by Len Lear
When Michael Dombkoski, who has lived in Glenside with his wife for 21 years (they have three children), was a business major at Villanova University in the early 1980s, he did not really plan to go into the restaurant and hotel industry. But Michael, now 53, took a job as a bartender at the Four Seasons Hotel strictly as a way of earning money for tuition and books.
“I wound up loving the job,” said Dombkoski, “and working for such a high-class company as the Four Seasons spoils you, so I stayed there even after I graduated from Villanova. They sent me to the Inn on the Park in London for training. What could be better than that?”
Michael eventually became manager of food and beverage for the Four Seasons’ elegant Swann Lounge; he was also a labor-and-systems analyst, night manager of the rooms division and eventually the chief concierge. Most hotel guests think of the concierge as a person who gets theater tickets and restaurant reservations for them, but a concierge may also be asked for a totally unpredictable array of personal services.
“You never know what the next day will bring,” said Dombkoski. “For example, Joan Rivers’ husband, Edgar, checked into the hotel one day and then committed suicide in his room. It was my job to Fed Ex all his belongings to the West Coast.
“On another occasion, a fashion designer asked me to ship his entire line to Canada for a fashion show. It was a tremendous amount of work, and we got stuck at Customs, which made it quite a hassle, but guests are paying a lot of money to stay at the Four Seasons, so you learn to deal with their requests.”
In 1990 Michael became general manager at Taquet restaurant in Wayne and stayed there until 1993, when he became the first non-Asian general manager for Susanna Foo’s nationally known, eponymous restaurant on Walnut Street neat 15th. (It later moved to Radnor.)
In October of 1998, Michael left Susanna Foo to fulfill the dream of so many employees in the restaurant industry. Two months later he opened his own restaurant, ¡Pasión!, at 211 S. 15th St. with partner/chef Guillermo Pernot, who had been named “One of America’s Top 10 New Chefs” by Food & Wine magazine that year when he was at Vega Grill in Manayunk. (A native of Argentina, Pernot started his career as a busboy at the old Fiddler restaurant.)
The following year Esquire magazine named Pernot “Chef of the Year,” stating that ¡Pasión! was “perhaps the best exemplar of Nuevo Latino food in America … Pernot’s ceviches are the very best I’ve ever tasted.”
In 2002 the 55-seat restaurant, which was usually packed every night, was doubled in size when Dombkoski and Pernot took over the adjacent property, an eyeglass store, and embarked on an eye-OK renovation.
The restaurant continued to thrive, but in 2007 it closed, not because it was not doing enough business but because the landlord doubled the rent when the lease was up. (This is not an uncommon scenario. Restaurateurs make a property valuable because of their hard work and success, and the landlord then exploits that success by doubling the rent.)
Dombkoski had no choice but to move on. Thanks to his stellar reputation in the business, he was brought in to be managing partner of the Chelsea Hotel, which was just about to open in Atlantic City. It was Stephen Starr’s first hotel property, but Starr got out of it after a few years.
After one year Michael came back to Philly, did some consulting and then became a managing partner at the Timberwood Fire Grille in Abington but left after two years. “Partnerships are tough,” he said last week in an obvious understatement.
In 2011 he became general manager of the Wayne Hotel on the Main Line but left after six months to become managing partner with Susanna Foo in her Radnor restaurant. That position also lasted about six months.
Today Michael is general manager of a.kitchen and bar at 135 S. 18th St., just off Rittenhouse Square, an upscale gastronomic landmark that was recently taken over by Ellen Yin, owner of Fork, and her executive chef at Fork, Eli Kulp, one of the finest young chefs in the Delaware Valley if not the country.
So what is the peripatetic Dombkoski’s take on the restaurant business, which is so intriguing to people who frequently visit restaurants and/or who watch the endless series of food- and restaurant-related TV shows? “The restaurant business appears glamorous, but there is a lot of hard work behind it,” he responded. “Hotels are even harder because they serve three meals a day, seven days a week. You don’t get to spend much time with your family when you’re in this business. When everyone else is out having fun on nights, weekends and holidays, you are working.
“People come to restaurants to escape from the problems of real life. If you are going to have a career in this business, you have to really enjoy hospitality and get great satisfaction from helping customers to have a great experience. That is our reward.”
For more information about a.kitchen, which recently got a three-bell review from Craig LaBan in the Philadelphia Inquirer, visit www.akitchenandbar.com or call 215-825-7030.