Today, September 6, marks the one-year anniversary of COOK opening in Philadelphia. We recently sat down with Audrey Claire Taichman, who owns and operates the space along with her restaurants Audrey Claire and Twenty Manning Grill, to get her thoughts on her unique collaborative kitchen’s introduction into the local food scene, the relationships she’s formed with chefs and guests alike and her exciting plans for COOK’s future.
What initially motivated you to open COOK? What did you feel the Philly food scene was missing that COOK fulfills?
Feastival, the culinary benefit I co-chair every year with Stephen Starr and Michael Solomonov, was the huge inspiration. [This year's event is coming up on Sept. 12!] The first year, when I saw all these chefs and the food community come together under one roof, it ignited this idea in me that there should be a brick-and-mortar place where chefs get to come interact with people, show off and teach their skills and have fun. I hope that COOK has proven to be a worthwhile addition to the food scene. We really live in a super chef-obsessed culture, with chefs almost like rock stars. I think people love the accessibility that COOK provides — it allows them to hang out and be around chefs, connecting tastemakers with eaters in a very unique way.
What was your vision for COOK in the planning stages?
It has far surpassed what I thought it would be. To be honest, the initial vision was a slightly vague and amorphous thing. We had no idea how it would turn out, but we definitely knew that it would be a completely different experience for people. The space was put together by Fury Interior Design, who also created Twenty Manning Grill. They’re absolutely amazing and created a beautiful space. As far as what would happen in the space, though — it was a complete unknown! Even the features of the physical space itself…originally it was just books. Then we thought, what about other things? That’s how the pantry got started. It was a very organic experience, but the reality has far exceeded our initial plans.
One year in, is the concept what you imagined it to be, or has it evolved into something else entirely?
Going back to that first night last year, a class with our friend, chef Georges Perrier…we were terrified! We had no idea how it was going to go. I think we might have had more people working the floor than guests [laughs]. But it went really well and really smoothly. From then on, we felt like we were doing something really different and really special. I’m so happy with how much it’s grown in such a short period of time.
How do you think Philadelphia’s chefs have fared adapting to such a unique venue and setup?
Honestly, I think a lot of chefs are surprised by how much they enjoy it. Some come in and are natural talkers…they know what they’re doing and feel comfortable being in front of a crowd. For others, it’s a great opportunity to get out of their own kitchen for a night and take in the completely new experience of sharing their art with people who truly appreciate it. Our chefs seem to have so much fun interacting with people one-on-one, especially since they don’t really get to do it every day. A true bond forms between chef and guest. Every chef establishes that bond differently, but they’re all equally marvelous at what they do.
What kinds of feedback do you receive from guests at COOK about their experiences? Any particular stories stand out to you?
The most positive thing people say when they leave here is that their minds were blown since they simply didn’t know what they were coming to. Someone had given them a gift certificate or bought them a class, or their spouse had purchased them a seat. They walk in really having no idea what’s going to happen, and leave having had the best night out in ages. It’s such a great playground for chefs and an opportunity for the dining public to interact with them in a way they never thought would be available.
Obviously I want our guests to have the most fun possible, but when both our guests and chefs have fun, that to me is a tremendously successful night. One story: A chef came in here and taught a great class, and one of the guests that evening ended up going to his restaurant. When he came back to teach a second time, that guest actually came with him as his sous chef! That’s how much they bonded. The most memorable feedback I hear from from chefs is about the people who have come into their restaurants after a class. It leads to a connection, a relationship that continues after they walk out of COOK.
What are some things you’ve learned about food from COOK classes that you’ve personally attended?
There’s so many I can’t even think! I’ve learned endless things. The smoke points of different oils. Always put garlic in a cold pan, and every pan is non-stick if you heat it right. You can re-use pasta water! I could go on forever.
It’s helped us so much. Philly Mag and Foobooz have really established themselves as authorities on dining in Philadelphia. They’re wonderful partners…they have great ideas, they’re very creative and they help us spread the word about COOK as a space where both established and up-and-coming masters of food and drink can come and share their craft and passion with people. I’ve been in the restaurant business for 15 years and this has been the most awesome experience. I’m lucky to have partners like them — they are invaluable to the success of this business.
You’re starting to make a push for nationally recognized chefs and food personalities to come to COOK. Can you give some examples of these types of events in year one, and are any planned in the near future?
We recently had an awesome event with chef Barbara Lynch from Boston. To have an incredibly well-known person of her caliber come to COOK was hugely flattering and makes us feel like we’re doing something right! Later this month, Danny Meyer is coming with chef Carmen Quagliata of Union Square Cafe. We’re really excited for that. There are a couple other chefs from New York and many other cities in the works…there is plenty of news to come!
What’s one thing about COOK many people don’t know that you’d like to tell them about?
Our bookstore, pantry and retail space! It’s open to everyone noon to 5 Tuesday to Sunday. We have such an extensive, really well-curated cookbook collection that we want everyone to know about. I’d say we have 200 or more titles — a mix of local writers, foodie literature, wine and cocktail books, baking books, different cultures and cuisines, magazines. We even have two sets of Modernist Cuisine for sale. Then we have a fully stocked pantry of spices and private label items for sale — kitchen gadgets and tools, candles, soaps, aprons. We also carry items from awesome local producers, like amazing pickles from Jersey Gina’s Gems in South Jersey and beef jerky from the Philly-based Side Project Jerky. They’re both delicious!
What are your biggest goals as COOK enters its second year?
Definitely getting in more chefs from outside the region — and from across the world, too. Not just New York — we’re thinking big! We’re working on programming that will feature some of Philadelphia’s masters teaching kitchen skills to culinary students and aspiring chefs, as well as instructional cooking videos for our website. We’ve also been discussing the possibility of taking COOK “on the road”…stay tuned!
Photos: Michael Spain Smith and Yoni Nimrod