Friday morning, Steven Cook answers six calls for reservations in a span of 15 minutes. He politely turns some callers away--those naively hoping to get squeezed in for Saturday night, or for Valentines Day, still two weeks away.

Others are in the know.

They've heard the raves deeming Marigold Kitchen, tucked away in a residential neighborhood of West Philadelphia, the city's best new BYOB.

They know about the 3-bell rating from feared Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan; they've even seen accolades in Gourmet and Food and Wine magazines, bibles worshipped by foodies across the country. These callers have planned ahead.

Cook scribbles their names into his meticulous reservation book, next to one of the circles or squares representing Marigold's 22 tables. Those who secure a prime Saturday-night reservation call five weeks ahead.

 

 

Cook has the huge Victorian house all to himself in the mornings; Manager Jonathan Makar and Chef Michael Solomonov will arrive at the restaurant in a couple of hours. When he was an undergrad at Wharton, he never imagined he'd end up back in West Philly ten years later, taking reservations in this small third-floor office, once a bedroom rented by boarding-house tenants.

Upon graduation from Penn in 1995, he moved to New York City with a Wall Street banking job already lined up.

"I don't know what it's like today, but back then it was a luxury," says Cook, now 32. "You know you're going to go to Wharton and come out with a good job. At the time, that sounded pretty good. And it did work out pretty well for me, for six years."

During those six years in Manhattan, Cook worked as an analyst at Nomura Securities and then in the investment banking division of the Blackstone Group. A Wall Street salary afforded him the opportunity to take in the New York restaurant scene. He remembers eating at Po, celebrity chef Mario Batali's first restaurant, back in 1995.

"That experience may be the first point that led me to what I'm doing now," Cook says. "I just really loved what he was doing--really nice food in a totally unpretentious way."

While growing an appreciation for fine food, he was growing unhappy with investment banking, and started to contemplate making a change.

"I was starting to get a little anxious to get out and do something that I was excited about," cook says. "Something a little bit more creative, on a smaller scale, a more personal scale. So I decided to go to cooking school."

Cook attended the French Culinary Institute in SoHo at night, while maintaining his day job at the Blackstone Group. Growing up in Miami, cooking was always a family activity, but he had never before considered it a potential career. But after graduating from culinary school, Cook left banking all together and moved to Philadelphia to take a job cooking on the line at Twenty Manning, a fusiony bistro near Rittenhouse Square.

"In the first couple months, I could tell he was an intelligent kid, with lots of creativity," says Kiong Banh, Twenty Manning's executive chef, who hired Cook fresh out of culinary school.

Cook had never wanted to settle in New York for the long term, and after six years, he was ready to leave.

"Also, I had grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle in New York, being in banking. Being a cook, especially starting out, you can't live the same way," he admits. Philadelphia, a more affordable city familiar from his college days, seemed like "sort of a natural jumping off place. And there are some pretty good restaurants here, too."

After a year at Twenty Manning, Cook moved a few blocks away to the applauded, but now-defunct Salt. When Salt closed, Cook began looking to open his own place, where he could employ his fellow ex-Salt colleagues. He came across the Victorian house in West Philadelphia's Spruce Hill neighborhood because a friend from college lived on the same block.

The space came with over 70 years of history under various versions of the same name--first as Marigold Tea Room in the 1930s and then Marigold Dining Room, a neighborhood institution that served the same meatloaf and chicken fricassee for decades, until the owner faced serious health problems around Christmas of 2003.

Boarders continued to rent the rooms upstairs, but the restaurant had been shuttered for months before Cook decided that this was the spot for his new venture. He wanted his place to be a destination restaurant where people would go out of their way by car or by cab to dine. He would run the kitchen, and bring his friends from Salt to cook and serve.

 

* * *

 

In the summer of 2004, Jonathan Makar was running the kitchen and dining room at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, where he had spent nine childhood summers. He had just quit his job at Ferris, Baker Watts, a Washington D.C. brokerage firm, with the intention of spending two months up at camp to figure out what he would do next.

