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

XOCHITL HAD A prime location on the Society Hill side of South Street, in Headhouse Square, and a liquor license, and it was popular from the beginning — a very different venture from Marigold. It, too, was housed in a quirky building, but it had a large bar, an innovative drink list, guacamole made tableside, and a subterranean lounge with the occasional DJ.
It took about a year to get Xochitl fully up and running, but only months later, Philly food fanatics got word that Cook and Solomonov were at it again. Solomonov had a strong concept, Israeli food, and that was good enough for Cook. This time they’d go bigger, more polished, and they could: The budget for each restaurant has doubled that of the previous one, and the percentage of outside money has increased similarly. Like Xochitl, the new spot had to have a liquor license. The concept of Israeli food was curious and fresh in a saturated food scene — no small feat. They were going to staff the restaurant with people like them, people who could grow, who’d have their own sense of ownership. To prove the point, Cook and Solomonov took some of the starting staff to Israel. They wanted their employees to taste the food, to really feel what they were going for, so that the customers — in turn — would sense true passion, not some memorized-that-morning list of specials. So bartenders can confirm that the Lemonnana — a mix of lemon juice, verbena, bourbon and mint — has true Israeli flavor, and managers can explain what the soil in the wine region in the Golan Heights is really like.
This is Steve Cook’s largest investment: people. Life in a restaurant kitchen is often compared to the military. There are strict rules to follow, hierarchies to abide by. Soft-spoken Cook, who rules by respect, not fear, compares it to something else he knows: the banking world. “I’ve worked in places that are similar in the way the senior people treat the junior people,” he says. “You avoid a lot of that by just picking the right people. We have, I think, done a really good job at that.”
“The perception that chefs need to be miserable, to have terrible social lives and probably a drug or alcohol problem, is out the door,” Solomonov says. “It’s really primitive, and a terrible attitude. I don’t want to be that dude, stressing out all the time.” Treating employees well is, in other words, good business. Jilian Nonemacher agrees. She started as a manager at Xochitl and is now operations manager for all of Cook’s establishments, a position he created for her. “He comes to us with problems and values our feedback,” she says. And he actually tries her ideas.