Why Two Top Chefs Left The Restaurant World To Cook Lunch At A New York Startup

Stack exchange chefs
Stack Exchange chefs Phil Sireci and Shanna Sobel wield their tools. Madeline Stone/Business Insider

Lots of startups have amazing perks. But how many have experienced chefs cooking them fantastic lunches every day?

At Stack Exchange, a startup in New York’s Financial District that hosts a network of question-and-answer sites, chefs Phil Sireci and Shanna Sobel serve up some pretty amazing meals.

Click here to jump right to photos of the kitchen and food at Stack Exchange >>

From company favourite “breakfast for lunch” to gourmet duck l’orange, Sireci and Sobel make sure that no Stacker is ever left hungry or unsatisfied.

“The essence of what we do is hospitality. Our business is pleasing people,” Sireci said to Business Insider. “I rarely say no.”

The pair met while working together at the East End Kitchen on New York City’s Upper East Side. Sireci had spent time at hot spots Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe, while Sobel had also worked at Colicchio & Sons and the Stanton Social.

When he was approached about the Stack Exchange job, Sireci was working in catering and considering opening his own place, yet he was tired of the restaurant world and its 100-hour work weeks.

Still, the decision to leave restaurant work for a tech startup was one that Sireci was hesitant to make, at least at first.

“It wasn’t attractive at all. I’ve always been in restaurants. But when I came up and saw them eating lunch, you could see, it’s nice and there’s a sense of community,” Sireci said. “As a chef, what I want to do is cook my food and see people enjoy it. This is a much closer connection to that than the restaurant ever was. I get to watch them, and I know all of their names. I almost know all of their little quirks and what they like and what their allergies are. It’s almost like cooking for my family every day, like a family of 100.”

Sobel was also getting fed up with restaurants at the time Sireci approached her to join him at Stack Exchange.

“I loved working in restaurants. I liked to be challenged, the thrill and the challenge of what service was,” she said. “But as a woman, for me, it was really quite difficult to be taken seriously in the restaurant business and as a chef. Pastry chefs are not treated well in kitchens. So luckily when I met Phil he really flipped that for me.”

Stack exchange chefs

After eight months of work in the Stack kitchen, they seem to have perfected their process. Sireci plans lunch for the day, while Sobel picks the dessert and helps out with lunch preparations.
But it hasn’t all been easy. Their kitchen had to go through a strict health inspection process just like any other restaurant, and the office building’s fire codes have prevented them from installing certain equipment, like a deep fryer, that would be typical in a more traditional kitchen.

Still, working as a chef in the Stack Exchange kitchen has given the two of them a huge amount of freedom to exercise their creativity and cook the things they want for the company’s 100 or so employees.

“The good thing about this place is that it’s not really lunch. We cook dinner that just happens to be at lunchtime,” Sireci said. “As a chef, I’d have a menu that’s set. Then I would teach all my line cooks how to do that, and then I would go in and do my special for the day, and that’s what would inspire me. I look at this as a special every day.”

And when it comes to dessert, Sobel gets to experiment quite a bit as well. She’ll be trying out a Cinnamon Toast Crunch-inspired panna cotta for an upcoming event at the Stack Exchange offices.

“A lot of the desserts I make here are first-timers, things I’ve never made before,” Sobel said. “The only thing that stops me is my imagination and my creativity.”

Plus, she gets to practice a lot of skills she wouldn’t be able to as a pastry chef at a traditional restaurant.

“Phil taught me how to butcher. Pastry chefs are missing out. Breaking down a chicken is great,” Sobel said. “I never would have done that anywhere else.”

The Stack chefs also benefit from a schedule that’s a complete reversal from the norm. Restaurant chefs usually finish work well after midnight, but Sireci and Sobel have time to pursue other interests after they finish lunch clean-up and preparations for the next day. They’ve even done some volunteer work at the Bowery Mission and God’s Love We Deliver.

And like the other people who work at Stack Exchange, the chefs like to have a bit of fun. They’ll cook special desserts for people’s birthdays and take requests for meals. A few weeks ago, they hosted an afternoon habanero pepper challenge to see who could take the heat. They have their own Twitter account (@stackchefs), and they’re even brewing their own beer for a party at the office this Friday, with bratwursts and other German food accompanying the drinks.

We took a lunchtime trip to Stack Exchange to meet Sireci and Sobel.