Grace Dickinson | May 23, 2022, 01:47 PM CDT
Working as a chef for more than half his life, Yehuda Sichel looks back on the last job he quit and can’t help but start laughing.
“I gave them my notice on March 2, which is hilarious,” says Sichel, recalling the day little more than two years ago when he told CookNSolo’s Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook he was leaving his role as executive chef at Philadelphia’s Abe Fisher.
At this point, Sichel had been working under the James Beard Award-winning restaurateurs for a decade and had come to the conclusion he wanted to start his own restaurant. It just so happened he announced that decision roughly a week before the World Health Organization announced COVID-19 as a global pandemic.
While most would find the timing unfortunate, Sichel says the situation didn’t cause him to panic.
“I was actually in a great spot because I at least had something to look forward to, while everyone else was out of luck and out of jobs,” says Sichel.
Sichel started working in a kitchen when he was 15 years old at a kosher deli in Baltimore where he grew up. It was here where his love for cooking was born, leading him to attend culinary school in Israel. Afterwards, he headed to Philadelphia where he worked under several nationally-acclaimed chefs before eventually meeting Solomonov.
At the time of their introduction, Solomonov and business partner Cook were just opening Israeli-inspired Zahav, which went on to become a 2019 James Beard Award winner for “Outstanding Restaurant”, a Philadelphia first. Sichel quickly became one of the restaurant’s first chefs, starting on the lunch shift, and eventually rising through the ranks. Within a few years, he was helping Solomonov and Cook open a new restaurant, Citron & Rose. It only lasted about six months, but not long after, they teamed up to open Abe Fisher, with Sichel as a partner. Serving up Eastern-European-inspired Jewish fare, Abe Fisher quickly gained a following and landed a Beard-Award semifinalist nominee for best new restaurant in 2015.
We sat down with Sichel to learn more about how he knew it was time to break off on his own, and what he’s learned since doing so. Plus, Sichel talks about launching his first restaurant, HUDA, in the midst of the pandemic.
You started working with Mike and Steve as a lunch cook at Zahav, right? Can you tell me about the progression of your path with them?
I only worked there for two months because I had plans to move to L.A. I just wanted a change. But after a year, I came back to Philly, and then they were grooming me to be a sous chef because their sous chef was leaving. I had six months to figure it out. I didn’t figure it out, and they ended up giving it to someone else. However, I was still trying to move up. I ended up getting experience working at every single station, eventually onto pastry, and then became a junior sous chef and was learning a little bit of management. That’s when I went to Citron & Rose. There I had six months of chef de cuisine experience, which eventually set me up to become executive chef at Abe Fisher.
Was this track something you’d discussed from the beginning, or do you think they saw something in you along the way?
It was a small crew back then. There was Mike, myself, a sous chef, maybe three or four other cooks – a quarter of the staff they have now. I had a passion for cooking. I have the Jewish background. And I was very committed. The joke is I just kept showing up.
As I progressed, there was pressure to do specials or amuse bouche, and my style came out, and it was this Eastern European style of Jewish cooking. They were exploring Middle Eastern food. The other cooks there never really cooked Jewish food before so it was kind of a blank slate for them. When I thought Jewish dishes, I was thinking in a totally different direction, which made it stand out, and there was an opportunity for this Eastern European style, which we ended up showcasing at Citron & Rose, and eventually at Abe Fisher.
CookNSolo grew significantly while you were working under Steve and Mike. Can you share how pivotal that experience was to your career?
I got to see their progression and their rise. When I joined the company, they only had three restaurants and were striving to get out their fourth. They hadn’t won a James Beard yet. They eventually opened other concepts, and I was just seeing the power of networking and hard work, and running a business and motivating people, all things they do really well.
After a decade of working with CookNSolo, what ultimately led up to the decision to go out on your own?
I knew it was time when I had my first kid three years ago. Just looking to the future, I needed to make a move. I wanted a little bit more freedom and to have nights off. And there were only two options – get a corporate job where I’d never cook again, and I’m terrible with computers, or I could open a lunch restaurant. Back then, fast-casuals were booming. I thought there was an opportunity here, and I also figured it wouldn’t be a huge investment compared to a full-service restaurant with alcohol.
