Business: A Starr Is Born?

By ·

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[1]. Though Cook was Marigold’s owner, the demands of his just-opened second restaurant — Xochitl[2] (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[3], 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.
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[4] 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.
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[5] 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.
 
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.
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.
IT SEEMS TO come naturally to Cook: “If I had the money, we’ve got lots of ideas of things we want to do, and lots of people who I think can do it. I’d rather create the opportunity than create the opportunity for people to leave.” That’s why he and Solomonov asked Marigold sous-chef Erin O’Shea if she was up to running the restaurant after Solomonov left for Zahav — encouraging her to add her own twist, of course. Marigold, now in its third incarnation, with O’Shea as head chef, has a Southern-focused menu (think pork, peaches and grits) and was again lauded by LaBan. Ordinarily, when restaurants reinvent themselves, it’s a sign of desperation, but with Marigold and Cook, it’s a sign of new life.
 
For Cook, what he’s after boils down to something very simple: food that’s meant to be taken seriously, presented in an environment meant to keep everyone — customers and employees — at ease. Consider Zahav: It’s far from schlumpy or uncool, despite Zahav’s unexpected loyal clientele: senior suburban Jews who schlepp to the city to kvell over the familiar flavors of Solomonov’s Sephardic-leaning fare. One table sings happy birthday in Hebrew. Another is feasting on a kosher meal that Solomonov has specially prepared. These diners look small and out of place in the oversized booths, but couldn’t feel more at home. Eventually, as the night gets darker, glamorous Society Hill couples and die-hard foodies fill the space. It’s a brave new food world.

E-MAIL: aprimis@phillymag.com

 

Endnotes:
  1. Marigold Kitchen: /restaurants/detail/marigold_kitchen
  2. Xochitl: /restaurants/detail/xochitl
  3. Zahav: /restaurants/detail/zahav
  4. Vetri: /restaurants/detail/vetri
  5. Twenty Manning: /restaurants/detail/20_manning

Source URL: https://www.phillymag.com/news/2008/10/21/business-a-starr-is-born/