Ajay Raju Profile: The Big Raju

The Dilworth Paxson CEO in his $3.1 million Society Hill home. Photography by Chris Crisman

Dilworth Paxson CEO Ajay Raju in his $3.1 million Society Hill home. Photography by Chris Crisman

Might as well start with the hair.

“My life,” he says, “is driven by my obsession with my stupid hair.”

“My wife,” he says, “hates my hair. She wants me to have no gel.”

“When I discovered gel,” he says, “it was like Aha! Caveman discovers wheel.”

“My brother,” he reports, “says, ‘It’s a previously frozen raccoon that died on the road and was tarred over and then they put it on Ajay’s head.’”

“I’m the Indian Don King.”

Born near Bhopal, brought by his parents to Northeast Philly at the age of 14 speaking no English, Ajay Raju has transformed himself from a kid who felt insecure ordering at McDonald’s to a polished 44-year-old law partner who is quickly and deferentially seated at his preferred table (rear corner near the bar, where he can see everyone come and go) in the posh 1862 dining room at the Union League. He nonchalantly requests dishes not on the menu — tonight, grilled salmon and salad, since his weight is his other obsession. “I’m a peacock,” he’ll say, again and again.

“He has one quality that you definitely do not see in the legal class — pizzazz,” says one of Raju’s friends. “They buy their clothes at Joseph A. Bank. And obviously Ajay does not shop there.” In fact, Raju appears in advertisements for Boyds; his shoes, which can run up to $12,000 a pair, come from Tom Ford.

“We’ll see whether the personal flamboyance undoes him in this town,” this observer says. “At this point, it seems not. He’s going to be a player.”

It’s not as if he’s waiting on the bench now. On this late-winter night, Raju is little more than a month into his new job as CEO and co-chairman of Dilworth Paxson, one of Philadelphia’s most storied law firms. He moved there after nearly a decade at Reed Smith, a much larger firm with an international presence, where he managed the Philadelphia office and was acknowledged as a top rainmaker among 1,800 partners worldwide.

There are those who think Raju’s move to a smaller, more Philly-focused shop is really about having a home in a politically connected firm and dressing himself in the double-breasted, pin-striped aura of Richardson Dilworth, the legendary mayor and political reformer. He already sits on a dozen nonprofit boards around town, ranging from the Art Museum to the Zoo. He has his own political action committee — Center PAC — that has helped raise money for Tom Corbett and Bob Casey. Raju, possessed with what he calls “immigrant impatience,” has been raising money for politicians since he was a teenager. (As a young peacock, he disguised fund-raisers as fashion shows.) Raju calls Center PAC an “incubation platform” and plans eventually to help launch the political careers of civic-minded business types. People like him.

During talks about his move to Dilworth with its longtime partner Joe Jacovini, who stepped aside from running the firm for Raju to move in, the two men had a number of meetings right here in full view at the Union League. “They thought a merger was happening — this crowd,” Raju says, glancing across the table to the full and noisy bar area. “It’s almost like they analyze your stools to see what you ate this month. In New York, nobody would give a rat’s ass. Here, they watch everything.”

Of course, he’s a guy who doesn’t mind being watched. Peacocks don’t try to hide. While he may not be ready to run for mayor, he’s long been running for something. At this point, he has a self-appointed position; call it ch­eerleader-in-chief. Ajay Raju is making a deliberate effort to make sure people don’t just look — he wants them to look and listen.

It’s the reason he’s spending hours tonight dining with someone who can bring him no legal business, who offers no new connection in the guarded back corridors of power and influence. He’s here despite the objections of those around him.

“I can honestly tell you that every friend and adviser tells me not to talk to you right now,” Raju tells me just before — diet be damned — ordering dessert, his third helping today of Union League brownies with peanut butter ice cream. (It’s a long story that involves having two lunches.) “‘You can gain nothing with a profile of you; nothing good comes out of it. It doesn’t get you anywhere.’

“But I think it’s the perfect time. I have this idea, and I want the message to get out there.”

Steel Magnolia

bethlehem-steelstacks-jonathan-davies-940

Furnaces and fireworks for the Fourth of July. Photography by Jonathan Davies

John Callahan, a 44-year-old natural salesman turned preternatural politician, looks down at the small plate of tuna crudo on the table. Fork poised, he considers the unlikelihood that he would be sampling such a dish in a swank new Italian restaurant on the main drag of the traditionally working-class ethnic enclave called the South Side in his hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

“Who’da thunk it,” he says, with a rapid-fire wheezy chuckle. He spears an olive-oil-drenched nubbin of raw fish. “I often tell people: This is not your grandfather’s — hell, it’s not your father’s — town of Bethlehem.”

If he walked out the front door of Molinari Mangia, Callahan, who recently ended a decade as Bethlehem’s mayor, could peer toward the hulking 20-story blast furnaces that were once the hot heart of Bethlehem Steel, a premier industrial powerhouse of the last century. For much of that century, into the 1990s, those belching furnaces — “convoluted structures that look like smoke-stained dinosaurs snorting into the sky,” in the words of one writer — delivered a daily reassuring signal to the city of 75,000. As long as what locals called “The Steel” was working, so was Bethlehem.

But The Steel, reeling from foreign competition, plagued by myopic management and hamstrung by its unions, shut down the furnaces in 1995. The company spiraled into bankruptcy and finally dissolution. The city lost its namesake company, and a fifth of its taxable land devolved into an unused brownfield site, transformed almost overnight into a Rust Belt relic facing an existential crisis: What do you do with a huge plot (picture downtown Philly, Market to Spruce, river to river) of polluted land littered with industrial-era detritus?

More than 10 years after The Steel’s bankruptcy, the emerging answer gives John Callahan a story to tell. One day he showed up at daybreak at those big blast furnaces, which have been preserved and repurposed (complete with a glowing LED light treatment) as the city’s largest art installation. In the shadow of the furnaces now are two sleek modernist glass, steel and concrete cubes. One houses state-of-the-art studios for the Lehigh Valley’s public television station, WLVT; the other is a multi-level visual and performing arts center called ArtsQuest, with several chic performance spaces (one is an amalgam of Philly’s World Cafe Live and New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center) and a two-screen art-house cinema. On a landscaped plot of grass hard against the furnaces is a concert pavilion designed by Philly architecture firm WRT; it looks like an unfolding piece of origami. The whole area is called SteelStacks, and it’s just a short walk from Bethlehem’s real game changer: a nearly $1 billion casino, hotel, shopping mall and events complex that began operating five years ago as the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem.

“This one Sunday,” Callahan recalls, “we were having sunrise yoga under what they called an ‘earth harp.’” He lets out his characteristic chuckle. “The harp was these giant bands that came off the ArtsQuest building. Someone was playing it by jumping up and grabbing onto them.

“So I’m kicking off the show, doing a little welcoming speech. And I couldn’t help but imagine a rigger working up on those blast furnaces, looking down and saying, ‘What the fuck kind of nonsense is going on down there?’ How could that kind of person ever imagine a day when there’d be people doing sunrise yoga underneath an earth harp at an arts center called SteelStacks?

“Wow,” he says, “what a change!”

The Inimitable Michael Solomonov

Famous Philadelphia Chef Michael Solomonov photographed by Michael Persico for Philadelphia magazine.

On any given night, a customer who walks through the verdant, manicured grounds of I.M. Pei’s Society Hill Towers and into the restaurant called Zahav will likely see its young salt-and-pepper-haired chef and co-owner, Michael Solomonov, flipping a pie-sized floppy disk of bread dough onto a flat paddle and shoveling it, with a quick shrug, into a brick oven that’s been fired with compressed hardwood to a blazing 800 degrees.

The dough is an Iraqi flatbread called laffa, and not long after it hits the bricks, it puffs up so fast that the process looks like time-lapse photography. In the few minutes he has before the laffa is done cooking, Solomonov uses his central position to quarterback the kitchen staff.

