Today we happily introduce a chef who drives to his own traffic rules. He has also single handedly shown me that if you really put yourself out there you can do it your way. We met Shola through this website and from his first introduction a culinary banter began. The bouncing, sharing and dissection of ideas has allowed us to grow as chefs and people. Shola's need to find the source, the reason, and the way inspires us and pushes us to just be better. Along those lines, we have asked Shola to be the first of a number of individuals to open themselves up and share ideas. Here is the what I can rightly call the beginning of our Culinary Conversations. Please feel free to leave questions and comments for Shola below. He doesn't have a current website but if you would like to get in contact with him, now's the time.
By Shola Olunloyo:
You are driving down a quiet scenic country road and suddenly you notice the scenery is going forward not backwards, that’s when it occurs to you that your career is going in the wrong direction. What do you do at a crossroads, when you question if you are doing what you are doing for the reasons you wanted to?
The answer is a profound change in direction, sublimated into the very essence of the art of in this case food and cookery. Philadelphia is a small town with lots of well meaning people who rarely exit their comfort zones, basically a meat and potatoes town. So many people who have rarely ventured into European Michelin Starred establishments have been convinced over the years that the delicious but cumbersome antiquated food at LBF is the best French food in the world. All the restaurants were serving variations of the same food, Pan-Asian was basically anything with the axis of evil, Soy, Ginger, Wasabi.
There was the requisite Tuna Tartare, calamari with a new novel crust, chipotle aioli, a copious use of truffle oil on everything, and umpteen variations of steamed mussels.
It was time to do something profound, a complete but temporary change in direction and the rallying cry, depending on how profound you wanted to be, was either…….FDR’s ”There is nothing to fear but fear itself” or the famous line from Risky Business with the young Tom Cruise “sometimes you just have to say what the ____ and take some chances”. Either way the message was the same and clear. I needed a forum to continue to cook, as it relates to income and on a different tangent, for creativity, exploration and opening up a conversation about food. That was Studiokitchen.
Thankfully there is no shortage of people in Manhattan who have no to time to cook and will gladly pay you upwards of $250 a person to cook a dinner party in their homes, however at that price point, the expectation was also of high level creativity, choice ingredients, lightness, modernism, and an intellectual component.
Buying really good food was and is still is expensive, Farmer Jones, Blue Moon Acres, Browne Trading for fish, D’artagnan the great meat negociant, driving to Lancaster and Bucks county to buy amazing vegetables. Even at the price point per person minimum of $150 in Philadelphia and $250 in NYC, there needed to be amortization or subsidization of expensive ingredients. This was when I recruited 8 very good friends and started SK as a weekly social dining experiment. It basically filled in all the blanks, a forum for the intellectual exchange and discussion of food and cookery but mathematically allowed me to bring down the cost of food for private chef work down by about 9%.
Anyone who works in the restaurant business knows that shaving 9 off your food cost is like winning the lottery.
It essentially started by trying to observe people’s expectations and the relationship between creativity and flavor. Every person involved in creativity needs an audience as a measure of feedback, SK provided that audience. Private chef work is highly lucrative but SK was fun. The premise was to have an atmosphere which encouraged a conversation about food, to get people to think about food differently, to expose them to ingredients, techniques or elements of various cuisines. It wasn’t always about new or cutting edge, there was a distinct attempt to clarify misperceptions about food and eliminate the proliferation of mediocrity. It is easy to come off sounding preachy or to alienate your audience so rather that force information on people, they were led to the water but not forced to drink.
The use of language to open up a discussion about multiple related subjects became quite effective while consuming food made with said items or techniques. Although attempts were made to make the food absolutely tasty, most walked away from the experience saying they loved the direct communication with the information source. Think about learning about wine varietals without drinking wine, it doesn’t quite work effectively.
Studiokitchen was like a restaurant with training wheels
How does one finance such a startup without having to answer to anyone? Good Credit. The answer is start with a significant chunk of cash, charge every single thing and pay it all off completely at the end of the month. The credit card companies, the idiots that they are continue to increase your limits and lower your interest rates in the hopes that you will go in debt. It was tough in the beginning doing it alone until it occurred to me to sell all of my bicycles. I was a serious cyclist for many years and I had amassed a collection of very expensive racing bicycles, mostly purchased at deep employee discounts. At some point I decided to liquidate this into a windfall of slightly over 15 grand.
