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Surfer, accountant, investment banker: The surprising pre-kitchen careers of 9 top Philly chefs

The Philly restaurant scene is on the rise, and the city is brimming with acclaimed chefs. What were these local stars doing before they got into the culinary world? We took a look at the pre-kitchen careers (and throwback photos) of nine well-known Philadelphia restaurateurs.

Kevin Sbraga

Alternate universe career: Lifeguard

Now: Chef-owner of Sbraga (Center City) and The Fat Ham (University City); winner, Top Chef: Season 7.

Then: Both of Sbraga’s parents were professional bakers, so food has always been part of his life. Early jobs included positions at both McDonald’s and KFC (during high school) and a stint at a hot dog packaging plant. He was also a lifeguard at a local country club. His big break came after graduating from Johnson & Wales University in Miami when Jose Garces hired him to test recipes for a new cookbook and eventually appointed him culinary director of Garces Restaurant Group. He then moved on to a head chef position at Stephen Starr’s Rat’s Restaurant in Hamilton, NJ, before competing on — and winning — the seventh season of Food Network’s Top Chef.

Twitter: @KSbraga

Steven Cook

Alternate universe career: Investment banker

Now: Co-owner CookNSolo restaurants: Zahav (Society Hill), Abe Fisher and Dizengoff (Rittenhouse), Percy Street Barbecue (South Street) and Federal Donuts (multiple locations).

Then: Cook cites growing up watching Family Ties and being enamored with Michael J. Fox’s character as the reason he checked off “business” when deciding what he wanted to study at Penn (the other options were nursing, engineering or liberal arts). After graduating from Wharton undergrad, he took an investment banking job on Wall Street. Though he worked in a small firm that was less cutthroat than most, he knew it wasn’t where he wanted to spend the rest of his life: “From day one in my little cubicle, I had a sinking feeling.” It took him six years to figure out what he wanted to do, but he eventually enrolled in night classes at the French Culinary Institute and left the world of finance. He left NYC and moved to Philly in 2001, where he cooked at Twenty Manning and Salt before re-opening a languishing, six-months-vacant Marigold Kitchen in West Philly. After a year behind the line, he decided to hire a chef. Serendipitously, that was the same time Michael Solomonov happened to be looking for a new position. After starting to work together in 2005, two hit it off and became partners, and they’ve never looked back.

Twitter: @cooknsolo

Michael Solomonov

Alternate universe career: Surfer

Now: Co-owner CookNSolo restaurants: Zahav (Society Hill), Abe Fisher and Dizengoff (Rittenhouse), Percy Street Barbecue (South Street) and Federal Donuts (multiple locations).

Then: Born in Tel Aviv but raised in Pittsburgh, Solomonov’s Hebrew wasn’t that great. When he found himself back in Israel after a few semesters at the University of Vermont, he looked for a job that wouldn’t require a lot of verbal communication. He found it at a bakery, and became enamored with cooking. He moved back to the U.S. to attend culinary school in Florida, and then came north to Philly, where he found work at Neil Stein’s Striped Bass. He was then hired as sous-chef at Vetri, where he stayed for two years (without any other restaurants to his name back then, Marc Vetri had a policy of a two-year limit for his sous). Solomonov went searching for a new position, and found it at Steven Cook’s Marigold Kitchen. (See above.)

Rich Landau

Alternate universe career: Golf course superintendent

Now: Chef-owner of Vedge (Wash West) and V Street (Rittenhouse), along with wife Kate Jacoby.

Then: Now renowned for his vegetable cuisine, there wasn’t one defining point when Landau became vegan — it was a progression. He gave up red meat in his teens, and then slowly cut out chicken, fish and dairy. Still, he didn’t really consider going into cooking right away. After pissing off his parents by deciding to skip college, he fell into golf course landscaping. At age 19, he was promoted to supervisor of an NJ golf course, and even though he loved the job, the early morning hours were killing his social life. So instead he went to bartending school and got a job at the Adams Mark hotel in Philly. At his next job, at Sonoma in Manayunk, he started spending time in the kitchen and decided he would open a lunch cart. A few days before he bought the actual cart, he ran into space inside a health food store in Willow Grove, and decided to open there instead. He launched Horizons Cafe in 1994, and fell in love with Jacoby when she applied for a job there in 2001. In 2006, they moved Horizons to Philadelphia (where Nomad Pizza is now), and ran that through 2011.