“I need an amuse-bouche,” he might shout down the line of cooks, as he did on a recent night when I squeezed into the kitchen to watch him work. “Excuse me—I’m sorry,” the chef added, his tone somehow combining his general affability with zero tolerance for slacking, “but WHERE THE FUCK are the amuse coming from tonight?” When it comes to cursing, chefs are the new sailors.

Then Solomonov steps back into the blast zone of the open oven, slips the paddle under the dough that’s now charred and crunchy, and pulls it out for a quick sprinkle of olive oil and a dusting of the Middle Eastern spice mix called za’atar. He pushes it onto a plate to be served with hummus.

On a busy night, this happens several hundred times, and the whole process—the pounding rollout, the quick puff, the intense heat, the crucible quality of it all—provides some convenient metaphors for the life, up till now, of the 34-year-old hot-shot chef who still calls himself a “dirt-bag line cook” even though he stands on the verge of becoming a brand-name culinary star.

Though he’s suffered his share of burns on the way to this point, it’s all happening lately for Michael Solomonov. He’s been named best chef in the region by the James Beard Foundation. His unique Israeli-inspired restaurant has four bells from the Inquirer and raves from this magazine, and has been the object of adulation in the national press, ranging from the New York Times to Bon Appétit. “We’ve gotten praise from the Israeli press,” the chef reports proudly. “Which is very cool.” Marc Vetri, who gave Solomonov one of his early cooking jobs, calls Zahav “one of the most interesting restaurants in America right now.”

Right now may be the perfect time for a restaurateur like Solomonov. The foodie phenomenon is reaching its postmodern phase, and the hive mind of serious diners seems to swing wildly in its passions between the extremes of rococo molecular gastronomy on one hand and street food savored off a truck on the other. With his ability to embrace high and low and still make dining fun and delicious, his energetic and idiosyncratic enthusiasm for both ends of the spectrum, Solomonov may have whipped up his own secret sauce for success.

Of course, right now also happens to be smack in the middle of the age of the rock-star chef/entrepreneur, and Solomonov has already walked gingerly into that wave of heat. With his business partner, Steve Cook, a onetime investment banker who transformed himself into a respected chef and then quickly went back to the business end of the restaurant business, Solomonov has interests in Percy Street Barbecue and Federal Donuts. The latter is the counterintuitive (or perhaps completely and brilliantly intuitive) combo coffee shop/designer doughnut house/fried chicken shack that’s become as much a cult as a franchise, demonstrating the new willingness of serious food hounds to stand in line for what was once considered little more than junk.

FedNuts, as devotees like to call it, now has three locations and counting, including the frequently mobbed counter in the stands behind left field at Citizens Bank Park. Though there have been discussions about opening a Zahav in New York, CookNSolo, as the partners call their company, sees FedNuts as its best opportunity to debut a show out of town.

There was more attention last year when the pair engineered the much-buzzed-about opening of a high-end kosher restaurant on the Main Line, Citron and Rose. Because of the complicated rules of kashrut, as Jewish dietary laws are known, Solomonov chose to only sign on as a consultant. Citron and Rose opened to strong reviews, but Cook and Solomonov walked away from the restaurant within a few months, when owner David Magerman decided to broaden the appeal and try, in effect, to make the restaurant into his own suburban Jewish community center.

“There was no slapping or punching or anything like that” in the breakup, Solomonov insists. “We wanted from the get-go to have the best kosher restaurant in the country. The level we do things at is high. To broaden things is okay, but we don’t need to be doing that. There’s plenty of people who can do that.”

Just days after announcing the split, both Cook and Solomonov were talking about “revisiting” the concept of high-end Ashkenazi Jewish food on their own. Meanwhile, they were hinting that an Israeli street-food joint that wouldn’t compete with Zahav is a distinct possibility. Are they, as Food and Wine recently suggested, poised to helm the next Philadelphia restaurant empire?

If a Cook and Solo empire emerges, it will be different from what we’ve seen before. Jose Garces built a kind of Incan Empire, his restaurants all rooted in some sort of south-of-the-border cuisine. Marc Vetri rules over a Roman Empire, with an expanding range of foods that are all recognizably inspired by Italy. While those two chefs have created new restaurants in the context of their original successes, Solomonov and Cook are operating in that postmodern mode. Theirs is the context of no context. They even once made a go at Mexican. (It didn’t work.)

“The concepts we’ve chosen are more an expression of our personalities than some sort of calculated empire-building strategy,” Cook told me one afternoon, sitting in a new private dining room at the recently expanded Zahav. Then he laughed. “But we’ll take the empire. We’d like to have an empire. But the only way it makes sense is to do what we like to do first and maybe the money will follow.”

If empire is in the offing, Solomonov will be its figurehead. Cook, who is uncomfortable in the public eye, describes his p­artner as “chief marketing officer” for the brand. In that role, the voluble Israeli-born, Pi­ttsburgh-bred total-high-energy dude has started to have his ticket punched on the celebrity-chef ride.

There he is on the Travel Channel, greeting Anthony Bourdain and his cameras as they arrive for dinner at Zahav, and hanging out afterward (still on camera) with Tony at the Pen & Pencil Club, where he challenges the TV star to a game of rock-paper-scissors—the loser having to down a shot of the brackish water from the club’s crockpot of free hot dogs. Bourdain loses.

Isn’t that Mike Solo, as he’s commonly known, cooking pungent chicken shashlik with Al Roker on the Today show? And there he is again, whipping up some of his newly famous FedNuts fried chicken for actress Nia Vardalos (of Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) on VH1’s Big Morning Buzz Live. After watching him apply spices, the actress tells the chef, on live TV, “Now I know exactly what kind of lover you would be.”

In terms of more dignified media, Solomonov has signed up to star in a PBS documentary about the foods of Israel, which should start filming this fall. He’s taking meetings in New York in preparation for shopping around a cookbook concept. He has presented his cooking theories at a smarty-pants TedX conference.

In the way successful chefs are these days, he’s being pulled in a dozen different di­rections. Still, for now, on most nights, Solomonov plants himself behind the hammered-copper kitchen counter at Zahav and shovels dough into the blast furnace.

This morning, Chef just wants some big waves.

It’s early on a Saturday, barely eight hours since he walked out of Zahav last night after overseeing the delivery of 227 meals, manning the bread station for much of the six-hour service, and personally preparing four 10-course dinners for folks willing to pay $90 for the chef’s tasting menu. Solomonov has strapped his surfboard (it otherwise hangs over the living room sofa of his Old City loft) to the roof of his new Subaru sedan. His wet suit is in the trunk, and on this bright and cool spring morning he is barreling down the A.C. Expressway toward the ocean.

When I first asked about spending time with him, the chef told me, “I don’t know what you’re going to see. My life is really fuckin’ boring. All I do is work.” Then he came back with an offer of an array of athletic activities: surfing, running (he was scheduled to do the 10-mile Broad Street Run the next day) and boxing. In a different season, snowboarding would be on the agenda.

“Mike is so high-energy,” says one friend, who helped teach him to surf. “It makes my head spin. And he’s got that next-level kind of drive.”

We were about halfway to Atlantic City, talking about our mutual disdain for the culture of “gaming,” when Solomonov said, “I’ve got one of the most compulsive and addictive personalities I know, but gambling has never been a problem.” A little while later, after a shoreline survey of the paltry wave action convinced him that putting on his wet suit would be a waste of time, we were walking the Boardwalk, trying to find some coffee. Solomonov said he wanted to tell me something off the record.

He then told a story of spiraling into alcohol and drug abuse and how people close to him pushed him into detox and rehab. He now has several years of recovery and sobriety behind him. Solomonov later agreed to talk publicly about his addiction, but only in general terms. “At some point in my life, I’ll be very upfront about it if I can find a way to make it helpful,” he told me. “Because of my responsibility to other people in recovery, I need to figure out how I’m going to be more specific and more detailed. But I’m not ready to do that right now.” In a world of graphic addiction memoirs written by teenagers, Solomonov’s reticence is refreshing.

