Chef Michael Schulson, who will open the modern Asian restaurant Sampan this Friday, December 18, made his name in Philly as a the executive chef of University City’s Pod before Stephen Starr tapped him to head up the behemoth Buddakan in New York. After helping Starr successfully make his mark on the Big Apple, Schulson left and opened his own restaurant, Izakaya, in the Borgata in 2008 before returning to Philly with Sampan. In the latest installment of The Philadelphia Diet, wherein a local food fanatic documents his dining experiences for a week, the espresso-fueled Schulson fills us in on how he smokes pork scraps for his ramen, the trouble with exclusivity in Philly bars and why red meat, rather than booze, is a better choice for stress-reduction while opening a new restaurant.
Friday, December 4
My life is between New York, Philly and here. It gets a little exhausting, but I’m going to be tied down here in Philly for quite a bit of time now that we’re opening Sampan. This is my focus and this is my baby.
I woke up nice and early at 6:30 a.m. with Davin, my three-year-old son. Every day we make something, whether it’s pancakes or waffles or eggs and cheese, sometimes we make breads from scratch. I don’t get to see him very often so it’s a really nice treat. He wanted to make pancakes. We started out making blueberry but of course he only wanted to make chocolate chip. We each had one pancake and I had a double espresso. I have a cappuccino machine at home.
At 8:00 am., we received our cappuccino machine at Sampan and, of course, I had to have the first cappuccino. It’s always what chefs look forward to - you get all your equipment and it’s awesome and you get all your wine and it’s awesome, but when you get your cappuccino machine you’re like “great! I don’t have to run out every 20 minutes to get an espresso!”
At noon, I took all the managers to Ocean Harbor in Chinatown for some dim sum, which is always a treat. We had chicken feet, ribs, shu mei, dumplings and crispy quail. We were starting training the next day - the whole staff was coming in - and we wanted to take everyone out and really build this teamwork, camaraderie kind of thing. It was funny because there were a couple of Asian guys in the group and an Asian guy is the one who asked for a fork, which is always interesting.
At 2 p.m., a local market brought over some samples and a farm from Lancaster brought us some other things. We were tasting some things, picking at some raw foods, like romesco, a cross between broccoli and cauliflower.
4p.m. Double espresso.
4:30 p.m, I went to a great bar, Apothecary! They have the best drinks in the city. I had the Moroccan Fashion. It’s bourbon-based, so good with a great balance of flavor. Then I jumped in my car and drove down to Atlantic City.
At 7 p.m., I was at Izakaya, my restaurant at The Borgata and had some spicy tuna roll and robotayaki with king crab, lobster and Kobe beef.
At 11p.m. it was time for a cigar and a vodka grapefruit at B Bar at the Borgata with my good friend Stephen Kalt, the chef/owner of Fornelletto and some peanuts. You’ve gotta end your day on the right note after a long day like that. I smoke cigars quite often. All the chefs down there, it’s kind of one of those things - Bobby’s [Flay] down there once in a while, Michael Mina, Wolfgang Puck, myself, Steven Kalt, when one of us is down there with someone else, it just gives us an excuse to go smoke a cigar and hang out at mur.mur.
Saturday, December 5
I woke up at 8 a.m. and had a double espresso and fresh fruit from room service at The Water Club at The Borgata. They put me up in a beautiful room. That’s one of the advantages of going down there - I get to sleep in and I don’t have to be up at 5:30 a.m.
At 11:30 a.m. I had a whole Philly cheese steak with fried onions at the White House in Atlantic City. The White House! Awwwwwwwww. So good. So. Good. It’s just oily and greasy and lots of meat - the best thing about it, the thing that makes it, is the bread. It’s like this soft hoagie roll - hero, I call it in New York - it’s just a little bit crunchy, but really soft and absorbs all of the grease. Does that sound repulsive or delicious?
We were running a special at Izakaya that night, braised pork belly with the buns with pickled shallots and a spicy pineapple chutney on top, so I had that at 4 p.m. I also tasted the edamame dumplings and the lobster gyoza. Edamame dumplings are my signature, so I always make sure when I go to one of the restaurants, I check them out. I have my own line of dumplings that I sell through Fresh Direct.
At 9 p.m., I had the 32-ounce prime rib from Old Homestead, nice and rare. YES! I’m a carnivore. When I’m completely stressed and run down, which an opening will do to you, I find myself gravitating towards my comfort foods, which are steak and potatoes, cheesesteaks. Usually chefs drink a lot, but when I’m opening a restaurant I try not to drink too much because you just get run down. I pretty much ate the whole thing.
