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'We were really gambling': Stephen Starr on 10 years in NYC

The Philadelphia-made restaurateur looks back on his time in New York City at the opening of his sixth restaurant, Le Coucou.


When Stephen Starr opened Le Coucou in SoHo last week, the restaurateur wasn’t just celebrating French cuisine with the homecoming of chef Daniel Rose, the American darling of Parisian fine dining.

The Philadelphia-based Starr — a master of cinematic eateries and the bombastic cuisine to match — is also commemorating his 10th anniversary of opening restaurants in New York City. “This place is also my home,” says Starr of NYC.

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The classic French restaurant, serving dishes like pike quenelle, oysters in seaweed butter and whole rabbit, is Starr’s sixth in the city following Morimoto, Buddakan, The Clocktower, El Vez and Upland — no introduction needed for any of them. Though already a success as the man who launched Philadelphia’s 1990s restaurant renaissance, Starr says back in 2006, “I don’t think that I knew that I was ready to make the transition from Philly to New York City.”


It all came down to timing as then-rising star Masaharu Morimoto — the onetime executive chef at Nobu — had NYC’s attention on “Iron Chef” and was ready to make his move into having his own restaurant. “Morimoto gave me the confidence to do something that New York City would embrace because he was a star.”

In the process of locking down the Chelsea Market location for Morimoto NYC, Starr happened onto another large, empty space, the former Nabisco Cookie Company “which was fantastic,” he recalls. Starr took the chance that Morimoto would do well and bankrolled the second space as Buddakan, both in the then-unproven Meatpacking District.

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Starr won’t take credit for turning the area into a hotspot (he cedes that to Pastis, opened by Keith McNally in 1999). Yet, what he did was open two large, distinctive spaces in that area, “the biggest risks ever to have been undertaken at that time; those restaurants wound up costing $30 million.” Starr laughs. “I didn’t even have half of that money to put down, so we were really gambling.”


Those grand Japanese-themed gambles paid off, and Starr continued to open restaurants big and small, highly stylized and more humbly designed, complex and simple in terms of cuisine. Take El Vez, the casual contemporary Mexican restaurant he opened at 259 Vesey St. in 2014, far warmer and modest than his British-themed The Clocktower, which Starr placed in Ian Schrager’s New York Edition Hotel in 2015.

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“‘Theatrical’ wasn’t a word or concept that was around when I started making restaurants, so I did it,” says Starr, who has long been enamored of Schrager’s keen sense for pop culture trends and hospitality.

“Now, we’re more restrained in our design because baby boomers are older and millennials have a different set of standards. Still, expectation makes it so every restaurant I do — the next one — has to be more special than the last. You have to move forward or audiences get bored. I get bored.”


This brings Starr to Le Coucou in the new Howard Hotel at 138 Lafayette St., the one-time Holiday Inn (“I nearly bought it as I loved the location in one of the then-grittier parts of town — bordering Chinatown — which reminds me of what old New York City was”).

Then there’s Rose, the Chicago-born chef who’s come home from his celebrated time at Paris’ La Bourse et La Vie and, most recently, Spring. “It is deeply personal to him,” Starr explains. “He’s on the line cooking: ingredient-based, not heavy technique, not nine courses but three courses and dessert. It’s like his house. He’ll bring plates out. He’s charming.”

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"Charming" is a good term for Starr, too. He may have been defined by Philadelphia, but these 10 years in New York City have been his training camp. “I was able to come to New York confidentially — well, not that confidentially — and make what I do better,” he says. “Look, the difference between Philly and New York is 90 miles. Save for diversity and wealth, the people are much the same.”​

 

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