Though Solomonov believes in the genetic basis of addiction, any amateur psychologist could point to triggers, life events that can lead a person toward addiction. In the chef’s life, one such event stands out.

On the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in 2003, when Solomonov was a 25-year-old up-and-coming chef working on the line in Marc Vetri’s kitchen (Vetri had only one restaurant at the time), he was driving a family car from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. The car was for his younger brother, David, who was about to be released from his obligatory duty in the Israeli army and planned to move back to the States and continue his education.

Just weeks before this, the brothers had spent time together in Israel, where the family had repatriated when Michael was 15 and David 12. Michael soon returned to the U.S. to finish high school and start college, but David stayed and assimilated in Israel. “We hadn’t really seen much of each other—maybe once a year,” Solomonov remembers. “So we hung out for three weeks together. Going to the beach. Talking about food. Talking about life. It was awesome. We were just sort of friends.”

As Solomonov drove the car east across the state for his brother, his phone rang, somewhere around the town of Lebanon. It was an aunt calling to tell him that David was dead, shot by snipers as he patrolled an apple orchard on Israel’s border with the nation of Lebanon. David Solomonov was three days from being discharged and had volunteered for duty that night to give a more observant member of his battalion leave for the high holiday.

“David’s death changed my perspective about a lot of things,” Solomonov says. “Emotionally, I was utterly fucked up.” After a trip to Israel for his brother’s funeral, he returned to the Vetri kitchen.

“I had more responsibility at Vetri,” he says. “But that next year was really difficult. I broke up with my girlfriend. I lived in the office at the restaurant for a few months. I was just going through it a little bit. I wasn’t very good at accepting what happened to my brother or what was happening to myself. I definitely drank too much and went off on a couple different tangents, which is obviously a mistake that doesn’t help you deal with anything.”

At one point, Solomonov got the idea of moving back to Israel and joining the army himself. “We sort of talked him out of that,” says Marc Vetri. “I was just like, ‘What are you gonna do? It’ll all be for nothing. Your brother was going to leave all that and come over here.’ We put the kibosh on that idea.”

But it was in Israel that Solomonov had discovered his vocation in the kitchen. When, years earlier, he’d dropped out of the University of Vermont (he once told a writer he’d majored in smoking pot and snowboarding; it was actually studio art), Solomonov slunk back to his birthplace, landing a job in a bakery and later becoming a short-order cook in a cafe.

“It was so different from what I was doing prior,” he says. “It was legitimate work, and it was fuckin’ hard—like, super-hard. I was sort of like an immigrant, and I was treated like an immigrant. I’d work harder than I ever had to work before and nobody gave a shit. Something about it was very honest, and I guess I liked that.

“I was 19, and everybody thought I was going to be perpetually unemployed or a drug dealer or something like that. I started thinking about culinary school.” After three years studying at the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach and working in some South Florida restaurants, Solomonov landed in Philadelphia and quickly moved through two kitchens in the then-flourishing Neil Stein empire—at Avenue B and Striped Bass. He credits Terence Feury, who fired him from Striped Bass and then hired him back, with teaching him work ethic and technique. Then he shifted to the q­uieter kitchen of Vetri, who, he says, taught him to slow down and really pay attention. But Vetri had a policy at the time of pushing his sous-chefs out of the cozy Spruce Street restaurant after two years, so they’d go off and see if they could fly on their own.

In the late summer of 2005, Solomonov met Steve Cook, who was trying to replace himself as chef at the popular West Philadelphia BYO Marigold Kitchen. Cook’s wife knew Solomonov from their childhood in Pittsburgh. Despite the two men’s nearly diametrically different personalities, there was a certain kinship.

“Maybe we just had a good feel for each other at the beginning,” Cook says. “But probably not. There was a need, and he was there and was hungry and had a vision for what he wanted to do.”

When he took over the Marigold kitchen, Solomonov began to embrace his native country’s polyglot cuisine. As time passed, “It became clear that that was the way I was going to attach myself to Israel,” he says, “and in some way, even, with Judaism, and certainly with my brother.”

Solomonov was 27 now, scarred by loss and headed for a confrontation with his obsessive and addictive nature. But he was about to find his métier. With the owner’s approval, he pivoted toward the Middle East. That’s when his star really began to rise.

“Remember the name Michael Solomonov,” Maria Gallagher wrote in this magazine in 2006. “You may not know him yet, but his work at Marigold is the best possible introduction, affirming him as one of Philadelphia’s most promising young culinary talents … with a technique that is already mature.”

He was maturing outside the kitchen, too. He married a business analyst named Mary Armistead, and moved into a South Philly rowhouse. In January 2008, he ceded the Marigold kitchen to Erin O’Shea and took the leap into ownership and a full embrace of his native country’s cuisine with the 3,000-square-foot place in Society Hill (it later doubled in size) named for the Hebrew word for gold.

Zahav is so successful right now that it’s easy to think it always was. But that’s not true. The critics liked the idea almost from the beginning, but patrons didn’t. As the saying goes, they stayed away in droves.

“We didn’t listen,” Solomonov says. “We wanted to be very casual and then have this high-end thing in a different room, which was me trying to show off. And it just didn’t work. At all.”

“We were getting all the accolades that you could get, but we were doing, like, 30 covers on a Tuesday. We had about a year of being scared to death that the bank was going to take our homes, or everyone was going to quit. I didn’t have a clear head about me when we were opening. And nobody likes to work for an asshole. Dude, I was not a good person to work for at all. And I was not a good person to work with. Poor Steve. Or my wife. I can’t imagine.”

Though he won’t be specific with the timeline, it seems obvious that this was the period when Solomonov decided to get sober. He and Cook reworked the Zahav concept, making the menu less didactic and the restaurant friendlier.

“We were humbled to the point where we just had to cook and give great service,” Solomonov says. “You can’t listen to all the positive things that are being written about you when you’re going to your parents and asking for 10 grand so you can make payroll. The press doesn’t fucking matter at that point.”

Nowadays, the press for Zahav is only more effusive, and the customers are waiting to get in. “We’re the busiest we’ve ever been,” Solomonov told me in mid-May. “I don’t know what that’s a product of, but I think it’s because we’re doing well every night, having good services back-to-back.”

Service is over, and the Zahav chefs are chowing down.

“Sooo good, dude,” says one.

“Dude, sooo good,” says another.

“These wings are ridiculous—crazy good, bro,” says Chef himself.

It’s heading toward two a.m., and Solomonov has finally shed his apron and enlisted two of his top young chefs for a pilgrimage to one of his favorite restaurants, a Korean fried chicken wings joint in Cheltenham called Café Soho. Two piles of crisp wings—garlic soy and spicy—are heaped on the table, along with a side dish of eel.

In the founding myth surrounding Federal Donuts, Solomonov is given credit for introducing the concept of twice-fried chicken into the product mix. He isn’t shy about revealing his inspiration. “At the time,” he says, “I was eating a shitload of wings at Café Soho.” The unlikely pairing of chicken with doughnuts never seemed unlikely to Solomonov.

I asked Marc Vetri what he thought of the FedNuts phenomenon. “I was skeptical at first,” he said. “Now, it’s like the Beatles.”

But will what seems a boy-band-esque foodie fad become a lasting venture? The kind of business that Steve Cook, somewhat jokingly, predicts will pay his children’s college tuition?

“To call it a fad minimizes everything that we put into it,” Solomonov says one day. “And to me, when you say fad—what’s going to go out of style? I don’t think coffee’s going out of style. Doughnuts definitely aren’t. And chicken together with that just seems to make sense.”

The next day, I waited in line for chicken and doughnuts at a Phillies game. The Federal Donuts in the stadium is actually run by institutional food giant Aramark, which has licensed the name. Although an original CookNSolo employee is present at every game, the product isn’t exactly the “world class”-level fare that New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells gushed about after his visit to the original FedNuts. All empires learn that expansion threatens control.

