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Taking the leap

Jason Soloway and his quest for a culinary community

by David Silverberg

It’s now or never. That’s what a little voice inside his head said to Jason Soloway, BA’95, MA’99, approaching his 40th birthday. It’s now or never to move on from being a vice-president at New York’s Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and to dive headfirst into running restaurants, something Soloway wanted to accomplish before it was too late.

“I had kicked around the idea for a couple of years, and I wasn’t sure how to make the leap,” he said.

Soloway, now 43, decided to make the transition at age 39 by enrolling in New York’s Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), focusing on culinary management. “I saw it as a way to build relationships and strengthen my connections in the industry,” he remembered. “And there was a sense of relief of not having this internal conversation anymore of will I, won’t I. I just went for it.”

Going for it has given Soloway the kind of success he was striving to achieve. He owns two restaurants in New York, Wallflower in the West Village and The Eddy in the East Village. While at ICE, he became a partner in a neighbourhood bar, called Mother’s Ruin, in which he is still partner today. To say Soloway is immensely busy with his ‘restos’ is an understatement.

Responsible for overseeing how each restaurant operates and markets itself, Soloway stressed the importance of consistency at his venues. “Especially for our kinds of places with regular customers, where we change menus and drinks at both places, we have to maintain a consistent quality level.” And that comes down to hiring the best staff, he added.

“It’s an alchemy of their resume, interview, references and observing them in action. If they pass the first three, I invite them in for a ‘trial’ shift,” he said. He also tends to question applicants with ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

Soloway said, “If they respond, ‘I want to own a restaurant one day’ with a sparkle in their eye, and start to describe it in painstaking detail, that tells me they have the fire in their belly and are a little mad. These are all qualities I consider desirable in the restaurant industry.”

His restaurants have received highly favourable reviews from critics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and The New York Michelin Guide and other leading industry publications, as well as on sites like Yelp and OpenTable, but Soloway feels the shiniest glow of pride when industry folks keep coming back. “To get a nice following of chefs and cocktail industry insiders – that’s when you know you’re doing something right.”

What Soloway hopes to create with his restaurants is making these spots feel like home. “There are millions of people in New York City,” he said, “and despite all that, they are looking for a sense of belonging, of community. And bringing that community feeling to my restaurants comes from my days of doing something similar at Bronfman.”

While managing the many branches of this charitable tree, Soloway said the work “wasn’t chequebook philanthropy; we were looking for a social return on investment.” In his 10 years there, Soloway understood the need for “people to buy in from different communities, and they got more involved when following their dollars.”

It’s not much different at Wallflower and The Eddy, Soloway noted. Patrons want top-notch customer service, they want to feel welcome. Those values are so ingrained at these restaurants that Soloway ensures the bar is front and centre in the space, and when customers first walk in, if the host and manager don’t greet them, bartenders are asked to welcome them “to get the experience started on the right foot.”

That community feeling goes back to his days at Western. Soloway was following the footsteps of his father, who graduated from Western with a law degree, and his sisters, aunt and several cousins who also graduated from the school. “I felt a strong connection to Western thanks to that history,” he said.

Another aspect of London life also stuck with Soloway. “The craft beer movement was starting to take off (when I was at Western) and would usually be served in pubs with a warm, welcoming and homey environment. That sort of vibe always speaks to me and is something that I try to inculcate in my restaurants.”

He remembered the overflowing passion of several teachers at Western, such as when he took classes with professor Madeline Lennon who taught him Western Literature. “She was a god in the arts world, and I loved how much she appreciated the arts,” Soloway said.

Looking ahead, Soloway would one day like to launch a restaurant in Toronto. “It may seem counterintuitive, but I find the prospect of opening a restaurant in my home town, in full view of friends and family, far more daunting than it was to open in NYC. That said, I’m open to the idea and one day, hope to make it a reality,” he said.

Soloway is looking forward to parenthood. His wife Lauren gave birth in March and Soloway welcomes the challenge. “I anticipate this will be much harder than running two restaurants in NYC. Bring it on.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Alumni Gazette
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