Photo: The Fireplace
Jim Solomon has always dreamt about food. His dreams lead him away from Wall Street and into the kitchen. That was 15 years ago. Now he’s a renowned restaurant owner and chef. Jim’s award winning restaurant, The Fireplace, is just minutes from Boston in Brookline, MA.
But none of this would be possible, he says, if he hadn’t spent time learning lessons on The Street.
We sat down with him to get the full story on his remarkable transition, because Wall Street, as you know, can be a difficult place to leave.
Jim's stories about banking and eating began in college, at a time when he could enjoy both interests.
One of his favourite memories from college was 'wings, beers and Letterman' with his fraternity brothers. He would fry-up five pound bags of wings and would coat them with his own secret sauce.
Following Jim's sophomore year of college, he landed a spot in Goldman's fixed income training program in New York. He then spent the term after his summer internship studying abroad in York, U.K. and was able to work part time in Goldman's London office.
The unique way that Jim goes about getting things done was partly shaped by his time on Wall Street. When he was an intern at Goldman Sachs, the company had a policy that granted interns $50/day to eat and get drinks with senior employees. He would meet with as many people as possible and would even schedule breakfast dates if someone couldn't meet for lunch or dinner. Since Jim got to know so many people, he was known as the Mayor.
Prior to Jim's senior year, he interned with Goldmans' equity sales program in New York.
He had loved his time abroad during his junior year so much, that he decided to spend a term abroad in Tokyo during the fall of his senior year. He was also able to work part time in Goldman's Tokyo office, during a time when the Japanese credit market of the 1980s was nearing its peak.
From his time at Goldman in Tokyo and New York, he was curious about the cultural and market barriers which prevented Japanese investment banks from fully expanding in the U.S. and about the American banks which had failed to expand their presence in Japanese markets. With his extensive connections in Tokyo and New York, he was able to interview employees of both Goldman and Nomura Securities in both New York and Tokyo.
He even snuck into the Japanese Ministry of International Trade & Industry to meet a Japanese official.
Jim went to the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry in Tokyo to interview a Japanese official. He needed to get past the front gate guard, so he recalled that the Japanese have great respect for authority. He then held his chin high and saluted the security guard who was too intimidated to ask for identification and he walked right into the courtyard.
Next, he pretended like he was delivering paper and snuck into the building through a bulkhead. Once inside, he picked a random floor while on the elevator and discovered a room labelled 'Foreign Markets Bureau'.
The officials were so impressed by how he snuck in, that they offered to sit down for an interview.
Jim had met a woman who worked at Citi in New York during his senior year. He maintained the relationship with his contact to the brink of annoyance and was scheduled an interview. After college, he entered Citi's corporate finance training program.
While in Citi's training program, he studied day and night from Fabozzi's Handbook of Fixed Income Securities to prepare for weekly tests and four hour monthly exams. Whenever Jim's mind would wonder during training, food was usually the topic of thought.
One day while riding the MTA to Citi's 399 Park Ave office, he saw one of his fellow trainees reading Leo Tolstoy's 1869 Russian novel, Love and Peace. Jim said that at that moment he realised that while some of his fellow trainees were able to still make time for their hobbies, like literature, he could not. He was missing out on his real passion, cooking.
He left his job at Citi on October 16, 1987. On the 19th of October 1987, the markets crashed -- the infamous Black Monday of 1987.
At the time, the restaurant business in New York was dramatically changing. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 decreased the demand for high end restaurants because the rules for deducting meals, entertainment and travel expenses had significantly changed. Jim wanted to create a recession-proof middle market restaurant.
Using the financial skills he gained from Wall Street, Jim was able to analyse hot up and coming middle market restaurants. Since he went to high school in Chicago, he had a liking for Uno Chicago Grill, which only had 13 locations at the time and was looking to expand to New York. He approved of Uno's financials and believed that the restaurant had a strong business model, so he applied for a management position in New York.
Jim brought a copy of John Steinbeck's novel, East of Eden, to the interview. He had read the book years before and it was the only book that he'd truly read since high school. When asked about the massive book by the interviewer, Jim simply said that he likes to read a book a week. Jim's white lie made him standout from the other managers who had far more experience and he was gladly offered the job.
Jim worked at several different Uno's restaurants throughout New York as the brand expanded. While at Uno's for over two years, he learned about restaurant marketing and operations. He knew that he needed to thoroughly learn about the restaurant business before he could step into his own kitchen.
And the skill he used to do that started getting him attention from people in the upper echelons of the industry.
While at Uno's, Jim attended night classes at the New School, learning from Joe Baum, the man who created the world famous restaurants Windows on the World, The Four Seasons Restaurant and The Rainbow Room. Jim wrote one of the best restaurant investor pitches, and Joe Baum loved it so much that he began to wine and dine Jim for a job.
Jim didn't take a job from Joe Baum. Instead, he decided to pay celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme a visit at his new restaurant in New York. He and his friends decided to make a statement at Prudhomme's restaurant. They ordered everything off of the menu, hoping that Prudhomme would pay them a visit. Prudhomme visited their table and Jim critiqued the chef's swordfish. Jim's culinary knowledge and quick wits impressed the chef, and Jim was offered a job in the kitchen.
Jim received his MBA from the University of Michigan. While in school, he created a business model for his future restaurant, The Fireplace. His restaurant business plan was so good that he qualified as a finalist for the business school's pitch competition.
After business school, Jim returned to Boston in 1992, the city which he knew best. He was waiting tables trying to earn enough money to buy a computer and was writing restaurant pitch letters between his lunch and dinner shifts. One day while walking to mail a letter to a possible investor, he was hit by a car going down the wrong way on a one way street.
Jim would suffer through nearly a decade of painful spine issues and several debilitating surgeries.
Jim had used his business model pitching and networking skills from Wall Street to find investors to finance his dream project.
Jim needed an emergency spine surgery a few days before the scheduled opening. But, a few days after surgery, he decided to trust his staff and to open his restaurant. Within the first week, there were lines out the door. 18 months after opening, Jim had a staph infection from his surgery and needed surgery to prevent him from becoming paralysed. He would miss another year of work.
Because he had five surgeries on his spine, today Jim does not cook. He now writes menus, supervises and does the marketing for his restaurant. He only cooks for charity events, but his presence is still strongly felt in the kitchen.
Award of Excellence 2011, 2009, 2008, 2007 - Wine Spectator
Most Romantic in Boston - 2009 - Top of the Heights
Most Authentic New England Cuisine in Boston 2008 - The Boston Globe
Coziest Restaurant 2007 - Boston Magazine
Click here for the full list of awards.