Renowned Israeli Chef Carves a Legacy in Philadelphia

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Click photo to download. Caption: Chef Michael Solomonov. Credit: Michael Persico.

PHILADELPHIA—In the City of Brotherly Love, Michael Solomonov’s inspiration to start a restaurant derived, appropriately, from a tragedy involving his brother.

In the fall of 2003, the award-winning chef’s brother, David—on the verge of being discharged from the Israeli army—went to the Lebanon border in place of another soldier who was supposed to be there, and was killed by a sniper. Some time after his brother’s passing, Solomonov put on a memorial dinner for the soldiers at the base where David was killed.

When he prepared this meal with rudimentary equipment at the British Mandate-era army base, Solomonov decided what he really wanted to do with himself was share the experience of his brother’s life with others by cooking Israeli food, and he opened Zahav in Philadelphia.

Culinary superstar stays humble

Solomonov is less than a year removed from being named the top Mid-Atlantic region chef at the James Beard Awards, known as “The Oscars of Food.” Yet, engaging with a mere forager is part of the repertoire of this culinary superstar.

About halfway through a conversation with Solomonov at Zahav, the Israeli chef excuses himself. The mushroom man had come. 

JointMedia News Service followed Solomonov to see the mushrooms and met the forager—Art Inden. These were huge mushrooms of two varieties, found along the Delaware River.

The forager complained that he and his son had wanted to come in for dinner on the previous Sunday, but there were no tables available. The chef told him just to identify himself, and he’d be helped. Inden and Solomonov traded small talk, the mushrooms were weighed, and Inden sat down to eat the staff meal with Zahav’s servers and cooks. 

Inden said that there weren’t many restaurants that had the same commitment to quality ingredients—or knew how to use them. But what exactly happens to those mushrooms in the kitchen? 

Solomonov said that when he creates a recipe, he begins with a memory—in this case, he might recall eating hummus with spiced ground beef and mushrooms. From there, he thinks about cooking hot mushrooms in hummus and preparing the dish with an Israeli combination of spices like baharat—cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and coriander. There would be a “subtle Israeli nuance, but with ingredients from here (America),” he added.

That is the philosophy of the Zahav restaurant. Solomonov said his bourekas “will never be as good as my grandmother’s,” but that his goal as a chef is to have high standards and create “hearty robust food” that is “executed perfectly”—because he feels a responsibility to represent the people and culture of Israel as best he can, all while using local ingredients.

Click photo to download. Caption: Zahav's bar atmosphere. Credit: Jason Varney

After leaving the University of Vermont, Solomonov, at 19, returned to Israel, where his parents and brother were living. He worked at a bakery in Kfar Saba, Ma’afieayat Ha’kfar (“Bakery of the Village”), as an immigrant worker with starting hours of 6 or 7 a.m. through the day—although on Fridays, to accommodate Shabbat, he worked from 2 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Solomonov came back to the U.S. in the late 1990’s to attend culinary school at the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach. Upon finishing, his girlfriend at the time was from the Philadelphia area, so he moved there. Solomonov said Philadelphia seemed less “terrifying” than New York, where he did not want the “line cook life” of long hours and low pay at a New York restaurant.

Now, Solomonov has been in Philadelphia for a decade—first at Vetri, which won an Outstanding Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation this past May—and now Zahav.

Family remains extremely important in Solomonov’s life. He said he loves to cook at home for his wife and young son before returning to the restaurant for the evening. His favorite meals are family meals in Israel, such as a Saturday lunch with food from various relatives who are Bulgarian, Romaninan, and Farsi, with multiple generations sitting and breaking bread together.

“Where can you find that?” he asked.

The chef’s next step

Zahav’s staff is an international mélange, too. Solomonov has only two Israelis on his 40-person staff and trains them all to understand Israeli food. He seeks to find “the right people, that inspire you, and that you can inspire.”

“[People who] are motivated and genuinely interested in hospitality,” he said.

What’s the next step for a chef who has already won his profession’s highest award? One of Solomonov’s ambitions is to open a boutique hotel and restaurant in Israel, and to get the country’s first Michelin star, a ranking of the highest level of attainment in cuisine (http://www.michelintravel.com/).

Last May, Solomonov recalled attending the communitywide Yom Hazikaron service memorializing Israel’s fallen soldiers, at Philadelphia’s Rodeph Shalom synagogue. He said he was touched that the community wanted to include his brother David’s name. The following day, Solomonov was in New York at the James Beard Awards ceremony.

When accepting his award, he announced to the crowd that it was Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day), and received a round of applause for that. In that sense, Solomonov said he felt he was doing a “good job promoting Israel here.”

Right now, the beneficiaries of his ambitions are the eaters of Philadelphia.

Posted on December 12, 2011 and filed under Features, U.S..