At the beginning of June, one of the most high-profile restaurants in Philly lost its opening chef.
Erin O’Shea announced she was stepping down from the helm of Rooster Soup Co., the philanthropic Center City restaurant that dedicates 100% of profits to helping hungry Philadelphians and was recently named one of the best new restaurants in the US. The news came as a surprise, partly because O’Shea has worked with Mike Solomonov and Steve Cook for more than 12 years, seven of them as partner at Percy Street Barbecue.
CookNSolo gave Philly Mag a statement lauding O’Shea for her “talent, dedication and a ton of heart,” but no specific reason was given for her departure — leading to quite a bit of murmured speculation. Had there been a falling out? Did the shakeup have to do with a recent Inquirer review that doled out “only” two bells instead of an always-sought-after three?
Mmmm, no. In O’Shea’s own words, “I needed a break.”
We caught up with the 46-year-old Maryland native from her family’s beach house in Ocean City, MD, where she’s thrilled to be spending most of the summer.
On taking the summer off: I consider myself fortunate and blessed to be able to do that — I wasn’t always in a position to. It’s been a solid 18 years of working my ass off [in restaurant kitchens]. Would I regret spending the summer in the basement at Rooster versus finally getting to see my family at the beach again? I decided yes, I would regret it.
Why the timing was odd: It’s definitely not because the [Craig] LaBan review wasn’t three bells. I knew it might be seen that way — at the time that I decided to leave, and told Mike and Steve, we all knew that was going to come out soon. We were like, “Oh…people are going to talk.”
How Vetri led her to Cook and Solomonov: I found Mike through Vetri. I was looking for work in Philly because my aunt lived here, so I went to Vetri [Ristorante]. I saw Jeff Benjamin outside, introduced myself and said I was looking for work; he said he’d pass on my resume. That night my aunt and uncle and I ended up going back for dinner — great meal! — and Marc came out and talked to me. He didn’t have anything, but he gave me a list of five places. The first one was Marigold Kitchen. I went there the next day.
On meeting Mike Solomonov at Marigold, where Steve Cook had hired him as chef: The front door was open, so I walked in and immediately fell in love with the place. I was thinking, “God, I hope I like the chef because I love this place.” I staged [apprenticed] there that same night, and we hit it off. They offered me a job so I moved here from Maryland. That was in 2005.
Why she’s proud to have run the West Philly BYOB, where she took the helm to give Solomonov and Cook time to concentrate on opening Zahav: The three of us each had our first chef turn there. It’s a very unique situation. I’m proud of that. I’m proud of them — they had the courage to go and put everything on the line and get backers and get loans — and proud to be associated with them.
How Percy Street Barbecue came to be: It was their idea, Mike and Steve proposed it to me. They were working with the fire at Zahav, getting fired up about the fire. I was hesitant. I’d never done BBQ in a commercial setting, and had trained in fine dining. But I knew wanted to work with them, so we did it.
Why Percy Street was sold after seven successful years: We were all ready to move on from BBQ. It had been offhand thrown around as a possibility [that I would become chef at Rooster Soup Co.], but time was passing and a decision had to be made, so I went to them and said, “Can I do Rooster?” They said yes.
On helping launch the philanthropic spot: In the sense I did the most challenging part, which was get it off the ground. It was fun and great, I was very excited to be part of it. I may end up doing something similar to it.
What’s in her near future: I’m doing some consulting for OTG at the airport. Developing recipes and stuff for new restaurants opening there, like the Love Grill. So I will be working at some points during this summer.
In the long term: I don’t know if I’ll be staying in Philly. That’s part of taking this time. When you’re so deep in it, always working, always tired, you can’t think clearly. I need to take a step back and reevaluate and think about what I want to do next.