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

THE GRAND OPENING WAS POSTPONED.

And postponed.

And 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.”

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.

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.

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.

By the spring of 2010, PYT was showing a profit, and by the summer, Updegrove had paid back the loan. “Bart bet on me and won,” he says. Blatstein hedged his bet by suing Updegrove for $56,000. Though he won the case, he hasn’t pursued the award. “Bart could have pulled the trigger and put me out of business, but he didn’t,” Updegrove says. “He gave me another chance. I doubt many other landlords would have been so patient.”

Patience is indispensable in the Piazza, a nascent commercial zone that some say echoes a headline in The Onion: “Variety of Unsustainable Business Models Make Up Extremely Hip Neighborhood.”

Speck’s own model, according to one source familiar with the deal, was extremely Blatstein-friendly: a monthly rent of about $6,000, in addition to three percent of gross sales, common-area fees and debt service. Blatstein was due to be paid back before any investors—which made running a tight operation essential. Most restaurants are deemed modest successes if they show an eight percent profit, highly successful if they clear 10 percent. Were the 70-seat Speck to be a runaway hit and rack up $2 million in sales during its first year, the net profit might approach $200,000. Of that, Blatstein’s gross percentage would equal $60,000.

CONSTRUCTION ON SPECK was underway around the first week in April 2010. Lakhmna, the general contractor with crews already working in the Piazza, took care of labor and building supplies. Shola raised money for high-tech kitchen­ ­appliances—pasta extruders, infrared ­salamanders—that he would later road-test at StudioKitchen. He hired Robert Amar, a well-regarded veteran of Stephen Starr’s Buddakan and Tangerine, as general manager.

Lakhmna initially told Amar he wanted Speck to open by the end of May. “You’re dreaming,” Amar replied, “but dreaming is good.” The ever-confident Shola announced Speck would open on Memorial Day 2010. “You’re dreaming, too,” protested Amar. “You’ve got to account for building inspections, health certification, and the food-prep and liquor licenses.” He said the Fourth of July was more realistic.

Nevertheless, in late April, despite the absence of a working kitchen, Shola brought in onetime Buddakan and Barclay Prime executive chef Dan Kremin as chef de cuisine. In early May, he enlisted sous-chef Akiko Moorman, a line cook under David Chang at the cutting-edge Momofuku Noodle­ Bar in Manhattan.

Amar says the first sign of trouble came that month when Lakhmna started laying out significant cash for fabric and millwork. Nearly $300,000 had been spent, and the rough inspection was still a long way off. About $200,000 off, according to Amar. When Blatstein wouldn’t chip in, construction stopped for a few weeks, and no one got paid.

Before contributing anything more, an increasingly testy Lakhmna asked Shola to sign a binding agreement. According to Amar, the document had many of the same stipulations—a no-compete clause, right of first-refusal on future projects—that Lurie was said to have sought. Shola was reluctant to sign, but by the end of June, he and Lakhmna reached an accord and things seemed to be back on track.

Though Kremin was out as chef, construction hummed along until August, when Speck suffered its second financial implosion. “Though the restaurant was hugely over budget, Shola insisted on buying the best of everything,” complains one subcontractor. “He recoiled from decision-making and wouldn’t take responsibility for anything.”

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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