At Café SoHo, the leftover wings are wrapped to go. Solomonov is visibly fatigued. His day began early with his toddler son, named for his brother David, waking him. He’d jumped out of bed for the fruitless surfing expedition. On the way back from the Shore, he’d stopped at the original Federal Donuts (where some customers recognized him from TV and the fresh doughnuts were sublime), and after that came a visit to Percy Street Barbecue. Then business at the CookNSolo office behind Zahav, a quick visit with his wife and son at home, and then about seven hours of service.

In trailing Solomonov for a few days, I was struck both by his energy level and by the sheer accumulation of daily decisions he must make: whether to agree to whip up a dish on a daytime talk show, whether a real estate deal makes sense, whether a server can take an unscheduled night off, whether any given plate of food of the hundreds that flow by him at the Zahav kitchen counter looks good enough to be served.

“We’re a restaurant that’s suc­cessful—after five years,” he said. “It’s micro-
ma­nagement at every single level.”

That’s the reason he heads for the boxing ring three mornings each week. “Boxing helps the crickets and monkeys in your head,” Solomonov told me. “You see what my day is like every day at work. Boxing is everything but that. There’s no decisions. I’m used to people saying ‘Yes Chef’ this and ‘Yes Chef’ that. So it’s great to go to the gym and say ‘Yes Coach’ and fuckin’ shut my mouth. And be humbled.”

It was another chef, Osteria’s Jeff Michaud, who introduced Solomonov to boxing. I hesitate to report this, because it may be the last remaining chef-competition concept that hasn’t been produced for television and I don’t want to give anybody ideas; the two James Beard Award winners sometimes spar in the ring.

Lately, as they slouch toward empire, Cook and Solomonov have been reading Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table. Starting with the perennial Zagat Guide favorite Union Square Café, Meyer developed a series of Manhattan restaurants (Tom Colicchio’s Gramercy Tavern was an early example), each more famous than the last. His latest triumph is the internationally expanding Shake Shack chain.

Meyer believes the first priority for success in the hospitality industry is happy, invested employees. This is something that Solomonov strives for, in his own idiosyncratic way. Lately the boss has been taking Saturday-morning break-dancing lessons with a group of workers. Once, he rounded up a dozen of his employees and took them to Bucks County to jump out of an airplane together. “It was mandatory, and I like my job,” Zahav manager Okan Yazici told me. “So I did it.” He doesn’t think he’d do it again.

“I don’t know if it was mandatory, but preferred,” Solomonov said. I asked him if such extreme field trips were his version of Outward Bound, which uses physical challenges and hardship to build teamwork. “I just thought it would be good to jump out of airplanes together,” he said.

Overcoming fear, Solomonov told me, is an important part of life: “Right now I’m working on my fear of sharks.” To that end, he had a large shark tattooed on his torso. He’d heard it was something sailors used to do. It’s the latest in a tat collection that includes a string of elephants on his biceps (he can’t remember the inspiration); a rooster on the other arm, laced with a Hebrew prayer and his brother’s name; and another on his shoulder that reproduces his brother’s army insignia.

“Now, the likelihood of my getting eaten by a shark,” Solomonov said. “I’m more likely to get struck by lightning—twice.” He then listed any number of mundane daily activities, like driving a car (and sometimes, for him, a motorcycle), that are more dangerous, statistically speaking. Not to mention—though he mentioned it several times—years of alcohol and drug abuse and the dangerous situations that those can entail.

“There is just something crazy that happens in your psyche when you enter an airplane knowing that you’re going to open a window and jump out of it,” Solomonov said. “That is exciting. That is fun. And that is living, dude.”

Life is certain to change for Michael Solomonov. It’s just a question of how much and how quickly. “Michael is going to be a star,” says Roger Sherman, producer and director of the planned PBS documentary. “I will help make him a star a little quicker. But he doesn’t need me. His celebrity will be that he’s going to be one of the most respected chefs in America.”

The documentarian connected with Solomonov through Joan Nathan, a veteran cookbook author and an expert on Jewish and Israeli food. One afternoon, Nathan talked to me in an affectionate and almost motherly way about the young chef. And at one point she said gently, “Frankly, I think he’s doing so much these days.”

I asked Solomonov’s partner whether so much could be too much. “It’s something that I think about,” Cook said. “And we talk about it all the time. It’s hard to see where Mike is or where we are on a timeline. I feel that the next five years are going to be a lot more active than the past five years. And he’s going to have to figure out how he’s going to deal with that. It’s a big challenge to come.”

But for now, most nights, he’s there in the heat at Zahav. “At five o’clock, dude,” he told me, “the curtains go up, and it is show- time every fuckin’ night.”

As I stood in the midst of the frenetic Zahav kitchen midway through a Saturday-night service, Solomonov came behind me, crouched down, and opened an under-counter refrigerator. He started shoving food aside and cursing. “It’s gone, it’s gone,” he yelled.

“It’s in the back,” his grill chef told him.

Finally, Chef found what he needed—he pulled a can of Red Bull out of the cooler, cracked it open, and drank it quickly, staying out of sight behind the counter. Just then, the four people who had reserved the chef’s tasting counter were arriving. Ten careful courses lay before him, from the Negev olives to Fred Flintstone-sized rib-eye steaks and kiwi sorbet. And as the diners left the restaurant later, they would receive some marshmallows to take home, tucked into tiny bags with origami cranes. Earlier, I watched Solomonov fold the origami himself. How long can that last?

A receptionist leaned over the kitchen counter and looked to where Solomonov crouched with his energy drink. “They’re here, Chef,” she said. “Are you ready, Chef?”

Solomonov rose up like a boxer lifting himself off the corner stool to fight another round.

“Fuck yeah,” he said. “I’m ready.”

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Blanka Zizka: Philadelphia’s Drama Queen

The Wilma Theater Artistic Director Blank Zizka in Philadelphia.

As the train rumbled toward the border crossing, the young woman was terrified.

It was a June day in the midst of the Cold War. She was carrying with her a secret, one she dared not share with any of her family or friends. She had left Czechoslovakia before, mostly for Poland, to explore her fascination with theater, which the authorities in that Soviet satellite found less threatening than did the leaders of her own. She’d gone into the woods near Wroclaw to train with famous avant-garde Polish director Jerzy Grotowski.

Blanka Vanickova was 21 years old, tall and lithe and pretty, with brown hair and a radiant smile.

She seemed destined to be on the stage. She’d studied dance since she was a child and had a dancer’s stature and grace, but also a comedienne’s timing. She’d even—and this would make her laugh in later years—studied mime.

It was at a mime workshop that she’d met the young man who sat beside her on the train. Jiri Zizka was handsome and charismatic. He was also brooding and aloof; inside, there were demons lurking. He was very talented, and she was attracted to talent. For the past few years, they’d spent nearly every day together in Prague. Two days before this trip, she’d found out she was pregnant with his child.

As the train neared Germany, Blanka worried that the Czech border guards would search her belongings. She’d packed lightly, because her story for the officials was that she was only leaving for a two-week vacation. Years later, she would come to realize how sharply her life became divided in two by this night. She and Jiri were not coming back. That was their secret.

She’d taken two family heirlooms, a gold pocket watch and a gold Art Nouveau necklace, to sell if they needed money to scrape by. Now, fearing the discovery of those two pieces might give away their plan, Blanka hurried to the bathroom and stashed them behind a toilet, then went back to Jiri’s side to wait and hope they would make the crossing to the other side.

“I still have those pieces,” Blanka Zizka tells me. “I never wear them. Gold is not really my thing.”

I suggest to her that if someone were writing the screenplay of her life, it might well open with that scene in 1976 of hiding the jewelry on the night train into West Germany. She gives me a direct and serious look, pausing a moment to make the latest in a vast accumulation of artistic decisions over more than three decades as a theater director.

“Yes, that might be good,” she says, sounding less than convinced. It’s late afternoon, and we’re sitting alone in two of the 296 seats of the neon-draped Wilma Theater, which Blanka and Jiri Zizka grew from a ragtag start as a feminist experimental troupe into one of Philly’s most respected cultural institutions. Starting in 1979 with a $600 production of Animal Farm in what was probably an illegal loft, the émigré couple transformed the Wilma, with minimal artistic compromise, into a $3 mi­llion-a-year company headquartered
on this symbolically important piece of real estate—the first new theater built in Philadelphia in decades, and an early linchpin in what was then a fledgling Avenue of the Arts project.

