At 36, Yehuda Sichel has become a sort of celebrity chef…at least in Philadelphia.
For a decade, he worked at CookNSolo Restaurants, including a stint as executive chef at the well-known Jewish restaurant Abe Fisher. Then he appeared on a season 26 episode of “Beat Bobby Flay,” defeating the show’s namesake in a matzah ball soup competition in the final round.
Finally, in September 2020 Sichel opened a restaurant called Huda, a fast-casual sandwich shop on South 18th Street known for its “signature homemade milk buns,” per its website. Upon its grand opening, Huda got attention from the Jewish Exponent and several other media outlets like PhillyVoice and the Philadelphia Business Journal.
When asked if the sandwich shop has navigated its way through COVID to achieve profitability, Sichel answered, “I’m still here.” Then he mentioned that he has eight more years on his lease.
The local celebrity chef has made it, you might say. But where did he come from?
Sichel’s Judaism is a part of his public identity. He worked at Abe Fisher and faced Flay in a matzah ball soup competition.
And that part of his identity is rooted in his childhood. Sichel grew up in an Orthodox home and community in this Baltimore suburb north of the Charm City.
The chef described his upbringing as “pretty hardcore.” Sichel and his five siblings observed the Sabbath and kept kosher. They went to Orthodox schools and primarily associated with other Orthodox people in Pikesville.
“You knew you had a strong social fabric to fall back on,” Sichel said. “But there was also a lot of pressure to sort of do the thing. Being Orthodox.”
But when he reached his teenage years, Sichel realized that he didn’t have to do the thing.
At 15, he got a job at The Brasserie, a kosher deli in Baltimore. As Sichel told the Exponent in an August 2020 article about the opening of Huda, the popular deli got him into making food. It was where he discovered the love for sandwiches that would eventually lead to his first independent venture.
As the chef explained more recently, making big pastrami, corned beef and brisket sandwiches, and making them for neighborhood regulars who expected perfection every time, taught him the craft.
“You really need to balance it. If you put a little too much sauce that will mess up the whole sandwich,” he said. “Whereas in a dish, you’d just have a little extra sauce in the dish.”
At the same time, the experience got him out of his Orthodox world even though he was technically still in it. The deli may have been kosher, but most of its employees were not Jewish. Sichel also was judged not for his commitment to his community but on the quality of his food.
He liked it all and wanted more.
“It got me to work hard, be out in the world and socialize,” he said. “Growing up Orthodox can take a toll on your social skills. Same friends, same family friends. You’re not really hanging out with people from the outside.”
The up-and-coming chef and future slayer of Flay worked in the deli full time and took courses toward his GED at night. He also stopped keeping kosher and started exploring restaurants to taste different foods. After earning the GED, Sichel left for culinary school in Israel.
His family supported the move, he said.
“They were happy that I was finding my way,” the chef added. “I figured it was time to go.”
After culinary school, Sichel faced another crossroads. He couldn’t really go back to Baltimore because he felt there wasn’t enough going on in the culinary scene. So instead, he chose Philadelphia, and, while he never really made sandwiches during his years at CookNSolo, he also never stopped making them for himself and eating them in his spare time.
Then, as he explained to the Exponent in 2020, he started baking bread during quarantine and thinking about a new idea: adding gourmet sandwiches to the hoagie and cheesesteak-defined sandwich scene. His 18th and Chestnut location is a prime spot in the city, so it sees a lot more foot traffic than his old deli in a Baltimore shopping center.
But there is one similarity, he says.
“We got the best sandwiches in town.”
Sichel is a married father of two who lives in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He is still not Orthodox and, while he does not belong to a synagogue, either, he does practice Judaism “a little,” he said.
“Maybe next year for the High Holidays,” he said. JE