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

YOUNG AND EAGER Michael Solomonov was another chef making his way through the best of Philly kitchens — he had stints at Neil Stein’s Striped Bass and Avenue B, then eventually rose, at age 23, to sous-chef at Vetri, that coveted position where, once you get it, you know what’s next: You move on. As Solomonov was coming to the end of his tenure at Vetri, he reconnected with a childhood friend from Pittsburgh — Shira Rudavsky, Steve Cook’s new bride.
As far as first dates go, this was a match made in heaven: Solomonov needed a restaurant, and Cook needed a chef. When Solomonov took over as head chef at Marigold Kitchen in September 2005, a relieved Steve Cook looked back and knew he had made a good run: His year as chef/owner had built a loyal following, and there was buzz about this tiny West Philly BYO that was turning out creative and refined fare, crafting chicken livers into delicate croquettes and roasting lamb shanks for eight hours. In what was becoming typical Cook fashion, he didn’t simply drop the title “chef” from “chef/owner”; instead, he packed up his knives and went home.
A month later, Cook still hadn’t returned to work at Marigold, had barely even stepped foot in his restaurant. At first, he rationalized that his absence was a good thing. Project-oriented Cook had created this enterprise and seen it to fruition, and now it would run with or without him. Success! Solomonov was garnering much praise, most notably for adding his own touches — inspired by his birth country, Israel — to the menu and decor. Cook actually liked that; letting Solomonov try things his way was something he wanted to support. This is not your father’s restaurant owner.
But there was a downside: Cook didn’t know what to do. “My default assumption,” he says, “was that I wasn’t going to be in that business anymore. It wasn’t a gold mine. It was barely breaking even.”
He wasn’t giving up on restaurants, though — just shifting positions. Two  months into his sabbatical, he started revisiting his restaurant. And he started looking at the books, something he had pretty much disengaged from altogether.  He dusted off his New York finance skills to run the business side; he also helped out Solomonov — ostensibly his employee — in any way he could. Steve Cook was introducing himself to, well, himself.
At this point, Marigold was really more identified with Solomonov than with Cook. No matter: Sharing responsibility with Solomonov, an energetic guy who has grandiose visions (see the inside of Zahav, which he wanted to look like an outdoor plaza), was less like work than a challenging experiment, a constant What next?
In 2006, Solomonov started helping Dionicio Jimenez, whom he’d worked with at Vetri, to open his own place. Really, Solomonov was paying it forward: Jimenez had a vision of what Mexican cuisine could be in this city; Solomonov believed Jimenez would make it happen. As Cook sat in a meeting with a real estate friend, Solomonov and Jimenez, he knew he had to get involved. He didn’t know anything about Mexican food, but that didn’t matter. This guy was going somewhere. In January of 2007, Steve Cook — with Solomonov and Jimenez as partners — opened Xochitl, his second restaurant.