Along with a handful of other theater companies (Arden, Walnut Street, Philadelphia Theatre Company), Wilma is a flagship leading a growing armada of local professional theaters. (There were 51 at last count.) “They’re sprouting like mushrooms,” Zizka says.

“For a lot of actors in town,” says one relative newcomer, “the Wilma is a coveted place to work.” Edgy and fearless from the start, the Zizkas’ Wilma has had influence in the theater world beyond Philadelphia and has produced works from a long list of premier contemporary playwrights, ranging from Tom Stoppard and Doug Wright to Romulus Linney and Amy Freed. “You get a good feeling going into the Wilma,” Stoppard told me. “Working there, or even just being there—it just seems to be a very shipshape operation.”

“I arrived from a country where politicians considered theater so important, dangerous and subversive that it had to be censored, controlled, and perhaps suppressed altogether,” Blanka Zizka said recently while accepting one of the top awards in the world of regional theaters, named for regional pioneer Zelda Fichandler. These days, she’s more concerned that Pennsylvania politicians will ignore her theater come budget time, and about changing audience behavior that threatens her business model: the prepaid annual subscription. Though the Wilma is firmly established, she says, “I always feel on the edge of a cliff financially.”

She is 58 now. She still radiates that dancer’s poise. Recently, Zizka emerged as sole artistic director of the Wilma, after enduring some backstage drama with Jiri that played like Kiss Me, Kate rewritten by Eugene O’Neill. She is moving into an uncertain future by going back to some of the inspiration that led her to make the risky journey from her homeland in the first place, and trying to refashion the way her actors approach their craft.

Blanka Zizka arrived in this country filled with certainty that theater could subvert ideological agendas and summon shared fundamental human emotions. “For me,” she told her peers 30 years later, as she received her award, “the big question is, how do we return to creating art?”

Jersey’s Secret Service Band Has Got It Covered

New Jersey's Secret Service Band plays a gig at the Ocean Drive.

Years before a group of randy agents in their namesake organization made the word “Cartagena” synonymous with rollicking good times, the two-man New Jersey-based entity known as the Secret Service Band developed an operational philosophy that can be summed up in three phrases they’ve recited many times:

You gotta fight
For your right
To parrrrrr-tay

Though they’ve promulgated this philosophy all around the Philadelphia region and in places as far-flung as Florida and Las Vegas, the real spiritual home for their particular fun-based gestalt (which, of course, is German for “This is how we do it now”) is a low-ceilinged room containing a few well-stocked bars, just a stroll from the sands of Sea Isle City—a club called the Ocean Drive. Whether for convenience or to add more sinister implication, a lot of people call the place simply “the O.D.”

Here, since the mid-’80s, Dominic Albanese and Craig Phillips, two South Jersey natives now pushing 60, have labored, armed with nothing more threatening than a Reverend guitar and a Fender bass, toward one goal: to whip the Shore’s supple and sunburned youth (and often folks who are old enough to be their parents, and sometimes actually are their parents) into a delirium that would rival some of the better parties thrown by the Emperor Tiberius.

“It’s a riot,” says Dom, who does about half the singing and almost all the talking for the duo. “We’re old guys. We’re not God’s gift to music by any means. The audience mainly goes from 21-year-olds who can barely get into the bar up to 30. And it’s pandemonium.”

Ralph Pasceri, one of the O.D.’s owners, who started working at the club years ago as a teenager, says of Secret Service, “Nothing I’ve ever seen is quite like it. They’re the perfect storm.”

The constituent elements creating this formidable entertainment hurricane are unremarkable. Albanese, 56, is of medium height and fairly fit, with short graying hair, and wouldn’t look out of place flipping dough in a pizza parlor. Phillips is 58 and blond, taller, and carries both more bulk and some extra flesh in his midsection. His rightful place in the music world could easily seem to be a public-school classroom, and he does in fact teach kids how to play the violin and such. Except for a couple original songs like “The O.D. Stomp,” which owes a large debt to that old chestnut “The Alley Cat” and has morphed over the years into a routine that includes both crowd and bartender choreography, the pair exclusively play music written and recorded by other performers. They’re a cover band.

In the iconography of the Jersey Shore, the bar band stands somewhere between Lucy the Elephant and the Wildwood amusement piers. It’s a ritual as established and enduring as wolfing down a Boardwalk slice. The quintessential sound of summer isn’t just the squawk of seagulls, but that valiant and always slightly sad attempt by no-name performers to re-create the magic of stars from Sinatra to Springsteen. They may never quite capture fame, but they become an indelible soundtrack in our nostalgic reveries of youth.

“I don’t think Secret Service gets the true credit they deserve,” says their friend Big Daddy Graham, himself a grizzled vet of the Shore club circuit. “They’ve never had a hit record or appeared on Jimmy Fallon. They’re just a cover band to a lot of people. But there’s only a handful of great cover bands, and only a smaller handful out there that have had the career that Secret Service has.”

So what’s the secret? “They never throw it away,” Big Daddy says. “It might just be another Wednesday, or another ‘No Shower Happy Hour.’ When you’re in the car driving to those gigs, they blend into one another. And it’s so easy to just throw a night like that away. But to the people in the club, it’s their vacation. They’re not there every Wednesday. Dom and Craig understand that. They don’t throw a night away. Those guys don’t throw a set away. They don’t throw a song away.”

In the Future, We Will All Live in Plastic Houses Put Together in Six Weeks

 

"The toughest place to get work is in your hometown,” says Stephen Kieran, who has worked around the country and around the world, designing buildings that have won an armful of honors. His colleague for more than three decades, James Timberlake, phrases the phenomenon slightly differently. “Quite honestly,” he admits, “we’ve had very few projects in Philadelphia. Sometimes I think the syndrome is, your hometown doesn’t know what they have.”

If you’ve never heard of KieranTimberlake (and right off the bat, no, that’s not a Bieber-like younger sibling of Justin), you’ve got company.

Yet Michelle Obama knows KieranTimberlake. Sasha and Malia go to a school in Washington called Sidwell Friends, the master plan for which was created by the architecture firm—founded by two Penn grads—and reflects their early adoption of sustainability in building, including recycled materials and constructed wetlands to recycle water. When the First Lady met the architects, she told them her daughters think it’s really cool to attend a green school. More recently, Michelle’s husband nominated James Timberlake for a seat on a presidential advisory board on building.

Brad Pitt knows them for the prototype house the firm designed for his Make It Right project, which is trying to help rebuild New Orleans’s devastated Lower Ninth Ward with affordable, energy-efficient—and good-looking­—modern new homes.

It’s safe to say that Charles, the Prince of Wales, also has his eye on the firm, which last year won a design competition for the new American embassy in London. The Philadelphians’ high-tech tufted-glass cube for the billion-dollar project on the south bank of the Thames is exactly the sort of building the traditionalist architecture-buff prince loves to bemoan.

“Right now, KieranTimberlake has the highest profile of any architecture firm from Philadelphia,” says William Menking, who edits a national newspaper for architects. “If they use it right, the London embassy project will sort of ratchet them up to the next level of notoriety.”

Even in their hometown? Well, the firm will hardly escape notice here when renovation of Dilworth Plaza begins at the western doorstep of City Hall (assuming the Occupy Philly camp can be convinced to move out of the way), with two sweeping, glass-covered stairways leading down to a bright transit station. Add to that a role in the new Delaware River master plan, plus a possible rebooting of the Kimmel Center to make its public spaces actually attractive to some of the public. For a firm that has labored Loman-like in Philly for nearly three decades, at long last attention will be paid. (An architect can’t live solely on love from the First Lady and Brad Pitt, after all.)

