Business: A Starr Is Born?

He could be as hyped as Stephen Starr, but Steve Cook — who’s opened three great new restaurants in the past four years — is too busy to care about that

On Friday afternoons in early 2007, Steve Cook would head across town from Society Hill to West Philly to catch up with Michael Solomonov, his chef at Marigold Kitchen. Though Cook was Marigold’s owner, the demands of his just-opened second restaurant — Xochitl (pronounced “So-Cheet”), in Headhouse Square — meant he was mostly absent from Marigold. But 4 p.m. on Friday afternoons, before the weekend dinner rush, was the unofficial meeting time for Cook and Solomonov. Even now, in January, the duo liked talking in the tiny, protected alleyway off the kitchen door. It was private and bracingly cold, a nice reprieve from the loud, hot kitchen despite the strewn cigarette butts from cook breaks and the recycling bins.
As a co-investor in Xochitl, Solomonov relied on these Friday meetings to bring him up to speed; his head-chef responsibilities at Marigold often took him out of the action. On this particular afternoon, Cook was lighthearted, ready for the weekend, and had only good news to report. Which is when the pair locked eyes and started to laugh. They were thinking about the same crazy thing: their next restaurant. Cook felt that Solomonov deserved his own stage, something they had discussed earlier but decided to table until the dust of Xochitl had settled. Now Xochitl had been open for all of seven days.
Anybody who’s been in the business knows how insane this was. Restaurants are notoriously difficult, time-consuming projects to get up and running. They require major nursing into health. Overwhelmingly, they fail. Which is why Cook and Solomonov were laughing. They knew they were nuts. And they knew they’d forge ahead with another restaurant anyway. This is the way Steve Cook operates.
By this point, you’ve most likely heard something about at least one of his three places. The restaurants and their respective chefs have been the subjects of pieces in Food & Wine, Gourmet, Bon Appétit and the New York Times. Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan has blessed Marigold (twice) and Xochitl with three-bell reviews; the Times profiled Dionicio Jimenez, co-owner and head chef at Xochitl, as one of the few Mexicans to rise from dishwasher to executive chef; perhaps you’ve read, as well, that Michael Solomonov, former chef of Marigold, is now helming the kitchen at Zahav, that third restaurant brainstormed on that January day. What you almost certainly don’t know is that 35-year old Steve Cook is behind all of these.