Michael Schulson. (Courtesy of Michael Schulson)

In and Out of Love With Food

Celebrity chef Michael Schulson on the restaurant business, why he fasts, and how he took advantage of the pandemic downtime to take control of his relationship with food

Chef Michael Schulson—TV personality and head of a restaurant empire based in Philadelphia—started healing his damaged relationship with food during the pandemic.

And it helped him lose 35 pounds in less than three months.

It sounds delightful and delicious tasting food for high-end restaurants all day. But, Schulson said, “I don’t think I even like food anymore.”

“Yesterday, I think I tasted 12 to 13 dishes—and that’s before 3 p.m. That’s enough food for someone to eat for a day and a half.” He tried the same octopus dish three times to adjust the taste. “Who would want to eat an octopus dish three times in a row?”

“I love food, but the concept of how we have to eat on a day-to-day basis is the problem,” Schulson said. “I want to be able to choose what I eat.”

The pandemic was hard on the restaurant business, and Schulson did what he could to ease the impact on his employees. But the silver lining was a chance to clear his plate, literally and figuratively.

(Courtesy of Michael Schulson)

New Regimen

Schulson started fasting until 2 p.m. and after 8 p.m. each day. He finally got to choose what he was eating, and often enjoyed light meals of fish. He cut back on carbs, salt, and oil.

He started running everyday and exercising in his home gym, but he said “The exercise piece is kind of secondary. … It’s all about eating properly.”

His main advice to anyone looking to start a weight-loss journey is: “Cut back on portion size. First start with portion size. … You can assume if you’re in America, your portion sizes are slightly bigger than they should be.”

Yoga was also part of his new regimen. It got him to slow down and think about things.

He realized, “Anger and toxicity can only be included in your life if you choose it.” You can’t change the people who are toxic in your life, he said, so it’s best to distance yourself from them.

“When you realize where the main piece of anger or toxicity comes from, once that’s removed, the smallest piece of anger and toxicity really sticks out like a sore thumb,” he said.

“It’s almost like I found an emptiness within me. When you don’t have to deal with certain things anymore, you just have all this energy and time to deal with positivity. It feels like an emptiness, but it’s liberating.”

Schulson has reflected more upon what he enjoys and what’s important to him.

He seeks authenticity. When he’s sick of fancy food, he goes to “a dive,” he said. “Because it feels authentic and genuine and it’s not what I’m getting every single day.”

Though his relationship with food has been somewhat strained, he loves the design and operations side of the restaurant business—managing all the “widgets,” as he calls them (such as financing or the cost of goods).

Authentic Design

He studied architectural engineering in his youth, but dropped out because the classes were more about beam weights and building codes than design. He got a job at a pizza joint instead. That was almost 50 years ago and it took a lot of time and effort to work his way to the top.

Harp & Crown. (Courtesy of Michael Schulson)

Young hopefuls in the restaurant business seem to expect to open several restaurants at the beginning of their careers, he said. He pointed out that he spent a decade as a line cook, another decade as a sous chef, then started with a single restaurant.

Double Knot. (Courtesy of Michael Schulson)

He’s glad he got to come back to his interest in design. Authenticity is important to him in the design of his restaurants.

“I like to make people feel a transformative experience. Meaning, if they walk into a restaurant in New York, they feel like they could be in Japan or London or Italy,” Schulson said.

Alpen Rose. (Courtesy of Michael Schulson)

His attention to detail is great. He gave the example of a restaurant he’s working on right now, an Italian pizzeria called Prunella. Construction was almost finished when he walked in recently and spotted a column that didn’t look right. “It doesn’t make me feel spectacular,” he said, so he had it changed.

“I don’t want any one location or spot within the restaurant to feel like we missed it or we ran out of money.”

He’s careful to be true to the concept. If it’s a 1920s style, you won’t include a decor piece from the 1980s, he said. You might include a modernized version of something from the ‘20s, but you have to be well aware of your art history to achieve authenticity.

“Do what you love,” he said. He was only earning several dollars per hour right up into his 40s, but he stuck with his passion. His two sons, aged 11 and 14, are also interested in the business and the elder has spent much time with him learning the ropes.