he story usually starts like this: A brilliant chef is poised on the edge of a new opening, a new risk, a new shot at success. They've spent their whole life hustling in kitchens and watching famous chefs on TV, and now after changing the face of Cincinnati or San Francisco or Philadelphia, they're ready to change the way America eats.
But that well worn plotline, as good as it sounds, isn't the whole story. At the center of many restaurant groups is not a single mastermind, but two. The star chef often has a co-creator just as important to the business' success but with a far lower profile. If you take a minute to think about it, it's obvious a successful chef-owner is rarely acting alone. Owning a restaurant, let alone several, is nearly impossible to navigate by yourself, and though it often looks like the chef is a solo artist, they're not.
Owning a restaurant group is nearly impossible to navigate by yourself, and though it often looks like the chef is a solo artist, they're not.
It's essential to understand these overlooked partners to really grasp their restaurants, but their importance muddies the story of a chef-hero, who cooks and yells and gets things done. So when the story of great restaurant is told, the partner is usually left on the cutting room floor. Conveniently, the best partners to well-known chefs shed their egos and do their vital and fascinating work without becoming celebrities themselves. Glossing over them leaves aspiring restaurateurs thinking the only way to get into the business is through the kitchen door.
With his usual optimism, chef Michael Solomonov dusted pita dough down with plenty of flour and placed it gingerly in the maw of a large machine whose outline resembles R2D2. Usually, all of his restaurant group's pitas are made by hand; this machine, called a dough divider and rounder, was an experiment. When he flipped the switch, sticky white dough oozed everywhere, over the countertop and onto the gleaming linoleum floor, as a floury cloud dispersed.
"Well, that didn't work," said Steve Cook, Solomonov's business partner. It was his idea to give this thing a try.
Normally, this dough divider sandwiches a large batch of dough between two heavy plates, so it can be cut and shaped, cleanly and uniformly, into smaller portions. Impressive machinery, but it destroyed the finicky dough that becomes the duo's pita and laffa bread. Adding flour to the recipe might have allowed the machine to work as intended, but the bread dough is too important to tweak for the sake of convenience. It is, after all, a foundation of their business: This flatbread is served at Zahav, their award-winning Israeli fine-dining spot, and Dizengoff, a casual hummusiya, two of the eight restaurants under the umbrella of the hospitality group Solomonov and Cook co-own in Philadelphia.
Those fresh and fluffy pitas, perfect for scooping up bowls of satiny hummus, are made using a dough so sticky it resists mass production. This is a problem, because when Dizengoff's second location opens in a few weeks in New York City's frenetic Chelsea Market, they're going to need a lot of pita, more than 1,000 a day by Cook's estimate. That's twice as many as the Philadelphia location goes through on its busiest day, and the New York pitas will need to be made without the kind of close supervision Cook and Solomonov are used to having over their team. As a stopgap, they've moved Dizengoff's head chef, Emily Seaman, to the Chelsea Market location to keep the pita (and the rest of the menu) up to their standards.
Tackling the question of pita in Chelsea Market is one of hundreds of decisions Cook and Solomonov make together every week. It helps that in Philadelphia, almost of all of their employees work in a roughly one-mile radius of each other. Cook ping-pongs between locations daily, traveling primarily on foot. On any given day, he might start off with a meeting at his architecture firm about a new yet-to-be-named falafel concept. Next, he might attend a staff meeting at Cook and Solo's barbecue joint, Percy Street, and consult with partner and chef Erin O'Shea about whether the combo plate should be preceded by an amuse bouche. Many afternoons he is glued to his computer, poring over the restaurant's reservations for that night, and responding to Yelpers who think Zahav's food is too salty. Through it all, he takes frequent urgent phone calls to deal with stalled lease negotiations, construction snags, permit problems, and staff meltdowns. And then early in the morning, he starts all over again.
"When Steve wakes up in the middle of the night, like at 3 a.m., he goes online to check Shift Note, our managers' log system," says Solomonov. There's always an issue — perhaps the freezer at Zahav broke and all the sorbet melted, or there was a particularly unhappy table of four at Abe Fisher. "I don't think he goes back to sleep after that." Instead he takes to his laptop and applies his usual methodical approach to solving the problem, making it right before anyone else gets out of bed.
