Business: A Starr Is Born?
HE PREFERS IT that way. Every restaurant needs a face, Cook believes, and he’s more than happy when it’s not his, which goes a long way to explaining why he has so easily made the leaps to create them in the first place: They’re collaborative enterprises, not monuments to Cook’s ego. They’re not about him. Cook’s biggest skill, in fact, might be finding partners — and to some extent, he looks at everyone who works in his restaurants as buying into the experience of it. It makes him more like a social worker than a restaurant owner. Which in turn creates an atmosphere within his places that’s part of a changing dining experience in Philadelphia.
Marc Vetri started it. At his namesake restaurant, he invests in his employees’ — and really, this city’s — culinary success by encouraging, rather than competing with, fresh talent. The coveted sous-chef position at Vetri comes with a rule: It’s at most a three-year gig; then you’re out on your own. What seems harsh is actually a Marc Vetri rite of passage, one that declares you ready for your own place, because you aren’t moving forward by staying there.
The point is to flourish without being competitive or nasty or controlling. The contrast this casts to the way Georges Perrier operates is clear-cut. Decades of culinary talent have come through the doors of his restaurants, yet it wasn’t until the opening of Mia in 2005 that he finally shared his spotlight, with Chris Scarduzio. And you’ll almost never see a former chef for Stephen Starr credit the restaurateur for having helped bring his or her dreams to life. Hell, you don’t even know half the Starr chefs’ names.
That’s what Vetri, and now Steve Cook, is changing. And if risk is inherent in opening a new restaurant, changing the culture of how restaurants are run only dials it up more. But Cook has a curious take on risk.
He went to Wharton and then to work in investment banking in New York. It was a natural path: His father was a rabbi, leading affluent congregations in Miami and Detroit — growing up, Cook was well aware of what he didn’t have. But after six years, investment banking began to seem empty to him.
Cook took a leave of absence, traveled around Spain for five months, and then came back to New York and enrolled in night classes at the French Culinary Institute, while still banking during the day. He’d always been passionate about food.