Chef and restaurateur Michael Schulson once planned to become an architectural engineer, but then he dropped out of school to cook instead.
"It turned out well, though, because now I'm not only a chef; I'm also building restaurants," Schulson tells New Times. "Most people don't have the ability to close their eyes and envision what a restaurant will be like from plans or renderings, but it's easy for me to imagine a place — how the energy will flow — before there're even four walls."
Today the Philadelphia-based restaurateur's vision has made him a sought-after chef.
He worked his way up the culinary chain of command from New York’s Peacock Alley at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and David Burke’s Park Avenue Café to Philadelphia’s Le Bec-Fin and Susanna Foo. He helmed kitchens in New York City (Buddakan) and Philadelphia (Pod). Now he has joined Hollywood's Diplomat Resort.
In 2008, Schulson opened his first restaurant, Izakaya, in Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. He's also behind several Philadelphia establishments, including the Asian-inspired eatery Double Knot, Sampan, Graffiti Bar, and the new-American hot spot Harp & Crown.
On March 15, the chef will open his latest creation, Monkitail, alongside several other establishments at Hollywood's Diplomat Resort. The restaurant will be his take on modern Japanese fare, a contemporary izakaya — or Japanese gastropub — featuring sharable small plates and sushi, as well as an array of specialty cocktails and sake.
New Times: You participated in two TV series, TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off and Style Network’s Pantry Raid. How did those experiences change how you look at your profession?
Michael Schulson: Being in front of the camera and working alongside some of the country's top chefs gives you a different perspective. After that, I decided I needed to do my own thing, and it's been nonstop ever since then.
You've worked in some of Tokyo's prestigious kitchens.
I lived in Asia for about a year, and Japanese cuisine has always been one of my passions. I love the flavor profile — the sweet, spicy, salty, acidic. Living in Japan really gave me the experience and background to do it right. Everyone who does Asian food has a tendency to use too much sugar and soy sauce, and that's not what Japanese food is all about. It's about using the best, freshest ingredients and doing as little to them as possible.
What do you think sets your establishments apart from other Asian concepts?
One thing we do different than other Japanese restaurants: We serve everything as it's made. We want you to literally eat the fish as soon as it's cut. Because we use warm rice, it's important to get that contrast with the cold, fresh fish. At the end of the day, our goal is to be accessible to everyone, good food executed at the highest level. Our fish is flown in daily from New Zealand, Japan, and Australia.
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Tell us more about the concept.
We need to transport you to another place. We want you to feel like you're no longer in New York, Philly, or Florida. You can literally be anywhere, from a sushi bar in Japan to a speakeasy bar in Australia. To do that, we think we need to offer unique experiences, whether it's the bowling lane in the basement of Independence Beer Garden or the hidden door that will bring you to speakeasy karaoke bar in Monkitail.
Describe the menu at Monkitail.
The menu will be very similar to my restaurant Double Knot, with a sushi bar offering everything from sushi, sashimi, rolls, and hand rolls, to the bar, where you'll find a wide assortment of Japanese whiskeys, sake, and specialty cocktails.
What are you most excited about serving at Monkitail?
The robatayaki [or robata, the method of slow-cooking food on skewers over an open charcoal flame]. That section of the menu is going to be something very special. An open robatayaki kitchen will sit at the heart of the restaurant, along with a 15-seat sushi bar and a private dining area overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. There is going to be close to 40 items you can order, everything from quail, turkey neck, rib eye, and foie gras to lobster, octopus, and a wide variety of vegetables. All of it will be simply seasoned with nothing but salt and togarashi, and served with ponzu.
What are some of your favorite dishes on the opening menu?
Some top menu items will include broiled hamachi collar, Kobe beef with crab fried rice, and my edamame dumplings. But one dish to keep your eye on is the albacore tataki, which is seared on an open flame and served with a sweet onion ponzu sauce and topped with radish sprout and scallion. It's my favorite dish; I could eat that all day.