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

A CULINARY DEGREE in hand, Cook came back to Philly. At age 28, years after most entry-level line cooks start to climb up the food chain, he landed his first kitchen job, at Rittenhouse’s Twenty Manning with chef Kiong Banh. A year later, he moved to Salt, the short-lived but highly acclaimed restaurant just steps from Twenty Manning. Chef Vernon Morales put him on morning prep — he wasn’t quite ready for the line there. Cook had the small basement kitchen all to himself in the quiet early-morning hours; he would make stocks, soups and sauces, learning the basics of how a kitchen worked from the ground up. Morales’s style was polished and experimental — Salt was more avant-garde than standby Twenty Manning — and more in tune with what Cook felt he wanted to learn.
Two years. That’s all the time Steve Cook spent cooking in restaurants before he was ready to open his own. And it took him all of four months to get Marigold up and running in 2004, serving sophisticated New American cuisine.
Marigold was, and still is, a challenge. First, it’s BYO. Without a liquor license, a restaurant just doesn’t make big money. Next, it’s in West Philly — on the bleak blocks that make up the other side of University City. What’s more, in that first year, Steve Cook was both the chef and the owner (not to mention really inexperienced), a one-man show that even the most superhero entrepreneurs can barely pull off. Managing people is hard enough when you don’t have seasonal menus to write, guests to appease, bills to pay.
Cook describes that first year as simply “lonely.” Which is an odd word for a time when he had just gotten engaged, but he’d only get a glimpse of his soon-to-be bride, Shira Rudavsky, when she would stop by the restaurant after work, before the first guest took a table. And that time was hardly quality, because prepping for the dinner service was what was really on Cook’s mind. If not for the promise of a future, he isn’t sure Shira would have stayed with him. She would be asleep when he finally got home; when he woke, she’d be gone, off to her job as a teacher. But they made it to each Sunday, when Marigold was closed.
Yet the real reason he decided to leave the kitchen — for good — wasn’t because of the hours or his marriage or stress. It was the monotony; that’s why Marigold was never going to be his final stop. “To be a great chef, you need to love repetition,” Cook says. “No one cares that you made the perfect sauce yesterday. You have to do it well every day.”
Cook had about a million other ideas about restaurants and food and his future. He just couldn’t see them through, stuck behind a stove, repeating yesterday.