Twitter: @vedgerestaurant

Michael Schulson

Alternate universe career: Car salesman

Now: Chef-owner of Sampan (Midtown Village), Independence Beer Garden (Historic District) and the forthcoming Double Knot (Midtown Village); chef-partner of Izakaya (Atlantic City).

Then: Schulson began cooking alongside his grandmother at age 7, but his first experience working in a restaurant at a Bob’s Big Boy — emptying pre-packaged coleslaw into the salad bar and placing pre-made biscuits onto a sheet tray destined for the oven. After high school he enrolled in the New York Institute of Technology, but left after two years in search of a better fit. At one point he took a job as a car sales/rental agent at a company called Rent-a-Wreck, even though he knew close to nothing about cars. Eventually he found his way into the kitchen of a pizza shop, and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. After graduation he worked for various well-liked restaurants in both Philly and NYC, and then traveled to Japan, cooking in several prestigious Tokyo kitchens before returning to open his first solo restaurant in 2008.

Twitter: @michaelschulson

Nicholas Elmi

Alternate universe career: Accountant

Now: Chef-owner of Laurel (East Passyunk); chef-in-residence at Morgan’s Pier (Columbus Boulevard); winner, Top Chef: New Orleans.

Then: Nick Elmi, CPA? In a different world, it could have happened: despite enjoying cooking jobs throughout high school, Elmi first went to college for accounting. He still cooked for extra cash, though, and when he met a chef who had attended culinary school and was considered reasonably successful, he had what he calls his “aha moment” and realized cooking could actually be a career. Within a month he had dropped out and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America instead. After graduation, he worked under Georges Perrier at Brasserie Perrier, and eventually ran the kitchen at Le Bec-Fin, before striking out on his own.

Twitter: @nicholaselmi

Jason Cichonski

Alternate universe career: Motorcycle stuntman

Now: Chef-partner at Ela (Queen Village), The Gaslight (Old City) and 1100 Social (coming soon to Xfinity Live).

Then: “Straight-edge punk kid” is how Cichonski describes himself as a teen, recalling his blue hair, multiple piercings and plaid pants. His leisure time was spent stunt-riding a motorcycle, and “jumping off anything with water underneath it.” Still, he managed to keep good grades as he worked two or three jobs at once — including a stop at the Genuardi’s grocery store bakery — and always knew he wanted to be a chef, something he achieved in top form when he was named executive chef of Lacroix at age 24. In 2014, he competed on Top Chef: New Orleans, and though he didn’t make it to the final round, he did return as an assistant to help Nicholas Elmi cinch the title.

Twitter: @JasonCichonski

Luke Palladino

Alternate universe career: Casino chef

Now: Chef-owner of Palladino’s (East Passyunk) and Luke Palladino Seasonal Italian Cooking (Linwood, NJ).

Then: Palladino grew up in an Italian family that relished good cooking, and went directly into the Culinary Institute of America after high school. It was a good fit; his classmates voted him “most likely to succeed” when he graduated in 1989. He went to Italy and cooked throughout the country for four years, then returned to work under a who’s who of 1990s hot chefs: Emeril Lagasse, Jeremiah Towers, Todd English. When the Borgata launched in Atlantic City in 2003, he was tapped to run three restaurants there, and all were successful enough that he was eventually able to leave the casino and go out on his own.

Twitter: @LukePalladino1

Chip Roman

Alternate universe career: Fisherman

Now: Chef-owner of Blackfish (Conshohocken), Mica (Chestnut Hill) and The Treemont (Center City, temporarily closed); partner at Ela (Queen Village), Tradestone Cafe and Tradestone Confections (Conshohocken).

Then: Roman’s entrepreneurial talents bloomed early: by age 12 he had friends working for him in a professional clamming operation at the Jersey Shore. He also spent time working at Fish and Stuff, the Ocean City, NJ, tackle shop, mostly to guarantee a discount on lures and bait to satisfy his fishing addiction. It was while working on boats as a fisherman’s helper that he realized he wanted to pursue a career as a chef, and he enrolled at Drexel. After graduating with a dual degree in business and culinary arts, he worked at Vetri and Le Bec-Fin, and then left to form his own catering company. In 2006, he opened his first solo restaurant, and has grown from there.

Twitter: @ChipRoman

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