Why Michael Schulson cooks for the 'hot chicks'

Restaurateur Michael Schulson at Harp & Crown, 1525 Sansom St.

When Michael Schulson announced that he was dropping out of architectural engineering school to work in a pizza shop, he didn’t hear the end of it from his parents — both Long Island schoolteachers. Until: Newly enthralled with cooking, Schulson enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and started working at top New York restaurants. Then came a long association with Stephen Starr.

Schulson, now 44, was comparatively late to the restaurant-ownership game, having opened his first restaurant — Izakaya at the Borgata in Atlantic City — in 2008. Others   followed in Center City: Sampan and its Graffiti Bar, Independence Beer Garden, and just last year, Double Knot and Harp & Crown. This year, he opened Monkitail in Hollywood, Fla. Next up are a catering operation and an Italian restaurant, Giuseppe & Sons, with the South Philadelphia Termini family.

Along the way, Schulson worked for many of the big names in Philadelphia.

Tell us how you got to Philadelphia.

I was getting my [butt] kicked in New York. I mean literally — shattering plates in my face, taking me in the walk-in and punching me and beating me up and kicking me and pouring sauces on my chef coat if I wasn’t clean enough. Obviously, you can’t do that today, but … you dealt with it.  I decided to move to Philadelphia. I still remember telling my parents, “I’m moving to Philly and I’m going to get $8.50 an hour.” I went to Le Bec-Fin and walked in, said I was looking for a job … [Georges Perrier] said, “I’ll give you a job making salads. The [heck] do you know about cooking?” I worked at Le Bec-Fin for about a year.  We’d go to Oscar’s [Tavern] after work, and there were these Asian guys who always hung out in the back corner. I found out that those were all the chefs at [the landmark] Susanna Foo. So I went into Susanna Foo, and I walked in and there were no white guys in the kitchen. I said, “I’m here for a job.” She was like, “Yeah, nah. No white guys in the kitchen.” And I left, and next day I came back, and I said, “I’m here to work!” And she was like, “No!” Like, “Go away!”

Next day, literally, three days in a row, I came over with my chef knife and my coat and I’m like, “I’m working for free. Let me just cut stuff.” And she let me cut stuff, and I was in there, and I came back the next day and I came back for a week. And finally she hired me, and I was there for a year.

And at that point, Stephen Starr, this guy — well, he wasn’t Stephen Starr at the time; he was just some guy who had his office below the Continental. And he had this ripped-up couch, and these ripped sweatpants, and he had this ad for a chef, looking for a chef who could cook Asian food. So I met him, and I was like, this guy is an interesting guy. And I remember really hitting it off with him. He told me he’s looking for a guy who can cook Asian food. He offered me the chef de cuisine job at Buddakan, to open it up. I was never a sous-chef. I’d been cooking for eight years. Think about that now: Everybody is a sous-chef.

Was it easy under Starr at Buddakan?

Two or three days before we opened the restaurant, he’s like, “These two dishes suck. You’re not going home until you create a new dish.” And literally I’d be in the kitchen for three days straight, just cooking and cooking, and he’d taste it and I’d cook and he’d taste it and he’s like, “No, no no no,” and finally he’s like, “OK. That dish is good. We can put that on the menu.”

From there you helped open Pod in University City and then you took off for almost a year in Japan. And then you came back to the States to do TV?

This was a nice, interesting experience that kind of helped put me on the map a little bit, between, Go Ahead, Make My Dinner and Pantry Raid, which were fun series. Then Stephen called and said to me, “What do you want to do with your life?” I said, “I really want to do something in New York.” And he said, “I have an opportunity. We’re going to open Buddakan.”

And we just took off, and I was there for a year. He was like, “What are you going to do now?” I said, “I think I’m ready to do my own thing at this point.” I’ve been cooking for 17 years. I helped him open up Morimoto a little bit, and he sent me over to Angelina to work with them.

The Borgata called me, and they said, “Look, we want to build you. We want you to have a restaurant here. We have Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, Michael Mina, Old Homestead. We’d love for you to do something.” They took me down, and at this point I still was just a young buck trying to make a living, and they picked me up in this limousine — I’d never been in a limo except for my prom — and took me down, and they put me in this huge presidential suite. And I signed on to do that project, and that was kind of it. And I was off on my own. After that, I opened Sampan, and my bookkeeper quit after, like, 20 days. All of a sudden, I’m self-teaching myself how to do QuickBooks and payrolls and receivables and all of this stuff. I’m like, “Cooking’s the easy part.”

Are there too many restaurants now?

The answer is yes and no. I think like everything else in life, the strong will survive, the good will survive, the weak or the not so good or the ones that don’t work will go away eventually. So far, I say no, because the ones that should survive are going to survive. When people continue to come and spend money, those will survive. And I’m not talking on Friday or Saturday. Go into a restaurant on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and that’s how you determine if a restaurant is going to survive.

What happened with the St. James in Ardmore?

One of the most successful experiences of things you can do is work at a failing restaurant. I had a partner [Rob Wasserman] in that. We’re still friends, fortunately, which is great. I think that one, we went into a market that I don’t know. I knew my business partner and I had some differences of opinion in terms of maybe the food, service, maybe some design. And the execution of food and staffing was a really challenge for us. I got out early on enough before it closed, and my partner took it over and ran it for a while, before they made the decision to close it down.  We ask for a lot of opinions in this company. But I really learned that, at the end of the day, you have to have one true vision of what the project should be. You can’t have four or five different people saying, “I think this,” “I think this,” “I think this.” So that’s kind of what our motto is in the company, “Stay true.” If you’re going to fail, fail staying true to what you are. And go down believing in what you believe.

When you get the choice of where to go out to eat, where do you like to go?

The biggest misconception about me, or chefs in general, are, I’m not a foodie, you know that. I mean, if you look at what my lunch is today, I have tuna salad and tomatoes. Like, that’s my lunch and I can’t wait to eat it. And we — I don’t go out for fancy food. If I had to pick three restaurants, so I would say Parc, Palizzi Social Club, Kim’s Barbecue, and Sansom Street Kebab, and Tai Lake. I’m obsessed with the frogs’ legs.

Why is Sampan such a hit among millennial women?

I have a belief, and I’ve said this for 20 years now: You cook for the hot chicks. And I hope nobody takes that the wrong way because it’s not meant to be chauvinistic or anything. When I think of my wife [Nina], I think my wife is very attractive and smart. I think she’s a hot woman. But when we go out to eat, she’s picking where we’re going out to eat, and cooking for the hot chick means you’re cooking a certain type of item, you’re putting crab, shrimp, lobster, filet — those are the kind of things — tuna, they’re looking for the lighter, cleaner things. That’s what women like to eat. So when they look at a restaurant or a menu, they’re going to pick that restaurant. And then take it further, then you have the single guy. Where does the single guy want to go eat? At the restaurant that has the pretty women. And the pretty women are going to be at the restaurant that serves the food that they want to eat.