I actually discovered through COVID times, this is the type of thing I could operate with me and one other person if I had to. The risk was lower than if I had opened a wine bar – which was one of my other ideas, but I’d never see my kid.
So you switched from fine-dining to fast-casual. But you also made a pretty significant pivot away from the strictly Jewish-inspired cuisine you’d been cooking. How’d you decide on the menu?
I wanted to do sandwiches. I really liked the idea of Dizengoff, where they bake their pita bread, make hummus, and you put toppings on it, and everything was based around the bread. I thought, “What if I made bread, but I put sandwiches on it?” So the idea was to do a signature bread.
Then, for so many years I’d only really been working with nice ingredients and great purveyors, so when I was writing the menu, it started to look like a small plates menu. The sandwiches were coming together like dishes, and I wanted variety – a beef, a chicken, a fish, a salad.
What was it like launching your very first restaurant in the middle of the pandemic?
Well, it gave us time to develop the bread – although there was no flour anywhere, so that made it really difficult.
You couldn’t get cheap white flour, so I was getting super fancy, fresh flour milled by Lost Bread. You couldn't get yeast either, so I was messing around with natural fermentation. And I learned a lot about bread from making sourdough. There are so many variables with sourdough, and you have to really pay attention to it. It really wasn’t until July I started developing our milk buns, which is where I’ve landed.
We intentionally opened around a bunch of office buildings, but no one was in them. So the locals saved us. It definitely helped that not a lot of other restaurants were open at the time. And there wasn’t a lot of good news back then, and this was something new and different. I already had a following from Zahav and Abe Fisher, so people were excited, and we needed that, and we still do.
What would you say have been the biggest takeaways or learnings from the process of opening your own brick and mortar?
There’s a lot. It’s constantly on your mind. There truly are no days off. I don’t have to be here every day, but I have to constantly be checking on everything. And there are a lot of hidden expenses you have to pay attention to.
There’s the taxes, and then you always expect equipment to be expensive, which it is, but then there's the repairs – they’re almost as expensive as getting new things. I had to get a door put back on one of our refrigerators, and it was $500.
Can you share some advice for other chefs who are looking to eventually go out on their own?
Keep money in the bank account. Don’t get too excited because something can always go wrong, and you’re the last one to get paid. But I’d say go for it. It’s such an amazing opportunity. It does cost a ton of money. But people can raise money, if you have a good enough idea and business plan.
When people are investing money, they want to see a real business plan, with real numbers – the build-out costs, the day-to-day costs, what you think you need to bring in. I had projections for one-year, two-year, three-year, and comparisons from other fast-casuals that were close by.
Then be ready to work your ass off and do the things you never thought you’d have to do. If there’s a flood in the basement, you're the one cleaning it, or you’re going to have to pay a lot. But it’s yours, so it’s different.
What do you see as the biggest challenge you faced by starting your own restaurant?
Trying to be in the moment when I’m not at the restaurant. I definitely have way more time with my kids though, and ultimately I think that’s the best thing. I help get them off to school and daycare, and usually I leave in time to pick them up. I can take a Saturday off to go to the beach – but it’s like, “Oh, I don’t have reception. I need the play-by-play.”
But I have been able to let go. When we first opened, I was the only person that could work the line. I’d come in and do all the butchering, and then at 11 a.m., I’d hop on the line, and I was the only person making sandwiches. I trained some people to help me, and eventually I hired Thomas, who worked with me at Abe Fisher and is now the guy who does it when I’m not around. At this point, almost everyone could do it – we even taught our dishwasher how to cook.
Do you have plans to expand HUDA or open another restaurant?
I have monster plans. I want to expand tremendously. I really like the fast-casual space. It’s fun. There are parts of the fine-dining I miss, but I don’t know how conducive those parts are to my life right now.
So I’m looking in the suburbs right now, and I’d love to do a similar concept, but one that’s a little more family friendly. I’d like to roll that out and have multiple locations.
Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About The Author
Grace Dickinson is a staff reporter at Back of House. Prior to joining Back of House, Grace worked as a features and service reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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