Steve Cook is not a secret; it's more like he's hidden in plain sight. The hospitality group behind Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, Percy Street Barbecue, and Zahav is called Cook And Solo; Cook's name is even first. But while Mike Solomonov's story is well known, Steve Cook's is not. He's one of many hard-working restaurant partners for whom that's the case.
ike Solomonov and Steve Cook didn't invent the model of two people co-owning a hospitality group. In the restaurant world, partnerships have always been valuable for financial and creative reasons. And at least during this cultural moment, the chef is much better known than the other partner. Mario Batali runs his empire with Joe Bastianich; both men enjoy a level of fame, but only one can be recognized solely by his iconic orange clogs. Grant Achatz partnered with Nick Kokonas to open Alinea; While Kokonas gets plenty of press for his revolutionary new ticketing service, Tock, Achatz has been on Oprah. Bobby Flay's TV presence is so ubiquitous many people no longer even remember he's a restaurateur, but he still is, along with his near-invisible partner Laurence Kretchmer.
These roles are so behind-the-scenes, even those who might be best suited to fill them have no idea they exist.
These roles are so behind-the-scenes, even those who might be best suited to fill them have no idea they exist. Steve Cook certainly didn't: When he decided to leave banking for the restaurant industry, he started out as a chef, in part because that seemed like his only option. Back in the 90s, Cook was inspired by Mario Batali and Bobby Flay's TV shows and restaurants, but he was unaware of the significant players behind the scenes, the partners who might have been better role models for him.
For example, he could have seen a version of his future in Flay's partner Laurence Kretchmer — if he'd known he was there. Kretchmer doesn't think any diners know he exists, and that is the way he wants it. He focuses on both the growth and financial aspects of the restaurant group, as well as shaping the look and feel of their projects.
Marc Vetri, the celebrated Philadelphia-based chef, also has a collaborator. Jeff Benjamin has been the unsung half of the Vetri Restaurant Group since becoming a partner in 2000, after two years as general manager of Vetri. In fact, he did much of the touchy and complex deal-making that resulted in the group's headline-grabbing sale to Urban Outfitters late last year. Like many partners, though, it's impossible to boil down Benjamin's role to any one job. Hospitality is his career-long passion; he also manages the wine program at Vetri. Industry professionals consider his 2015 book, Front of the House, a new hospitality textbook.
When I called Benjamin about this story, he was happy to hear that someone wanted to write about his often-overlooked friend and colleague Steve Cook. I said I thought it was Steve Cook's turn. "When is it my turn?" Benjamin asked, laughing. "I'm joking!"
I recognize the impulse to boil the story down: Restaurant groups can have a sea of investors and partners, and it's not always easy to convey who is responsible for creating a beloved restaurant beyond the chef. Sometimes adding a character like Benjamin, feels like a digression, rather than an essential part of the story.
've been writing about restaurants in Philadelphia for 10 years and, until recently, I was among the food world obsessives who figured Cook spent his days holed up with a calculator in Zahav's back room. When I reviewed Zahav for Philadelphia Magazine in 2008, I didn't use Cook's name once.
For Cook and Solomonov, the disappearing partner dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that Mike Solomonov is a profoundly charismatic person. "I knew Zahav was going to be something before it even opened. Because of Mike and the way people react to him," says Cook. In my review of Zahav, the one where I never mentioned Cook, I called Solomonov photogenic with "gobs of talent and charisma." He wears dark skinny jeans and graphic t-shirts. He surfs, he boxes, and he leads his staff in daily "planking" sessions. Solomonov is the only person I know who liberally uses "bro" as a term of endearment and never sounds like a cliche. He's just too warm and sincere.
Cook, on the other hand, has soft features and a casual, relaxed-fit kind of wardrobe. He favors polo shirts, V-neck sweaters, and Vans. He looks like a dad, a grownup who is comfortable with himself. He doesn't talk a lot, but when he does open his mouth his words will likely have a funny, sharp edge. "He seems to be happiest surrounded by loudmouths," says Amy Henderson, Cook and Solo's director of operations.
It wasn't until 2014, when I worked as recipe editor with both Solomonov and Cook on their new cookbook, that I started to understand that Cook is involved in every aspect of their restaurants. At the time I worked with them, Cook and Solomonov were in the menu planning stages for a new fine dining restaurant, Abe Fisher. One day, a plate of sweet and sour meatballs in the R&D stage wasn't coming together, and the other chefs seemed stumped. Cook suggested adding, improbably, Boursin cheese, a staple of his childhood. Enriched with a spoonful of this unlikely ingredient, the sauce tasted finished at last.
It wasn't an isolated incident; Cook collaborates with Solomonov on the food all the time. I once spent a long car ride listening to the partners brainstorm for a falafel restaurant they are working on. Amongst the ideas they hatched: dairy-free milkshakes based on tehina. Together, they riffed on flavor combinations and how the chickpeas might be ground for the falafel.
