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Why Michael Shulson Loves Philadelphia
The chef talks community, sports, and food as he prepares to open Bar Lesieur
While most people gravitate to cities like New York and Chicago for their food scenes, Philadelphia is truly worth exploring. This multicultural city offers a range of cuisines — and a trip to Reading Terminal Market might just bring a foodie to tears with its selection of prepared foods, farm fresh produce, and baked goods (including the best apple cider doughnuts ever made).
Philadelphia is also the home to several world-renowned chefs and restaurateurs including Stephen Starr, Michael Solomonov, and Michael Shulson.
Over the past decade and a half, Michael Shulson has amassed a portfolio of fine establishments in Philadelphia including Double Knot, Sampan; Harp & Crown, Giuseppe & Sons, Alpen Rose, Via Locusta, Prunella, Pearl & Mary, and more.
Broken Palate caught up with the prolific chef, who shared his thoughts on the Phillies losing their chance at the World Series, the food scene in Philadelphia, and his soon-to-open restaurant, Bar Lesieur.
Broken Palate: Hi Michael, tough week for Philadelphia after the Phillies loss?
Michael Shulson: I’m actually kind of depressed after the Phillies. Say what you want, but sports are a really big part of life when you have fans who are passionate about their teams. The Phillies have been good this year, and the Eagles, as well. That drives more people here. Philadelphia has a mentality of it’s us versus the world. We’re not as big as some cities, but it’s our place. It’s a Philly thing.
BP: I think Philadelphia is a wonderful city, and a bit overrated regarding food. I would venture to say it’s a top food city.
MS: 100 percent. I moved here probably 25 years ago with a few hiatuses in New York. Philadelphia is an awesome place and a lot of people wind up settling down here. It’s affordable for families and a mecca for colleges.
BP: You’re opening Bar Lesieur very soon — can you tell us about it?
MS: It’s opening in two weeks, actually. Bar Lesieur is a small boutique French bistro. There are about 60 seats, including at the bar. It’s an homage to old-school French food with a modern twist.
I think during COVID we got away from good service and elegance and doing things the right way. It was a survival period. But we’re starting to have normalization in our lives. People love French food and this is our way of doing a high-end French bistro. Appetizers are between $12-$18 per person and the entrees are in the $20s and you can order your vegetable and starch a la carte. The goal is to have people share.
BP: We’ve talked before about how you keep prices very affordable.
MS: Yes. I think that’s another thing that I learned in Philly. When you think about Miami and New York City, if you piss off guests there are another 100 to take their place. New York is the king of that.
In Philadelphia, there’s no reason to price gouge. The goal is to be busy all week, not just be packed on one day. I believe there are two ways to make money: raise prices or have more people walk through the door. Restaurants, to me, are all about the energy.
BP: I went to a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale last weekend, and the food was very good, but my $26 salad consisted of four tomato slices, some radishes, and dressing. Sadly, that’s what I will remember most about the meal.
MS: That’s what sticks with you when you leave. When you walk into a restaurant, the first thing you see is the design. Then the service, hopefully, the service is amazing. Then you eat the food. Then you get the check and say, holy shit that’s expensive. I don’t want that.
People assume quality French food is expensive, but you go to Paris and it’s not that way. You can get a good steak frites for $20 and foie gra for $16 and we can do that here. We’re going to have foie gras, dry-aged duck, and a beautiful roasted halibut.
We’re doing a whole roasted chicken that’s pasture-raised, so it tastes like chicken. It’s stuffed with truffle butter, roasted to order, and served with chicken jus, mashed potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. It can feed up to four people for $68. Where can you get that?
BP: Philadelphia is so close to some of the best farmland in the country. As a restaurateur, does that inspire you?
MS: It doesn't, but unfortunately some restaurants are just really big and do crazy volume. At the smaller restaurants, we can do whatever we want and as a restaurateur, it’s nice to do that. Alpen Rose is an 11-seat steakhouse and we source from this amazing meat person who raises her own cattle. We age the beef in-house for 30 to 90 days.
Another thing is that people don’t understand seasonality much anymore, and sometimes you can’t remove items from the menu. We understand corn and tomatoes, but Brussels Sprouts is a fall vegetable and you see it in the middle of summer now.
BP: I think for a restaurant to truly be successful it’s a blend of creativity and business.
MS: For me, it is both. There is the business part and the chef part. It’s really easy to create a chicken dish, but it’s something else to create a dish that we can turn out 40 per night with consistency.
The smaller restaurants do get a certain energy from me. In an 11-table restaurant, I’m creating any dish that I want.