Makar always gravitated towards the restaurant business, because he grew up in it. His family started out in kosher catering in New York, and then settled in Charlottesville, Virginia, where his grandparents still own and operate a restaurant. At his family's insistence that he try something different, Makar studied finance at George Washington University and took the banking job when he graduated in 2002. He stuck with it for two years, but ultimately realized, "you can only hide what you are for so long."

Makar toyed with the idea of moving up to New York and starting a restaurant with the brother of an ex-girlfriend. But while at camp, Steven Cook's sister Emily, a fellow staffer, told him about her investment-banker-turned-chef brother, who was looking for a business partner. The two spoke, and while Makar finished up his summer job, Cook found him an apartment in Philadelphia.

The restaurant business is part of Makar's heritage, something Cook, the son of a Reform rabbi, can't identify with. Yet from the early stages of planning, the two shared much more than a finance background in common. Their visions for the restaurant went hand in hand.

"We thought about the kind of place we would like to eat, and we thought about Steve's food," Makar explains. "It's sophisticated food, it has a lot of confidence. It's imaginative. We wanted to offer that sophisticated type of food in a contrasting, sort of very casual atmosphere."

Cook's admiration for what Mario Batali was pioneering in New York ten years ago echoes these same sentiments. He drew from his experience as a young diner at Batali's restaurant, envisioning his own as a place where "you come in and you're blown away by the food, but it's not super expensive, it's not super pretentious. It's, like, fun."

At 25 years old, Makar has traded in the stockbroker's shirt and tie and comes to work in dark Diesel jeans and a brown sweater. He works the dining room with a seasoned grace, interacting with every table as if they were guests at his own dinner party, but at the same time never intruding.

He admires famed Chicago chef and restaurateur Charlie Trotter, whose philosophy stresses the importance of unobtrusive yet flawless service.

"One night, when we met in the kitchen before service starts, one of our managers said, our goal tonight is to get everyone in this restaurant laid," Makar recalls. "We want to let them do their thing, let them have a good time, and leave in a great mood."

 

* * *

 

Marigold Kitchen opened its doors on Oct. 13, 2004 with Cook in the kitchen and Makar managing the front of the house. Cook's early menus included panko-crusted chicken croquettes, golden beet risotto, lamb shoulder braised in coffee and roasted black cod with mushrooms and sea urchin cream, making it clear that Marigold no longer served meatloaf.

The dining room received a facelift but still clung to the Victorian charm of the boarding house it once was. The wood floors and stained glass windows remained, now in the company of modern art and deep blue acrylic tabletops.

The old Marigold Dining Room was a neighborhood institution, and Cook and Makar wanted retain the crowd that had been dining there for years.

"We didn't want to offend the neighborhood, so we kept the prices about the same and tried to expose the old clientele to a new type of food," Makar says. "But they didn't get into it as much as other people."

The neighborhood was not as responsive to the new concept as they had hoped, and after several months, menu prices went up, allowing Cook to work with a broader range of ingredients.

"Marigold Dining Room represented a great value; you could always get a three course meal reasonably priced. Marigold Kitchen is a completely different concept; it's more of a temple to food," says Greg Salisbury, a West Philadelphia resident and owner of Rx, a BYOB just a few blocks down 45th Street.

Salisbury has not faced direct competition with Marigold, which he attributes to the difference in price between the two BYOBs -- dinner at Rx runs about $30, at Marigold, $50.

"I would love to eat at Marigold more frequently, but we're open the same days and closed the same day," he says. "I managed to get there one night at 9:45 and had a great meal. What Marigold is doing is great, and the greater the density of restaurants in the neighborhood, the better it is for the restaurants. It's a small restaurant community here in West Philly, and we're all very friendly."

Though few came to the out-of-the-way location for the first few months, diners who did drive in and discover Marigold early on sung praises for Cook's food and Makar's charming service. One of them was Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan, and after his review ran on Super Bowl Sunday of 2005, the reservations poured in.