Culinary daydreaming provided a mental escape hatch for Cook back when he was on Wall Street in his 20s. "Whenever I rode the subway or sat in a waiting room or had any time on my hands, I brainstormed about cooking," he says. And it's cooking, not numbers, that is at the heart of Cook's love for the restaurant industry. He decided to make the leap from banking to the restaurant world when he was on an open-ended vacation at a friend's cottage in Spain, cooking basic meals on a portable camping stove. Even with the simplest ingredients and equipment, cooking brought him pleasure and satisfaction he couldn't ignore any longer. Back in New York, he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute.
After graduating culinary school, Cook moved to Philadelphia, where he worked on the line at a couple of restaurants. When he was ready, he used the money he'd saved while working on Wall Street, as well as some investment money from friends and former bosses, to open his own restaurant. Marigold Kitchen occupied a picturesque Victorian town home in West Philadelphia; in its first year, it earned three "bells" (the equivalent of stars) by the influential Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan, the highest rating LaBan ever gives to a restaurant open for less than a year.
Cook had finally found his true calling and was living his dream. Or so it would have seemed. Within a year, he was burnt out. Going in to prep at 9 a.m. and not getting home until after the restaurant closed meant he hardly ever saw his new fiancé, Shira Rudavsky, a teacher on an almost opposite schedule. He was lonely and he was depressed — even more so than when he was banking. "I didn't know what I was missing, but I didn't have anyone like Mike," he says. "I remember thinking this business is going to kill me."
brief primer on the brutal, tedious reality of owning your own small restaurant: the hours go from mid-morning to midnight and beyond. Countless mundane yet essential tasks fall to the owner, like ordering, invoicing, and inventory-taking. Staffing alone could be a full time job, between recruiting, hiring, and training good employees, and then making sure they all get paid. Menu planning is less an exercise in personal expression than creatively trying to limit food waste, which nibbles into the bottom line of a notoriously low-margin business. And finally, there's the cooking itself. The chef must heft backbreaking stockpots, wield sharp knives and work over open flames. The intensity of cooking is what most chefs like best, but it's still hard, draining work.
That relentless grind done in isolation can wreck even the people who want it most. With no one to bounce decisions off, confidence unravels. You can second-guess your own choices to the point of insanity. When I see young independent chefs try to manage every aspect of their business alone only to watch their restaurants fail, I wonder if it's because they didn't know they were supposed to have a collaborator.
Having a partner doesn't make running a restaurant easy, but it can make it survivable. These arrangements are force multipliers for creativity and stamina.
Having a partner doesn't make running a restaurant easy, but it can make it survivable. When the personalities and chemistry are right, these arrangements are force multipliers for the creativity and stamina of the people in them.
Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, partners in the Border Grill restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and co-stars of the long running cooking show Too Hot Tamales, are one example of what can happen when ambitious women in the industry team up. "Susan allowed me to do this job and take on motherhood at the same time," says Milliken. "Without her, I would have made other choices."
For now, they're one of the few high profile female chef-owner partnerships in the business. They both think the lack of other women duos of their stature is the result of basic math. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only about 20% of chef and head cook jobs in restaurants belong to women. When someone is looking around the restaurant world for models of success, they are still seeing mostly men, though both Milliken and Feniger expect to see more and more women working together in the future.
Restaurant work is intense, and people can bond quickly. If they're very lucky, they'll bond with the right collaborators and everything will click. "It doesn't take long to see what someone is really made of," says Solomonov. In an atmosphere of high pressure and heightened emotions, those relationships can easily implode. But if a partnership survives, the relationship can keep both people's careers growing for decades and allow them to have a life, too.
hile Steve Cook was succeeding professionally but flagging personally at Marigold Kitchen in 2005, Solomonov was sous chef at the acclaimed Vetri. He says, "I couldn't have picked Steve out of a police lineup." (Though, he recalls knowing about Cook; the restaurant community in Philly is small. "People would say to me, You don't know Steve Cook? He's Jewish, too!") But they were much closer together, geographically, than they realized: they were next-door neighbors, in fact.
The two also shared a connection in Cook's now-wife, Rudavsky. She and Solomonov had lived in the same neighborhood in Pittsburgh growing up. Solomonov's mother had been her English teacher. When Cook decided to find a chef to replace him in Marigold's kitchen, she was the one who told him to call Solomonov.
"It was weird for me to walk away from something I had worked so hard to get after only one year," Cook says of hiring Solomonov to replace him. "But it's not like I promoted a dishwasher." Cook knew bringing Solomonov on represented an opportunity — a big one. Solomonov was coming off a stint as sous chef at Vetri, then undisputedly Philadelphia's best restaurant. His move to Marigold generated media coverage and excitement. Plus, the decades-long connection between Solomonov's family and his wife's added up to a great deal of trust.