Of course, getting noticed isn’t always something to wish for in this town. “We don’t mind flying under the radar,” Timberlake says. “It allows us to get more work done.” Yet self-effacing Philly-esque statements­ aside, peek underneath the well-designed public facade of KieranTimberlake­ and you find two guys who want to achieve nothing less than a total transformation of how architecture is practiced.

The Di Brunos’ Growing Empire

IT ONLY TOOK a few dimes to get the old-timers angry.

When cousins Bill and Emilio Mignucci took over the narrow and jam-packed Di Bruno Bros. cheese store on 9th Street in the heart of the Italian Market 20 years ago, one of its signature items, a grated sheep’s milk cheese called locatelli, sold for $3.49 a pound. The price hadn’t gone up in years. Bill’s grandfather Danny Di Bruno and Danny’s brother Joe had run the store since 1939. With the mortgage long paid off and a loyal following of customers, they felt comfortable drifting toward retirement buying the imported cheese from Italy for about three bucks and only marking it up 50 cents.

Bill and Emilio were both 21 years old at the time. They had scraped together enough borrowed money to buy the store from Danny and Joe, paying an amount that was acceptable to not only the old guys, but also their combined 11 children, who, until that moment, had not shown much interest in Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese. The new young proprietors needed larger profit margins so they could start paying off their debt as they learned to run the business. One day, they pushed the price of locatelli up to $3.79.

“My God, the backlash!” Emilio remembers. “People wanted to kill us for raising the price 30 cents. We were thinking, ‘Are these people crazy?’ They’d come in and yell at us — ‘You’re tryin’ to get rich quick.’”

As it turned out, the Mignucci cousins (Emilio’s older brother, Billy, is also a partner these days, but stays in the background) have become kind of rich pretty quick. Two decades on, Di Bruno’s has far outgrown its Italian Market roots and is on the verge of opening its fourth retail outlet, at the Ardmore Farmers Market in Suburban Square, this month. Venturing into the Waspy and manicured suburbs, something that would have been unthinkable to the gritty, ethnic South Philly souls of the founding brothers — “Danny and Joe would be spinning in their graves,” says Bill Mignucci — is the latest expansion of a company that now includes a wholesale division, online mail order, a catering operation, an outpost in the Market & Shops at Comcast Center, and a 19,000-square-foot store not far off Rittenhouse Square that has established Di Bruno’s as this city’s answer to the great high-end food shops such as Dean & Deluca, Balducci’s and Zabar’s.

Fueled by a bred-in-the-bone work ethic, buoyed by a bubble in consumer behavior, the Mignuccis — Bill as president and Emilio taking the more fanciful title of “vice president and director of culinary pioneering” — now control one of the largest family-owned businesses in the region, with up to 175 employees during busy holiday seasons and well over $20 million in annual sales. The Mignucci boys may have created the most successful enterprise based on cheese since Lawrence Welk.

But while the Mignuccis long ago transcended the South Philly storefront culture that gave them life, something about 9th Street keeps pulling them back. In addition to striking out into the suburban market, the cousins have hatched some ambitious designs to upgrade their original stake hold in the Italian Market, a project that could help preserve — even while drastically altering — that uniquely Philadelphia landmark, whose demise has been heralded since the Mignucci boys were born.

Feature: Is West Philly the Next Center City?

Over the distance of a little more than a dozen blocks, John Fry has guided his immaculate, country-club-ready Land Rover from a cute, leafy street right out of Michael and Hope’s Thirtysomething to a streetscape more reminiscent of The Wire. Stopping at a corner near the informal border between Powelton Village and Mantua, the newly appointed president of Drexel University waits patiently for the car in front of him to move on.

A hooded figure emerges quickly from the shadows into the jaundiced, weak glow of a streetlight, shuffles to the driver’s window of the run-down sedan, and makes a quick exchange. Now, the car in front clears out.

“I think we just saw a drug deal,” says Fry’s passenger.

With his well-cut conservative suit, neatly knotted tie and shiny loafers, the 50-year-old with the accounting MBA looks to-the-suburbs-born. (And, in fact, he now lives in Bryn Mawr with his wife and three children.) There is a quiet, precise and efficient friendliness about him that makes him seem either an extremely thoughtful rich man or a very worldly priest. But John Fry is a child of Brooklyn who made his professional reputation by manning the ramparts of the University of Pennsylvania at a time when the school seemed besieged by crime. He acknowledges what we’ve just seen — “So, you noticed that” — and with that, he drops the unpleasant subject and smoothly accelerates, pointing the Land Rover to a spot where he can stop for a moment and imagine a better neighborhood.

Soon we’re parked overlooking a desolate stretch of rail yards lining the west bank of the Schuylkill, sprawling northward from 30th Street Station. “This is the gleam in my eye,” Fry says. “You can’t move the rail yards. But these tracks are used sparingly. I’m told there are possibilities of air rights and platforming. Look at this. You can see the killer view across to the city and the Art Museum.

“We could have a whole new place to go. Campus development has to be more about growing out to where it should go, rather than into the neighborhood. For Penn, it was the post office and the Civic Center. Maybe this area could be the same thing for Drexel someday. This is part of my minor theory.”

John Fry presented his major theory early in October, after he’d relocated from Lancaster (where he’d run Franklin & Marshall College for eight years) and when he was just weeks into the role of replacing the now-deceased dynamo named Constantine “Taki” Papadakis, who for the previous decade had been transformative as president of Drexel. His business suit covered by long academic robes for the university’s convocation ceremony, Fry stepped to the lectern and asked, “If Anthony Drexel were to walk today from the Main Building, where the Drexel Institute was founded almost 120 years ago, through our campus and into these neighborhoods, would he be satisfied that we are fulfilling our obligation as an urban university?”

Fry’s answer was no. As he worked through his speech, he engaged in some rhetorical flourishes — such as proposing that Drexel become “the most civically engaged university in America” — but he also displayed his inner MBA, outlining a series of get-down-to-business programs like increased policing and public-safety infrastructure spending, a generous neighborhood home-
ownership loan program for employees, and a proposed benevolent university takeover to improve a nearby elementary school.

The short-term goal is to make the northern University City neighborhoods around Drexel more like the clean, leafy, surprisingly safe and prosperous precincts that adjoin the Penn campus, whose very niceness Fry had more than a little to do with creating during a seven-year stint as Penn’s executive vice president under then-president Judith Rodin.  

But the really big idea that Fry and some others are hatching is to create a University City that rivals Center City, where the jobs juggernaut created by two major universities, a huge teaching hospital and medical research center, a world-renowned children’s hospital, and the nation’s oldest urban scientific-research park will finally occupy a neighborhood with a stable and attractive housing market, a vibrant street scene, state-of-the-art restaurants, upscale retailers, the arts, and the kinds of schools to which families are willing to send their children.

Media: Food Fight: A Look at Philly Food Bloggers

It’s a Wednesday night in mid-July, and though the air is as moist and thick as vichyssoise, the help is scrambling to set out tables and chairs on the steamy sidewalk at 5th and Bainbridge. It’s so unfashionably early that many restaurants would still be offering the early-bird special, but here, all the seats inside are already taken, and the bar is clogged.

This is the official opening night of Adsum — that’s Latin for “I am here,” though the folks who read Foobooz.com already knew that. It’s a “refined neighborhood bistro,” the owners say, the brainchild of chef Matt Levin, the thick, burly, owlish chef with the sleeve tattoo whose look and profane persona seem at odds with his previous position, cooking at the ultra-white-tablecloth Rittenhouse Square aerie Lacroix, where the Inquirer’s Craig LaBan awarded him the coveted four bells.

Levin and his partner, Kar Vivekananthan, have secured a big-windowed storefront here at this corner and turned it into a sleek little food laboratory, with a back bar lined with books and chemistry beakers, clean tiled floors and soapstone tables, recycled from an actual science classroom. But readers of the Inquirer’s online Insider blog knew that, too.

