The fresh-paint smell’s barely gone from his latest restaurant, Double Knot, and already the sights are set on the next opening. Since The Saint James, there’s been no looking back.
By Mike Madaio
Michael Schulson’s lack of prominence is a testament to the newfound strength of Philadelphia’s culinary culture. When you think of the restaurateurs who run the city these days, names like Starr, Garces, Solomonov and Sbraga come to mind. But Schulson’s umbrella covers six separate entities, including Double Knot, a coffeehouse-bar-Vietnamese café-izakaya mashup that opened in February in Center City. (And not including the epic fail that was The Saint James, in Ardmore.)
He was introduced to cooking by his bubby, but it was Susanna Foo who exposed Schulson to the nuances of Asian food. From her kitchen, he’d go on to cook for Stephen Starr at Buddakan, Pod and Buddakan New York City before breaking out on his own with the now-iconic Izakaya at the Borgata, in Atlantic City.
Double Knot represents a return to Schulson’s roots. In recent years, his forays have followed the trends: The Saint James, which relied too much on Schulson’s own rising reputation; a beer garden in a city now drunk with them; and a food truck, which has become the star chef’s proof, across the country, that he’s fully capable of slumming it. Double Knot, however, defies that kind of easy classification. And it feels like a purer reflection of Schulson for it. Not that he’s finally settling into a niche. In fact, plans are already well underway to stray again.
We caught up with him as he pulls together his next project, Harp & Crown, a southern-minded gastropub that’s due to open soon a couple blocks from Double Knot.
How’s your perspective on opening a restaurant changed since Izakaya?
Schulson My attention to detail is heightened. Over the years, I’ve realized the importance of all the factors, both big and small, that affect a guest—lighting, music, silverware, uniforms. To create an amazing experience, no detail can be ignored.
Does that mean you’ve boiled it down to a formula?
The difference between success and failure is so small. And luck is also a part of that. The key to success is to stay true to your vision. And pick a great location.
Your portfolio’s really diversified in recent years. What’s the rationale?
The expectation of guests has grown. They want more. Good food doesn’t cut it anymore. People want an experience when they’re dining out. Dinner used to be an add-on to something else, a show, a movie. Now, dinner reservations are the main attraction.
You’ve become known as an Asian chef, but you seem pretty determined to leave your stamp on comfort food, too.
Though my background is in classic French cuisine, which is all about technique and execution, those two take me back to when I was a kid. Comfort food is what I cooked growing up. And my parents’ financial resources were limited, so we’d often go out for Chinese food on Friday nights. That was my first dose of Asian cuisine.
At the rate you’re growing, Harp & Crown likely won’t be your last undertaking. Am I right?
Though we do have a few more concepts to execute here, we’re looking to expand outside of the Philadelphia market. Our end goal is to have 20 restaurants in our collective.
And how does the celebrichef status help your cause?
It doesn’t. It’s just a title. Titles don’t define you as a person. Your character and how you treat others do.
Photos courtesy MJS Schulson Restaurants