After Cook hired Solomonov, the two chefs barely saw each other for months. Cook cocooned himself at home to reassess his life — again. He was 32 and had launched two successful careers he grew to hate. He wondered if whatever he might choose to go after next professionally would leave him equally miserable. Did anyone like their job?
One day, without really planning to do so, Cook went to Marigold and sat down at the desk. He was struck by the way Solomonov had conducted business while Cook had been absent, not like an employee, which he was at the time, but like a partner. This was no accident; Solomonov had been preparing for an opportunity like this. On his days off from cooking at Vetri, he shadowed Jeff Benjamin to learn the ins and outs of payroll, insurance, and the other non-culinary parts of the business.
One day around this time, there was a cash flow snafu and a dishwasher couldn't be paid on time. "Mike came to me and said, We can't do things this way," Cook says. "He talked like an owner."
And very soon, he was one. Marigold flourished, and they began to expand. The next year, the pair opened a Mexican restaurant together. Cook learned that he actually liked being a restaurateur with Solomonov at his side.
Their partnership really took off when they worked to open the restaurant that made Solomonov's name, Zahav. While Solomonov's vision was heavily tinged with his attachment to and longing for Israel, Cook could be more analytical. He saw the connection between Israeli small plates known as salatim and mezze and the tapas craze ignited in Philly by Jose Garces' blockbuster debut restaurant, Amada. Given their shared passion for Israeli food and culture, bringing this style of dining to Philadelphia seemed like it had the potential to make their careers.
Originally, the goal was to precisely replicate their beloved Israeli eating experiences. But straitjacketed by a self-imposed focus on authenticity, Zahav foundered in its earliest months. Most diners had not been to Israel, after all, and they failed to connect with the food. It was Cook that freed Zahav from the authenticity trap. "He told me I needed to be creative, to be myself, to be a chef," says Solomonov. This was the push he needed to lean into the idiosyncratic culinary style that would earn him so many accolades, and make him a star.
t's a strange moment in culinary history that the kitchen, once the haven of the socially awkward and straight-up anti-social, is now such a public zone. That pressure for a chef to be seen in the restaurant, to be charismatic and charming and a little bit dangerous, is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the ‘60s, it was the maître d' who served as the public face of a restaurant; being a chef was decidedly blue-collar work. The glamorous image of a celebrity chef, of chef as artist, is still so new that most high profile chefs older than 40 never imagined it would be this way.
"When Marc and I started this 17 years ago, we didn't think for a minute either one of us would be famous," says Jeff Benjamin. Today, when he goes out to eat with his partner, the table is piled with gifts from the kitchen, and they're regularly approached by chefs and fans who want to talk — to Vetri. "But I can go out to dinner with my wife and no one talks to us," says Benjamin. "That can be nice."
"The guy in the chef's whites gets most of the attention, just like the lead singer in a band."
"The guy in the chef's whites gets most of the attention, just like the lead singer in a band," says Nick Kokonas, Grant Achatz's partner in Chicago restaurants Alinea, Next, and The Aviary. "People have a great time at our places and imagine that it is the work of a single individual making them happy — it's a nice fantasy to have." Kokonas says he doesn't feel "overlooked," at all, but he does believe that stories about restaurants should better reflect all of the people, from general managers to dishwashers, who make them possible.
"I love the work and, besides my family, it consumes nearly 100% of my mind space," says Cook. "The trouble for me is that in our industry, the chef is widely considered to be a proxy for all creative activity. There is much that we do together, or that I do, that is often simply attributed to Mike," he says without resentment. He's just stating a fact.
he myth of Solomonov as Zahav's lone resident genius persists to this day. Their new cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, has two authors, Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook. But in the media, the book is often discussed as though it is Solomonov's work alone. Though he's a restaurant partner, Cook functioned more like a traditional co-author. He wrote much of the narrative text and essays in the book in Solomonov's voice, using his 10-year-long relationship with Solomonov to excavate his stories and articulate their shared ideas.
"In some ways I prefer that I got to say the things I wanted to say, but disguised as Mike." He says he's uncomfortable presenting himself as an expert. That would leave him more open to criticism than he likes to be. "In a way, it might have been easier for Mike, too, since [my writing in his voice] put a layer of insulation between the real Mike and his public persona," says Cook.
Cook's reticence extends far beyond the public arena. His own wife and mother routinely Google his name because he cannot be relied on to fill even them in on what is going on with his business. "Once I found out they were opening a new restaurant from talking to Mike's wife," says Shira Rudavsky, Cook's wife.
