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

Construction again came to a standstill. Staff went unpaid. Finished cabinets were unloaded from trucks and, when no payment was tendered, reloaded and shipped back to the wood shop. Speck was $500,000 in the hole and Blatstein wasn’t yet on the hook for a cent. Shola actively avoided Lakhmna, remembers one source: If the contractor walked in the front door, he’d walk out the back. The stalemate fueled speculation that Speck wasn’t just in flux, but inert. Finally, Blatstein stepped in.

Shola was given a deadline. Uneasy about how the $500,000 had evaporated, Blatstein agreed to feed the kitty on the condition that Shola rein in costs and come up with revenue on his own. From that point on, Blatstein reviewed every expenditure himself. “When Bart took control, I felt a seismic shift,” recalls Amar. “I began to think that maybe this whole thing was starting to unravel.”

Early in August, Shola had told bloggers that the coveted chef’s counter would premiere in early fall. He began accepting prepaid­ online reservations. Dinner was priced at $120 Tuesday through Friday; Saturday seats were $150.

A former Speck employee compares the move to selling condos in a building under construction: “If you finish on time, great,” he says. “If you go bankrupt, you’re screwed, or at least you have a lot of angry people.”

October rolled around without Speck inching any closer to the finish line. Just days before the scheduled launch, Shola sent an e-mail to customers who had made reservations: “Unfortunately, due to unexpected technical issues regarding some of the equipment we installed and overall construction, we have to delay our opening for six weeks to replace a few things.” He promised a full refund and a free dinner at the December opening.

By then, Amar had been fired and replaced as general manager. He sued Shola­ for $10,000 in back wages, also naming Blatstein in the suit. Shola countersued, claiming that Amar had stolen the company laptop­ and valuable computer files. Blatstein and Shola settled out of court. Amar says he got everything he asked for, plus a 25 percent penalty. Blatstein was left with the legal fees.

December came and went. January, ditto. Shola staged several of what Tommy Updegrove calls “investor dinners” at the work-in-progress. Speck had amassed nearly $1 million in debt service, says Amar, and Blatstein had to be paid back in full before any profit could be realized. By the most generous estimates, that would take years. Many, many years.

In February of this year, with the restaurant opening still on the horizon, Shola­ posted a dispatch to his StudioKitchen blog that detailed the “900 major things” that had conspired against him. The notice prompted foodie website Grub Street, which had pretty much given up on Speck, to run his photo over the mocking caption “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.”

Among the embarrassment of alibis was a series of bewildering city codes, which Shola likened to viruses, writing they “are actively mutating during construction.”

“It was pure fantasy,” says one Shola critic. “There were no such problems. Speck could have and should have opened in June [2010].” According to the city’s licenses and inspection department, the project had only one building code violation—on May 4th of last year, for performing interior alterations without a permit—and was allowed to resume construction the following day.

Towne has a theory about Shola’s reluctance to open. “Shola is too much of a perfectionist,” he says. “He needed to just suck it up.” The tipping point seems to have come over Presidents’ Day weekend when Shola took some of his pricey kitchen­ gear from Speck. “Shola panicked,” says a friend. “He had thought Bart would never back out. But Bart refused to put up with any more B.S. For the first time, Shola realized he might have overplayed his hand.”

In mid-March—almost 10 months after the originally scheduled opening—the locks were changed. Speck staffers blamed Blatstein, whom they accused of being unreasonable.

“I guess Shola finally faced the reality that Bart was the owner of Speck,” says North Third chef Peter Dunmire, Shola’s former galley mate at the Blue Angel. “In the end, it was simply two very strong-willed people not budging.”

Updegrove puts things even more simply: “Speck got too expensive, took too long, and Bart was tired of being the only person shelling out money.” Robert Amar, who opened a new restaurant in Fairmount called Fare this spring, savors his brief time on the project as if it were a Proustian madeleine, remembering everything from blueprints to individual menu items. “Speck was the best restaurant I ever worked on,” he says wistfully. “It was kind of like the great manuscript that never gets published, or a brilliant screenplay that’s never filmed.” Call it “The Edifice Complex” or “The Emperor’s New Restaurant.”

In May, the all-powerful king gave sushi bar Raw the honor of moving into his finished foodie palace. The prince is back at his old castle, throwing together dishes like marble-rye ice cream with smoked char and sorrel. And lately, the archbishop has been overseeing the Piazza’s new swim club.

“Oh yeah, whatever happened to Speck?” Lakhmna asks, eyes darting like minnows. “Has it opened yet?”

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