Fans of the City Paper’s Meal Ticket blog knew, a full five days before the opening, exactly what the menu would be tonight: friendly, neighborhood-y prices and dishes ranging from an $18 fried chicken with collards to a top price of 22 bucks for short ribs and mussels in a Worcestershire/brown-butter sauce. They’d learned of the quirky cocktail list concocted by young mixologist Preston Eckman that includes a gin/green tea/lime juice/honey/absinthe mix called Logical Consequence, garnished with — get this — a sprig of dill. Advance attention focused on Levin’s decadent appetizer twist on the French Canadian indulgence poutine: potatoes fried in duck fat, then doused with gravy and cheese curds, with the daring chef dolloping on a few lobes of foie gras to up the ante. As someone once said, “Bam!” There was a time not long ago when a skilled and ambitious cook like Matt Levin would have found a little spot of his own, bought some tables and chairs, worked up a menu, and had what the restaurant business called a “soft opening,” unlocking the front door one night without much fanfare and hoping that a handful of satisfied customers would spread the word, and wouldn’t take too long doing so. Maybe he’d hire a PR person to alert the couple of critics in town to come and eat there someday soon.

The menu has changed. “Nowadays, it’s just about impossible to do a soft opening,” says one restaurant insider. “You can’t fly under the radar.”

Now, food, restaurants, chefs — the whole gastro-industrial complex — might just be the most hyper-examined subject in this city. At least five different food blogs were breathlessly scanning the skies to pick up Adsum’s every movement, from the time the contract was signed for the storefront space back in March, to Levin’s choice of a name, to his decision to serve homemade pierogies (with thyme and smoked buttermilk). And that’s just the pros at work. Philadelphia has scores of amateur food freaks who fill the Web with reports of their every meal, either through blogs with cute names like Foodzings and Fries With That Shake, or in the Wild West of the growing “community” sites like Yelp, where, truly, everyone is a critic. When it comes to food, the Web has become the clogosphere.

There’s a genetic disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome that affects children, making them always hungry, insatiable, for food. Nowadays, it seems some mutant form of Prader-Willi is becoming epidemic in the population. We are always hungry, insatiable, for food information: the next hot chef, the new restaurant, the unlikely, surprising dish. Whatever strange bacillus causes the obsession seems to thrive in the host of the Internet, which is the natural home of any virus.

When did you first notice the symptoms? Was it that table of diners who kept asking the waiter about Chef? Not the chef. Chef. As in, “What does Chef recommend tonight? Is Chef making anything off the menu?”

Or was it the day you realized you could name more chefs than members of the Supreme Court? Was it the evening you decided to splurge for the grand tasting menu at Vetri, and were nearly blinded as the couple next to you took pictures of every dish that came to their table? I have a specific moment that confirmed my Prader-Willi theory. It was when my -fiancée came home from a doctor’s visit and informed me that her gynecologist was now writing a food blog.

“Over-covered?” asks Michael Klein, poking his chopsticks into a bento box tempura lunch special at Doma, a bright sushi joint just down Callowhill Street from the Inquirer. “Hmmm,” he muses. “Hmmm. I guess that would be like asking the Eagles writer if the Eagles are over-covered.”

An age ago, all the way back in 1993, Klein was working as a copy editor at the Inquirer when he saw an opening. John Corr, a longtime newsman who’d penned a sleepy and desultory column called “Table Talk” about his ramblings through Philadelphia’s bars and restaurants, was being transferred to a suburban bureau. “I asked the editors if anyone was going to pick the column up, and they said, ‘No, nobody wants to do it.’

“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is the most exciting time for restaurants coming up. The Convention Center is being built. Striped Bass is being built. The Rendell years are in full swing. Philadelphia is about to pop.’ I said I would do it for free.”

Klein had grown up in Philly, and his parents ran a luncheonette on Sansom Street. “I am not a foodie,” he maintains. “Not at all.” But childhood experience and his reporter’s instincts told him that restaurants could be a big, ongoing story. All those mom-and-pop luncheonettes, all the food franchises, all the fancy white-tablecloth eateries … added up, they formed a big chunk of the local economy. And restaurants could have all the intrigue and drama of politics and sports. “After a couple of years,” he says, “I realized that the city runs on its stomach. The deals are made in restaurants; whatever passes for a ‘celebrity scene’ happens in restaurants. Restaurants just sort of morphed into that.

“And people have a passion for restaurants,” he adds. “They have a sense of ownership: This is my place. They have theories about why places succeed or fail. Theories about the people working in them. There are heroes and villains. There’s a great story going on there.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but Mike Klein was catching the incipient swell of a great wave in the zeitgeist. In late 1993, a fledgling cable channel called the TV Food Network started production. Soon, the gourmets were galloping across the screen 24/7.

“The rise of the Food Network was a big thing,” says Aileen Gallagher, a Newtown Square native who’s now a professor of journalism at Syracuse University, and who until this summer edited a group of food-focused regional websites called Grub Street, including the one in Philly. “Emeril Lagasse was the first contemporary breakout star. Later, they started doing the competitions like Iron Chef. You had food people with personalities.”

Restaurants had always been theater. But theater has always been a rarefied art form with a relatively small audience. Once restaurants became television, there was a massive change in public consciousness.

Before he stepped down as chief restaurant critic for the New York Times, Frank Bruni told me, in a conversation, “Over the past decade, the number of Americans who have become sophisticated about food — for whom making and eating great food is a principal pastime — has grown and grown. That’s reflected in the popularity of shows like Top Chef, in the kind of books you see on the best-seller list, and in the advances doled out for food books. We’ve become obsessive about food and restaurants.” There was a certain skeptical, nearly sarcastic tone in his voice when he said this. Not long after that, Bruni wrote a best-selling book about his life and — what else? — food.

While the obsession with food and restaurants — this peculiar Prader-Willi epidemic — was spreading elsewhere, in Philadelphia, Klein pretty much had the food beat to himself. His editors didn’t even think the subject warranted his full attention, so he was charged with also covering celebrity gossip, or, as he emphasizes, “what passes for celebrity in Philadelphia.” Then, in 2005, a La Salle student named Drew Lazor landed an internship with the City Paper, where he took over the weekly restaurant-news column. After getting a full-time job at the weekly, he took over all food coverage, and started a food blog in 2008. “It was kind of an arbitrary assignment in the beginning,” Lazor says. “But it just so happened that I’ve always been really interested in food and restaurants in Philly.”

Around the same time Lazor came on the scene, Art Etchells, an information-tech guy who loved food and beer, decided to start his own website, called Foobooz, that would report on restaurant specials, events and gossip. In 2009, the Grub Street franchise run by New York magazine hired a Philadelphia-based blogger (she’s now this magazine’s food editor and says any comment she would make for this article would be “the pot calling the kettle black”) to manufacture up to eight posts a day on the local food scene. Around the time a New York publication decided Philadelphia was ripe for a restaurant blog, this magazine decided it couldn’t miss all the fun and started a blog called Restaurant Club.

Suddenly, the field of play has gotten awfully crowded. Though the City Paper has appropriated the phrase for one of its blogs, it’s impossible not to call this sudden appetite for foodie news a feeding frenzy. “It went from scarcity to overabundance pretty quickly,” says Etchells.

“Before the advent of food blogging, people didn’t have the notion that they needed to know this stuff,” Lazor tells me. “There’s more material than I could ever dream of. Readers tip me off, restaurant owners, chefs, bartenders. There’s this constant feed of information, and somehow, suddenly, it becomes interesting.”

We’ll have to take his word for it. Like any obsessive subculture — the daily denizens of sports-talk radio, say, or the faithful followers of political gossip — the foodies very quickly start caring a lot about a little. Topics that are on their face arcane turn gargantuan in this particular Lilliputia. The new linen napkins? The source of the crème fraîche? The secret ingredient in that zingy new cocktail? It’s all fair game in the new Philly foodie blogosphere.

“When I was really into it, I would get so excited,” says one former food blogger. “I’m going to get the menu first from the new wine bar. Score! But you really do see a spike in readership on days you break news. And you kind of get obsessed with seeing that spike in traffic. The biggest story I ever broke was that we were getting our own cupcake truck here in Philly. This was huge!”

