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Shola 2.0: Re-Focusing and Moving On in the Kitchen

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Photo: Collin Flatt

After Shola Olunloyo's very public falling out with developer Bart Blatstein over the never-happened Speck Food + Wine, Philly's most mysterious chef had a few serious choices to make about what his next steps would be in the world of food, and the future of his career.

Eater recently visited with the chef in his home/laboratory — filled with centrifuges, rotary evaporators, and ultrasonic homogenizers — to find out what we could expect in 2012, and how the past has shaped his focus in a new direction.

So what are you working on now that Speck is behind you? Are you turned off of restaurants for good?
Well, my focus has shifted from opening my own restaurant to other endeavors. I'm currently writing a book, and will release it on Apple eBooks for the iPad. It's my old blog, broken down into recipes for two specific tracks. Chefs who have $50,000 worth of lab equipment, and the other is for the home cook. Whether you want to make a rose maple syrup using an ultrasonic homogenizer, or some kick-ass creamed spinach, you'll be able to. I'm also working on recipes with Justin Rosenberg for Honeygrow, which is a casual stir-fry concept coming to Philly soon.

What made you decide to pull the trigger on the blog-as-a-book idea?
I got an email from Wylie Dufresne asking what happened to the old site, because I had taken it down. We got to talking, and I put it back up, but behind a password. Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food told me I had to do it. As a chef, you don't have time to think, it's all on the fly. It's a tough job. I have the time and the access to this equipment to figure out techniques and put it down on paper and experiment. I get calls all the time from chef friends asking me how to do stuff. Now, they can read the book.

What about the equipment, how do you get all of this stuff?
I'm working with a lot of tech firms who are looking to "kitchen-ize" their lab equipment for restaurants. New techniques require new equipment, but at the end of the day, it's about extracting the best flavor from ingredients. Tech should never be used because you can, only if you should. I'm currently working with a sonicator from Heilscher, an evaporator from IKA, and a centrifuge from Beckman-Coulter. All too unwieldy for restaurant kitchens, but they can be made smaller.

I see your name attached to The 2012 Science Festival. What's gong on there?
I'm working with The Monell Institute and The Franklin Institute on some demos and fun projects about food and cooking for the 2012 Science Festival. It's going to be cool. And it's not going to just be cooking demos, there are going to be scientists there talking about the 8 billion things that make a hot dog taste so good.

The whole idea of modern technique gets a bad rap, and is seen as a fad, yet elBulli was always considered the best restaurant in the world. How does that happen?
Local ingredients and farm-to-table is as much a fad as any technique, if you think about it. It's still a buzzword. Doing it for the sake of doing it. Learning and practicing a technique is not as simple as sourcing ingredients. What people don't think about is that elBulli was also integral to introducing us to new ingredients, spicing, and globalization of food, not just technique and methods. That's what I'm most impressed by. Purveyors of knowledge are as important as purveyors of food.

We have to ask, how did Speck not opening affect you personally?
Well, first off, it was devastating for me financially. I lost a lot of money. But, otherwise, surprisingly, it was a blessing. It was the right thing to happen.

How was that situation a blessing?
Well, opening a restaurant is all anyone really sees at the outset. But, the opening is just one part. It's your life after it's open. It's like having a baby that no one wants to care for if it isn't done right. Even if we got the place open, the partnership was wrong.

You were a favorite target of the media during the process and the aftermath, why do you think that was?
The whole time there was a baiting process, to see what I would say in return, or if I wanted to take a shot, but there really wasn't a reason to do so. They acted like I was an adversary of Mother Teresa. I didn't understand it.

When the stories were written, there was never a quote from you or from the other major players, just mostly hearsay. How did you feel about that?
It helped me out. People that were critical of me before saw that the story was written before it even unfolded. It looked like a personal attack. The food narrative in Philly has a tendency to be nasty in certain segments.

You have a reputation for being an egotist. It seems that's why you're an easy target.
Everyone has an ego, no matter what, in every walk of life. I think I read it before, I can't remember where, but David Katz said it best. I'm paraphrasing here, but it was like, "I'm a passionate motherfucker. Why would you want anything less?" He was totally right on.

In terms of me as a person, I am a quiet person by nature, and am not inclusive, don't do any public chef-type things, and have a close group of friends. I am very forthright on my blog because it's a journal of my own work, my own cooking, and my own thoughts. Some people support me and read the site, but some love to look for fuel for the fire. How would you feel if someone read your diary and then said, "You're an asshole."

But all of that is over, and the future is coming along now. I'm getting the book ready to go, working with new people on a lot of projects, and it's exciting. Honeygrow and my book are whats happening now. Got to keep moving into the future.

And you'll let us know if there's ever a restaurant?
I will. But, that won't be for awhile.

· Studiokitchen [Official]