After, I drove to New York City to have drinks at Angel’s Share with Alfred Portale. We were drinking the yuzu, vodka and shiso drink that I always get there. I love that place. No one bothers you there, it’s very zen. I went there one time with six guys and we walked in and it was empty and they still threw us out - they were like “Sorry! parties of four or fewer!” If you yell, they throw you out. It would never in a million years fly in Philly. We’re doing a back area here at Sampan and we talk about what it’s going to be and we’re like, “can we make it exclusive?” And it’s like, if you make it exclusive in Philly and you piss a couple of people off, then a couple more people are pissed off and then before you know it the whole world is pissed off. You can’t do it.
Sunday, December 6
9 a.m.: Double espresso from Starbucks. I was out at my parents’ house in Long Island.
Noon: a bagel with egg salad, tomato and onions
4 p.m.: Coffee with skim milk and Splenda
My mom made dinner - she’s a great cook. She thinks every weekend is Thanksgiving so she always cooks. She made turkey with cranberry mold, brussel sprouts with bacon, and rice pilaf. I just relaxed. That’s the beauty of going to the parents house - I get to relax.
10 p.m. coffee for the two-hour road trip home.
Monday, December 7
7:30 a.m., double espresso. Davin was up early and wanted to make waffles with chocolate chips. Of course. God forbid we put like blueberries in them or something.
It was the first day of training at Sampan and we were teaching the kitchen staff how to do the food. We usually spend about three, four days teaching the staff to cook the food before they cook for the front of the house. First we had naan bread with red miso and tomato jalapeno jam. It’s actually not on the menu. It was off and so we took it off the menu.
At 11 a.m., I had pork neck scraps from the ramen noodle soup. We make a pork stock and use pork neck bones. Then when we’re done with the stock, we strain it and save the bones and we have somebody pick the scraps and then we take the scraps and sauté them with ginger, garlic, scallion, soy sauce. Then we lay them on a sheet tray and smoke them with hickory wood and cherry wood in the oven. But I eat it right off the bone. I think it’s delicious.
At 1 p.m. we had coconut soft serve ice cream and toasted jasmine rice ice cream. This was the first time that we got to use our $11,000 soft serve machine.
At 4 p.m. it was time to taste the whole garde manger and hot app menus at sampan. These were all of the items we were picking at:
Shrimp mee krab
Pickled Papaya with beef salad
Wild Mushroom salad with candied ginger goat cheese
Field greens with ginger and green apple dressing
Yellowtail salad with kim chee Asian pears,
Green apple roll with tuna
Shaken beef tartar with tapioca
Maine lobster roll with yuzu
All of it made it onto the menu. You literally take a bite or two of each thing and eventually you’re completely full and done and don’t ever want to see food again.
I had a double espresso at 6 and then another at 8 p.m. Then bed. I’m up at 5 a.m., so the espresso doesn’t affect me.
Tuesday, December 8:
6:30 a.m., up bright and early with Davin again. We made egg and cheese sandwiches on everything bagels and I had a double espresso. Philly bagels are the worst, although the The Famous on 19th - they actually have really good bagels. But try and get a bialy in Philly? Ugh, fuggedaboutit.
At noon, Pat my produce guy dropped off a Vietnamese hoagie with grilled pork, fish sauce, pickled cucumbers, carrots and cilantro for me. He’s trying to get my business so he drops stuff off. We’re going to have banh mi on the menu. Banh mi’s all about the bread. 100 percent.
At 2 p.m. My chef Leo Forneas and I sat down for a delicious bowl of homemade Korean rice noodles with Kim chee and sausage. It’s on the menu. Leo came with me from New York Buddakan and he was my chef at Izakaya. and then he came with me here. He’s been with me for a long time. Good guy.
6 p.m: time for another hot app tasting
Crab and curry fritters with cucumber raietta
Thai chicken wings with mint and basil
Pork and shrimp rolls
“Philly cheese steak’
Our take on Philly cheesesteak is on a bao bun. We braise short ribs, pull the meat and then sauté it with some ginger, jalapeno, scallion and cilantro, then layer it with sharp provolone and pickled spicy shallots. It tastes like a cheesesteak.
9 p.m.: time for garde manger station to make all their dishes again:
Maine lobster roll
Shaken Beef tartar
Green apple roll
Yellowtail salad with lemongrass and puffed rice
King crab summer roll,
Mee krab salad
Beef and papaya salad
I was fully stuffed! I needed someone to roll me home. At 10p.m., I had a double espresso. Then bed. After you do those tastings you’re done. That’s it.
Read more: The Philadelphia Diet Archives