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Marigold Kitchen chefs and co-owners Andrew Kochan and Tim Lanza have been restaurateurs for less than two years, since they bought the West Philly BYOB from their former boss Rob Halpern. But despite their greenness, the two 29-year-olds already have ambitious plans. Last month they announced they’d be opening a Center City bistro called Talk, near 21st and Walnut next to Vernick — and it turns out that’s just the beginning.
“We took over [Marigold] knowing we wanted to expand and do multiple projects,” Kochan said. “I probably have three or four places in my mind that are unique. We’ve been looking at potential locations for the past one and a half years or so.”
“We don’t want to take on too much at once,” Lanza explained, “but yes, eventually we’d like to have several spots.”
Lanza and Kochan have good reason to be optimistic. Marigold Kitchen has a long list of successful alums.
Most famously, it’s where Steve Cook and Mike Solomonov first met, and where they discovered the synergy they’ve since developed into a multi-city, multi-concept empire that’s both a crowd favorite and critically acclaimed. Another chef who honed his chops in the West Philly kitchen is Jonathan Adams of Rival Bros Coffee, which just opened a second cafe location and has a third on the way. There’s Jon Makar, who for years ran popular Rittenhouse boite Snackbar, and Erin O’Shea, who for a time co-owned Percy Street Barbecue and is now happily in charge of things at Rooster Soup Co. And then Halpern, who garnered five years of rave reviews before selling to become a successful private chef in California.
Marigold’s reputation as a jumping off point makes sense, Kochan said, because running a small BYOB hidden on a residential block off Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia is like trial by fire.
“Without a liquor license to sell drinks that pay the bills,” Kochan said, “we really had to learn to be super streamlined.”
The first year and a half at Marigold actually went better than he and Lanza expected. (A third opening partner, Christopher Albert, left last fall for a position at NYC’s Eleven Madison Park.) But it has been hard to bounce back from the doldrums that hit in summer 2016. Kochan’s background in business helped. Before getting into cooking, he worked for JP Morgan, and that finance experience came in handy coming up with creative solutions to maintain profitability. There’s now a $65 six-course tasting menu in addition to the 12 to 15 course regular $90 one, for example. And both men live in the apartments above the dining room because “zero rent is better than paying rent.”
“We went into this prepared to wash dishes,” Kochan said. “I switched careers because I wanted to own something.”
No matter how many locations they’re running, Lanza said, “I still want to be in touch with the kitchens.” He described a memory of dining at Zahav and seeing Mike Solomonov with a broom in his hand. CookNSolo is a model for this young pair not just because its partners also started at Marigold, but because of the kind of restaurant group they’ve created: “It’s very successful but still modest. Huge and explosive, but not, like, Stephen Starr or Jose Garces huge.”
There’s a school of thought among industry veterans and pundits that the new generation of millennial chefs is almost trying cheat the system. Instead of putting in the decades it used to take to score enough credibility or clout to go out on their own, they want to leapfrog to king of the hill after just one or two stops under someone else.
But Kochan isn’t about to let naysayers stop him. The idea of paying your dues just for the sake of tradition does not worry him.
“I don’t want to wait until I’m 40 with two kids and a drinking problem,” Kochan said, describing the old trope exemplified by wizened kitchen conquerors like Anthony Bourdain (before he left the line entirely and became a reality TV star, that is).
“We don’t mean any disrespect to anyone in the industry,” Lanza clarified. “We’re doing this new place because we can right now.”
The two partners have no outside investors and have entirely self-financed Talk, which is expected to open in Rittenhouse near the end of this summer as what Kochan calls a “fine dining restaurant that has an awesome bar.” After it gets up and running and the reviews are in — “we’ll be biting our nails waiting for LaBan to come” — then they’ll be able to think about what’s next.
As for Marigold, there are still three years to go in the lease.
“I’d like to have my name on this as long as I can,” Lanza said. “At least see it through the five years, like Rob [Halpern] did.”
Kochan hopes and thinks that when theirs lease is up, a new crew of up-and-comers will eventually take it over. “It would be hard to see the place go away,” he said. “We’re too attached to Marigold, it runs through our veins.”