have been 44-year-old Olunloyo’s first restaurant for the masses. Over the last decade, he’s made a name for himself—everyone simply calls him “Shola”—as a cooking blogger and micro-caterer. In Philadelphia’s foodie forums, piety has collected around his toque blanche like mist around a mountaintop. On Egullet.org, the Shola thread is 23 worshipful pages long. The reverence is thicker than remoulade.
Until recently, Shola floated over the Web chatter like a benevolent balloon, never descending low enough to be pricked. Not that he’s ever been one to shy away from an abrasive opinion. A reedy, British-raised Nigerian with a handsome face and keen eyes, he oscillates between raffish charm and a finely measured line in contempt. “Shola is legendary for torturing bartenders,” says buddy Jeff Towne, a producer for the public-radio show Echoes. Not long ago, at a certain Rittenhouse watering hole, Shola was served a rococo variation of the already baroque “Round the World #2” (made with cucumber, gin, pomegranate liqueur, agave nectar, elderflower liqueur and yuzu juice) that didn’t meet his exacting standards. Leaning in close, he murmured to the bartender, “Make the next one sing!”
“Shola’s a very funny guy to figure out,” says his pal Chip Roman, who runs Blackfish in Conshohocken and Mica in Chestnut Hill. Some chefs—and Roman is one—seek his counsel on sous-vide techniques, novel flavor combinations, and modernist recipes like rabbit escabeche with cauliflower, prunes and Earl Grey tea. Skeptics, though, point out that he’s never really faced the scrutiny that comes with a popular restaurant. Chefs are as much leaders and delegators as conceptualists: They must be able to manage the sheer pandemonium that is a professional kitchen. “Shola isn’t a chef,” a prominent restaurateur says flatly. “He’s just a competent high-end cook, and cooking is the easy part of the job.”