Initial emphasis was on good equipment. I like toys, but functional toys.
I guess was a bit spoiled because the batterie de cuisine currently includes….Vita Mix Blender, Thermomix, Imperia 220 electric pasta machine, 2 polyscience immersion circulators, Techne circulating waterbath, Achatz AntiGriddle, 20 quart mixer, Berkel Slicer, Bamix Stick blender, Kitchen Aid Ice cream maker, Champion Juicer, Sodir deep fryer, Cooktek Induction Units, Oakton Thermocouple, Sper infrared thermometer, a ton of pots by Mauviel, multiple ISI canisters, Berkel Cryovac machine.
Respectable, but not quite Nathan Myhrvold’s home kitchen. As the private chef work expanded, I was always reinvesting about 40% back into equipment and other hardware such as china, the Pacojet fund and other technologies that come to be deemed requisite.
Even though I work mostly alone, I get a lot of offers from people interested in modern cooking who want to spend some time with me. I always ask them the same question, which came first?
A. The Chicken.
B. The Egg.
C. The Carrots and Coconuts sunny side up.
The answer is NOT important as long as you don’t say C.
I am finding out the few are interested in the basic foundations of cuisine, certainly there is something to be said for innovation but innovators and forward thinkers are grounded in the classics. Modernism to me is more effective when transparent. I take a lot of cues from other “artists”, architects and musicians primarily because of the creative process.
Inter-disciplinary conversations and explorations were the best part of Studiokitchen dinners. Inspiration is all around us and we just have to expand our minds and venture outside the world of food every now and then. People always ask me “how do you combine certain ingredients or layer flavors and textures”
You think intelligently and you experiment and tweak till you get to your end point.
Restraint is just as important and you need to know when you have gone too far. Just because it’s really good doesn’t mean it can’t get better and just because it got better doesn’t mean it still can. End points are critical.
A fairly easy illustration is to listen carefully to one of the greatest bands ever assembled.
As you think of your basic components of flavor, temperature, texture, color, think of Julian Adderly, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, John Coltrane, Miles Davis. The album is “Kind of Blue” the 3rd track is “Blue in Green”, everything proceeds smoothly, perfectly, could not get better, Wynton Kelly and/or Bill Evans are smoothly rolling along on the Piano, the tune could pretty much finish unchanged satisfactorily but at exactly 2 minutes and 27 seconds into the song, either Coltrane on the tenor or Adderly on the Alto saxophone starts up and nails it, just nails it and as soon as he is in, he is gone and that quite frankly is how you have to think of everything you add to a plate of food.
I met Alex Talbot on E-gullet on a discussion pertaining to Paul Liebrandt’s cooking in New York City, which is how I became exposed to Ideasinfood. I have come to the conclusion that most of the chefs in America who talk about sharing ideas are full of it and that people actively practice the exact opposite of what they preach, in the sense of sharing sources, information and inspirations. Perhaps you need to be deemed worthy if you are outside the myopic tunnel vision (no pun intended) of NYC. I asked for some advice and information, which I expected to get no answers to and I was pleasantly surprised with a forthright response. He has greatly influenced the way I think about food not so much about new ideas but re-arranging your thought processes.
I met Alex and Aki at the worlds most prestigious dining mall outside Dubai, that would be the AOL/ Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle…hehe.
Though I had seen pictures of them on the site, he described himself as having a cowboy hat on. A cowboy hat ???????? like a Stetson, indeed. I could not reconcile the image of the food photography on the site with a cowboy hat and I kept thinking, why a cowboy hat? Maybe that’s his trademark, I even almost convinced myself that it was because HAT stands for H.Alexander Talbot. My mother always said never to judge people by appearances alone and I asked myself what famous chef wears a cowboy hat, cooks complicated food, requires a special detour to go eat his food and whose cookbook everyone wants to buy…Marc Veyrat.
The exchange of ideas is more infectious in person, within 3 hours of running around Manhattan and talking about food, thoughts and ideas had sublimated into well over $500 in purchases ranging from Japanese charcoal, implements for making shrimp Spaetzle, and fata paper. Note to self, if you are in Korin or JB Prince with Alex leave your credit cards home. Meanwhile I think I scared them both half to death with my driving. Unlike cooking, driving for me is about getting from point A to B ASAP.
So there you have it, one chapter in a free exchange of ideas.
Current Inspirations :