It was around two months ago that Zahav’s Michael Solomonov asked chef George Sabatino to meet him and business partner Steve Cook for coffee, a meetup that turned into a new, all-encompassing partnership.
Starting this week, Sabatino will take the reins at Rooster Soup Co., the CookNSolo luncheonette that dedicates all profits to feeding hungry Philadelphians.
Per Sabatino, who recently parted ways with Aldine, the Rittenhouse spot he opened with Jennifer Sabatino, the philanthropic restaurant was a perfect fit.
“The values really align,” Sabatino told Billy Penn. “ I can apply the way I cook to something greater.”
Beyond allowing Sabatino to love flashing his knives more than he already does — and anyone who’s ever seen this man at work knows he’s passionate — the new job lets him be part of a growing company he’s respected for years. His respect isn’t just reserved for the elegant, full-service restaurants CookNSolo runs (Zahav, Abe Fisher), but the fast casual endeavors, too.
“If I could eat the chicken sandwich at Federal Donuts every day, I would,” Sabatino said. “That sandwich changed things.”
When Cook and Solomonov opened Rooster Soup in January 2017, with Erin O’Shea as chef, Sabatino was duly impressed.
He’d been hearing about it since months before the project was announced, he said, but didn’t realize it would turn out to be such a well-rounded restaurant.
Sabatino has been friends with Solomonov since back when he was making his first solo splash running the kitchen at Stateside on East Passyunk. The two chefs found common ground in their desire to create what Sabatino calls “really delicious food that’s accessible, but also interesting,” a mantra he began developing working under Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran at Barbuzzo.
“Marcie was the one that taught me that food should be about salt, acid and texture, and finding that balance,” Sabatino recalled. And specifically relevant to today: “She was also the one who first taught me how to make really great soups.”
The times Sabatino ran into the CookNSolo crew at one-off events — like when his kitchen at Morgan’s Pier hosted Zahav’s annual Klezmer Barbecue — he remembers being impressed at how well-oiled the staff was, and how well they worked together. He became even closer to the company last year when Steve Cook asked him to be guest chef at the annual fundraiser for Broad Street Ministry — the partner and beneficiary of Rooster Soup’s philanthropic mission.
“I feel like when Steve asks you to do something,” Sabatino said, “you say yes.”
So he threw himself into the Broad Street Ministry gala, spending four days prepping and cooking alongside BSM head chef Steven Seibel. It turned out Seibel had specifically asked for him after becoming impressed with Sabatino’s Instagram, something Sabatino finds “romantic.” (If you haven’t checked it out, the account is definitely worth a browse or follow.)
The fundraiser went off without a hitch, and the seeds of a new partnership were sown. “George is a creative powerhouse,” Solomonov said.
As for what Sabatino has planned for the philanthropic Center City diner, which is nestled below ground on Sansom Street next to Oscar’s Tavern, he hasn’t quite decided. He wants to take it slow and develop his team — which he noted is “growing.” (Is a second Rooster location on its way…?)
The menu will evolve, he said, and other than the fact that it definitely will include plenty of dishes where “vegetables are more of a star,” he’s not yet sure what direction it will take.
What he does know is that he’s thrilled to be in this new position. “I realize how lucky the team and I am to be doing good by simply doing our work,” he said. “Our guests know that the power to bring positive change is actually in their hands.”
Said Sabatino: “I don’t think there’s anything quite like Rooster Soup.”