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In our series, Note to Self, we hear from celebrated Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov. He won his fifth James Beard Award in May when his flagship restaurant, Zahav, was named the best restaurant in America. He opened his sixth restaurant this summer, and will open two more this fall, all in Philadelphia.
As the 41-year-old enjoys a career high, “CBS This Morning” asked him to reflect on the struggles he fought, and the lessons he is still learning, in a note to his younger self.
You, my friend, will be experiencing pain so agonizing that even if I tried, I could not fully explain. I wish this was not your fate — but it is. And I’m sorry.
You will not be able to save your younger brother David. You cannot roll back the clock. You cannot protect him and you cannot take that bullet for him. [David Solomonov, a staff sergeant in the Israeli army, was killed by a sniper on the Lebanon border]. The last time you will remember seeing him will be in Mom’s doorway. You will embrace him and tell him how proud you are to be his brother, and he will hear you, while shrugging off the hug. You’ll probably use that memory to torture yourself for a while — and it will take a while for you to accept this — but what a gift you had to be able to get to know him. And for him to get to know you.
If you are crying now while reading this — it’s OK. I’m crying, too. Despite us being ugly criers and all, you should let yourself sob every now and again, followed by a few deep breaths and perhaps saying The Shema (which will, ironically, be your mantra, despite loathing Hebrew school).
You will spend years trying to numb this pain, while simultaneously adding more. You will hurt yourself and the people that you are closest to. You’ll use drugs and alcohol that will work to destroy you, originally a way to deal with losing David. But the feeling of intense emptiness and deep sorrow so powerful, knowing that he was killed when he was just a child — I promise you, all of those substances… they won’t fill that hole in your heart.
You’ll fight addiction for five years — but one can argue, you’ll need to fight it for your entire life. I want you to know, and I need you to know, that your friends and your family love you, respect you, and care deeply for you. It is OK to ask for help. It is necessary. It’s what we do and what we ask of our loved ones in our darkest hours. You cannot do everything on your own — and excuse the cooking analogy — but nobody likes a cook that wrecks dinner service because they refuse to ask for help. A good cook knows when to ask for help!
Cooking will be your salvation. You’ll share your brother’s life and your Israeli roots through your restaurant Zahav. You will not be able to walk away when things get hard. And I’m sorry about this, Mike, but you’ll have to experience this pain clean and sober, too. You’ll have to feel all the feelings, emotional and physical, and learn the true meaning of “life on life’s terms.”
All you accomplish, all the success and accolades, will be possible because you got clean — and committed to staying clean.
Keep a sharp eye on our old friend: guilt. That beast is just waiting for you to end up in an emotion-filled dark alley somewhere and then… Just breathe. All of that dripping guilt is just self-indulgent. It enables the most destructive behavior, which makes you feel guilty, more selfish, encourages your addictive behavior… you can see where I’m going with this. Perhaps just spritz a bit of guilt on your neck and wrists and be done with it.
Now, listen very carefully. Actually, that’s my advice: Just listen very carefully. Shut your mouth and listen. Listen to the people who are looking out for you, and will be frightened and scared of you hurting yourself. Listen to your friends, your coworkers, and especially your business partner and best friend. Listen to the guests that will come into Zahav and the team that you will be part of. Don’t stop being a student. Never allow yourself to get cocky or complacent. Complacency can lead to a personal and professional death — and it may sound dramatic, I know. But trust me, it is true. If you don’t commit to getting better every day, you will get worse, and if you rest on your spiritual laurels, you will die. Got it?
I love you,
First published on August 20, 2019 / 9:30 AM
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