Stop the presses. Yes, admits Drew Lazor, who was scooped on the cupcake-truck story — “It seems kind of silly. But people are really crazy about that fuckin’ cupcake truck.”

With this new corps of reporters fighting for every last morsel of food and restaurant news, the traditional relationship between journalists and PR people has flipped. Instead of publicists fighting for the attention of reporters, now it’s the other way around, with harried, hungry bloggers — gotta get eight items a day! — grateful for any crumb of information that comes their way.

“When the bloggers first started appearing five years ago, we just said, ‘Huh? What’s this about?’” one top food publicist told me. “But we figured it out. Now, we make sure that everybody gets something. I’m not going to tell you exactly how we do it, because I want the competition to have to figure it out for themselves.”

Let’s go back to Matt Levin’s newly opened Adsum. On a Thursday morning a full six days before the opening, Grub Street put up the food and drink menus; the next day, at lunchtime on the Friday before the launch, Klein posted a scan of the actual menu and some raw video of the restaurant, shot with his Flip camera. The video, he admits, “was pretty lame. But the public is pretty forgiving about quality because they just want to see the stuff.”

By the end of that same day, the Restaurant Club blog posted an interview with Levin and some details of the restaurant. The next day, working on a summer weekend (“Because I’m so cool”), Lazor put up the menu plus a slide show of still photos he took of design details of the restaurant. Art Etchells waited until Wednesday to report the “news” of the food and drink menus.

“It’s a competitive environment,” Lazor says. “People can get cantankerous. I’ve heard stories of people threatening to not cover something if they don’t get it first. That’s not my style. Sometimes I’ll get a tip and I’ll call a restaurant and they’ll say ‘We’d love to talk to you, but we promised an exclusive to Mike Klein.’ I understand that, because he delivers more eyes than we do. But usually we each get our own little perks with our own little material.”

Klein, who, one publicist says, “can really be so crabby,” seems to take the power to demand information first or exclusively as simply his due for delivering the largest number of potential readers, since he’s got two platforms. “I think by design they give me stuff first,” he says. “They know it’s going to appear in print.” And “As much as I love the Web, print is still king,” Klein says. On Thursday, when Table Talk runs in the Inquirer, “There’s a potential readership of over 300,000.” Though the reporter can’t reveal the exact number of readers who see his items exclusively on the Web, he’s certain it’s a fraction of the print audience. Still, as the City Paper’s Lazor points out, Web readers seem more engaged. And that keeps the competition for those page-clicks intense.

“Nasty?” Klein asked when I told him of complaints I’d heard from other bloggers about his big, sharp elbows. “Look, everybody gets frustrated. I haven’t threatened. Did anybody say I threatened? There’s always something else to move on to … enough going on in the business to keep people employed.

“Are there rivalries?” he adds. “Yeah. Is it a blood sport? No.”

Maybe not, but Klein certainly showed his skill and experience in the arena in late July, when he broke the story that Georges Perrier had put his famed Walnut Street restaurant up for sale. It was front-page news in the print edition, and online views of the story went through the roof.

But that was a rare event.

Day to day, we often have five people fighting to be the first to post about a new appetizer special at some neighborhood BYOB. Between them, the Inquirer and Daily News have four writers covering state government in Harrisburg. If people cared enough to pore over the sausage-making of government with the same fervor they now examine and discuss, say, actual sausages, we could be living in the new Athens. Lazor says he’s often teased by City Paper colleagues who blog about City Hall and other such indigestible matters: “They tell me, ‘It must be nice to write something people actually want to read.’”

“Jose Garces just got a Twitter account.”

I heard this again and again from people I spoke with, as if it represented some sort of milestone. And perhaps it does. There are strong indications that the explosion of social media could allow restaurateurs to skip the middlemen of print and electronic media completely. Already, according to two prominent restaurateurs I talked to, who between them own several popular spots in town, the proliferation and unquestioning receptivity of the bloggers has allowed them to stop spending money on advertising. Stephen Starr, who is credited with being out front with social media, has active Facebook and Twitter accounts covering all his restaurants, and — unlike Garces early on — actually uses them.

Indeed, the food blog explosion shows little sign of abating: NBC is now launching a hyper-local site called The Feast, edited by Collin Flatt, who wrote for Philebrity’s food blog, Phoodie. Art Etchells of Foobooz already sees the absurdity of food-blogger competition being raised to new heights. “What will it mean to get something first,” he asks, “when all it means is you received Stephen Starr’s latest tweet before the other guy?”

Klein is more critical. “From a journalistic standpoint,” he says, “it’s annoying when you read about something on Twitter. This is the antithesis of journalism. The source is going directly to the readers.” Of course, Klein has more than 3,000 followers on his Twitter account.

Who knows where it’s all going to end? Maybe this food obsession will burn itself out, and one day the hordes of frantic foodies will seem as quaint and scarce as roller bladers. Or maybe there’s no stopping this Prader-Willi epidemic, and our future will resemble a kind of Zombieland, with cities populated by insatiable, vacant-eyed creatures who emerge at night to eat food and talk about food and blog about food and tweet about food.

I like food as much as the next guy, maybe a little more, but lately I’m constantly reminded of what my father used to say when I was a kid and talking too much at the dinner table: “Just shut up and eat.”

Pulse: Chatter: Theater: Dominic and Me

Hollywood was still buzzing the day after the Academy Awards. Entering a small theater on Santa Monica Boulevard, I half expected to step over a disheveled, torn-tuxed Jeff Bridges, sleeping it off. But tonight the stage belonged to a younger actor from Cherry Hill, named Dominic Comperatore. He’d landed the role of a lifetime — my lifetime. Dominic was going to play me.  

The backstory to this casting starts about 10 years ago, when I wrote a book called Renovations: A Father and Son Rebuild a House and Rediscover Each Other. Though my publisher used a publicity plan borrowed from the folks who run the federal witness protection program, a handful of people managed to find and read Renovations. Several did ask me at the time, “Who would you want to play you in the movie?” It became a fun little party game, which I often ended by saying, “Rosie O’Donnell. Who else?” Then, a few years ago, a young playwright named Andrew Gerle read Renovations and purchased theatrical rights. I blew the big windfall on dinner and a movie. Gerle told me, “You should start thinking about who would play you.” Rosie O’Donnell loves the stage.

Meanwhile, Dominic Comperatore was heading for his date with my destiny. He started acting while attending St. Joe’s Prep because it was one of the few extracurricular activities at the all-boys’ school that included girls — the actresses were imports. In college, though he was studying international studies and German at the University of Scranton (my hometown; coincidence?), Dominic kept acting. When he came back to Cherry Hill after graduation, his mom and dad sat him down and gave him advice unprecedented in the history of parenthood — move to New York and try to become an actor.

His first role was Hamlet, far downtown and “way the hell off Broadway.” But he worked and studied and ended up on Broadway. Then he did a few independent films and decided to move to Los Angeles, and he appeared on 24 and Chuck and Entourage. He got a part as a Holocaust survivor in a movie called The Good German that put him in the midst of Cate Blanchett, Tobey -Maguire and George Clooney. Dominic worked so hard to inhabit that part that he lost 25 pounds.

But Hollywood work “comes in waves,” he says, and the tide must have been out when someone asked him to play a burnt-out, bitter freelance writer who leaves the city to fix up a house in the country. “The script was touching,” he says, “and a lot of fun.” He didn’t have to live through it.

I wish I could tell you that Dominic Comperatore nailed me. But from the moment Dominic started reading his lines — many of them my lines — my head spun, and I experienced a full body blush. My fiancée said he was great — and really cute. I do recall that actor Apollo Dukakis (Olympia’s brother) really got my father.

The playwright tells me there’s a chance of another production of Renovations soon in Chicago. I’d certainly suggest Dominic Comperatore play me again. But would he be willing to gain the 40 pounds necessary to really capture my essence?

“That depends,” he told me, “on what kind of food I could eat.”

 

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