LaBan rates restaurants on a Philadelphia-themed 0-to-4 bell scale, and awarded Marigold 3 bells. He called Cook "one of those rare young chefs who knows how to surprise and still make sense" and Makar "one of the suavest new maitre d's in town."

Makar says he thought about the possibility of LaBan's visit every single day, but still has no idea when the critic dined at Marigold. LaBan is serious about his anonymity, and is known to use fake names upon making reservations and on his credit cards, so his identity remains a mystery in this town.

When the review hit the newsstands, Makar was pleased, and thought it was a very appropriate rating for the then-four month old restaurant, giving them room to further challenge themselves. When Cook sees his name and Marigold's in the paper and magazines, he says, "it gets me fired up to make sure we can live up to it."

In the year since, Marigold has evolved with a steady clientele of Center City and Main Line "foodies."

They closed for a few weeks vacation over the summer and re-opened in September with Chef Michael Solomonov at the helm in the kitchen. Rumors speculated that Cook and Makar had plans for another venture, thus explaining Cook's decision to retire his chef's hat. However, Cook claims the main reason he stepped out of the kitchen is because he got married in July, and likes to spend the evenings with his wife.

He acknowledged that there is something in the works, but they are keeping quiet. Cook did reveal that their next place will definitely have a liquor license.

"I love BYOBs, they are great for the restaurant community, but it makes it more difficult for us."

The transition in the kitchen has been a smooth one, with Solomonov clearly seeing eye-to-eye with Cook and Makar's vision for Marigold. His dishes echo the sophistication of Cook's, but reflect his own style and taste. Solomonov, 27, was born in Israel and lends Middle Eastern flavors to menu offerings like escargot with honey mushrooms, Israeli couscous and pine nuts, lamb shank with basmati rice and prune sauce and duck breast with pomegranate and walnut-stuffed cabbage.

After moving from Israel as a young child, Solomonov grew up with Cook's wife in Pittsburgh. He's never worked in banking--rather, he studied photography in college, dropped out, then moved back to Israel to take a cooking job. After returning to the U.S. and graduating from culinary school in West Palm Beach, Florida, he landed in Philadelphia and did stints at Avenue B and Striped Bass, both owned by infamous Philly restaurateur Neil Stein at the time.

Solomonov was finishing up a two-year contract as a sous-chef at Vetri -- the Italian jewel-box that is one of only five restaurants in the region to receive four bells from LaBan -- when the guys from Marigold needed someone to run their kitchen. Solomonov fits in seamlessly, and he and Makar joke around like frat brothers.

"I enjoy the restaurant business because I enjoy being sexually harassed by Michael Solomonov," Makar laughs. "Really, though, I don't know what we would have done if Michael hadn't been available at that exact moment."

 

* * *

With Solomonov running the kitchen, Cook now works days, taking reservations and focusing on the business side. Reflecting on his former career, he realizes that what he's doing now isn't so far from Wall Street as it may seem on the surface.

"I'm working just as hard now was I did then. It's running a business, with a heavy creative element to it and a heavy dealing-with-people element," Cook says. "The restaurant failure-rate is so high, to say that we made it through the first year is a good sign. But we're definitely not out of the woods."

Cook and Makar were both willing to take a risk and a pay cut to change directions and forage into the restaurant business.

"If you do what you should be doing for the right reasons, and you do it with people that you respect and like, the financial rewards, if that's what you're interested in, will follow," Cook says.

As the Friday night reservations arrive and fill up the cozy dining room, it's clear that this recipe is working at Marigold. Middle-aged foodies who spend their free time discussing restaurants on Internet food forums gather around a large round table, toting expensive bottles of wine and analyzing each menu offering with Makar's assistance.

A younger couple in the corner enjoys each other's company and Solomonov's new five-course tasting menu. Their eyes light up as each new dish is presented on its pristine white plate, bowl or platter.

Makar doesn't intrude, and lets them "do their thing." Solomonov takes a walk through the dining room as dinner winds down, conversing with those who linger with wine and desserts.

He's not out there to impress the foodies. For him, those few moments, when he gets to see all the elements of their hard work come together, are the most rewarding.


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