This modest part his personality also prevents him from being noticed when he accompanies Solomonov to the events he is frequently invited to as a guest chef. Cook goes in the role of sous chef, and often this leaves him deep into Solomonov's shadow.
Cook says little about these slights, but Rudavsky will say a little more. Often the people at events don't realize he is Solomonov's business partner, so they inadvertently treat him like a hired hand while fluffing the red carpet under Solomonov's clogs. "Steve would never say this, but it's the little things that I don't like. Like, Mike will get a gift bag from a host and Steve won't," Rudavsky says.
Cook describes his contributions by saying he feels more like the director in a movie than an actor. "Sometimes people attribute this to humility, which is nice, but I think off the mark," he says. "The reality is that I want credit for my work but often have to remind myself that humility is more important."
And overall, both Solomonov and Cook thrive in their roles, even if few onlookers appreciate the true nature of their teamwork. The strength of their business partnership and the friendship that grew out of it allows them to endure the kind of crises that would end other relationships — and restaurants. In 2008, Solomonov revealed that he had a major problem with drug abuse, one he kept secret from the most important people in his life, including Cook, for years. Despite the fact Solomonov risked everything they'd worked for, Cook supported Solomonov and helped him stick to his recovery. This included small, practical gestures, like driving him from his twelve-step meetings to the restaurant daily, but he was there for his partner in deeper, more essential ways as well.
When a person struggles with drug abuse, it can be difficult for those closest to them to escape anger and resentment. But Cook's devotion to their shared business, and even more so, to Solomonov himself, won out over those dark emotions. "He never once made me feel like a disappointment, like I let him down," says Solomonov, his voice full of emotion. "This is so personal." It's obvious that in his eyes, Cook was central to Solomonov's recovery.
Underneath all the logical reasons of why partnerships are beneficial lies the fact that they can also help people meet their deepest emotional needs. In a business where workers are famously desensitized to pain, heat, ridicule, and angry tirades, the owner/partner bond seems to be the rare place where the macho facade can break, and culinary professionals can find much-needed support. The strongest partnerships become something like family.
o you know the word bashert?" asks Rudavsky when I meet her over coffee to talk about her husband. This question was in response to one I asked her if she takes any credit for bringing Solomonov and Cook into each other's lives, at a time when they most needed to meet. "Bashert means meant to be. That's how it is with Mike and Steve."
When I Iooked up the Yiddish word later, I learned it usually applies to the finding of a soul mate, a spouse, though it can refer to any fortunate event. It reminds me of something from another religious tradition that Flannery O'Connor once wrote in a letter:
"Do you know anything about St. Raphael besides his being an archangel? He leads you to the people you are supposed to meet ... It's a prayer I've said every day for many years."When I ask Solomonov and Cook if they are best friends, they laugh and tell me about how they once ran into an employee in an airport bar while traveling. The employee, tipsy, asked the men the same question. Their attitude about the incident is, Can you believe he would ask us something like that? "What did you tell them?" I ask. Cook is silent. It's Solomonov who speaks: "Yes, of course we're best friends." Then they laugh some more.
The most successful partnerships seem to share this level of closeness. Laurence Kretchmer speaks protectively of Bobby Flay, and mentions that they are best friends several times. Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger tell me that they take their business partnership so seriously they went to therapy together to strengthen it. Kokonas has always been first to leap to Achatz's defense in his online dust ups with writer John Mariani.
Later, when I'm on the phone with Solomonov alone, he tells me that Cook is like a brother. In 2003, Solomonov's only brother was killed while serving in the Israeli army. He has said that Zahav is in part a way to honor his brother's memory and keep that connection to him alive. When I ask him if he thinks a certain emotional void in life led him to attach so firmly to Cook, to build a restaurant family, he says he just doesn't know. But he does say "Steve is a brother I chose for myself."
When Dizengoff NYC opens its doors in a few weeks and other outposts follow around the US, it will be mainly Solomonov racking up Amtrak and frequent flier miles, getting up at four in the morning for interviews on local TV, and smiling for photos. Which is not to say Cook is logging fewer hours than Solomonov. In fact, it seems that each thinks the other is actually working harder.
"We needed each other to do the ambitious things we said we were going to do, together," says Cook. In fact, those ambitions were totally amorphous until they had one another to brainstorm with during endless chatting on Marigold's back porch or over lunch at their shared favorite pho spot. In many ways, they've kept growing not just because they work better together or because they share an ambitious vision for their hospitality group. Like any family members, they work hard to ensure each other's success, and they aren't willing to ever let each other down.
Joy Manning is a writer and the editor of Edible Philly magazine.
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