Philadelphia chef takes readers on culinary journey with Zahav – The News Journal

For Philadelphia chef/restaurateur Michael Solomonov, a life-altering tragedy led him on a heartfelt culinary journey he never expected to take. It changed his cooking and shaped his perspective.
In 2003, Solomonov’s younger brother David Ben-Zion Solomonov, who was about to be discharged from the army, was killed by three Hezbollah snipers while serving with the Israeli Defense Forces infantry unit. David had volunteered to cover a patrol shift on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
Michael Solomonov, at the time working as sous chef for famed Philadelphia Italian restaurateur Marc Vetri, traveled back to his native Israel and mourned with friends and family. He began viewing the country differently and Israeli food and influences soon began making their way into his cooking.
“My brother had died fighting for Israel, and nothing I could do would change that. But for the first time, I began to see cooking as a powerful way to honor David’s memory,” he writes in his James Beard Award-winning cookbook, “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” (Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), written with business partner Steven Cook.
His critically-acclaimed Philadelphia restaurant Zahav, Hebrew for Gold, which opened in fall 2008, was the first modern Israeli restaurant of its kind in the United States. And now his cookbook of the same name is another way for Solomonov to celebrate and share his interpretation of the cooking of Israel.
“This isn’t Israeli food in Israel,” he says.
Solomonov explores spices of the region – lemony sumac and the pepper punch of a condiment called schug – as well as colorful Israeli salads and seasoned vegetables like carrots. Solomonov introduces readers to his Bulgarian-born grandmother’s flaky borekas, little plates called mezze, the ubiquitous tehina or tahini that’s served with everything, and the robust, bold and much-loved Israeli version of barbecue where meats like lamb-on-a-stick and ground meats mixed with spices are grilled directly over glowing charcoal. He also weaves in tales of his life.
“Zahav is such a personal part of my life,” he says of his Philadelphia restaurant, one of the toughest seats to score in the city. “I didn’t want to write a superficial cookbook.”
Last Sunday, Solomonov visited Wilmington’s Congregation Beth Emeth to talk about his life, his five Philadelphia restaurants which include Percy Street Barbecue, Federal Donuts, Abe Fisher, and Dizengoff, a restaurant specializing in hummus. He sandwiched the visit between trips to the two James Beard Awards ceremonies.
On April 26, Solomonov was in New York to pick up two Beard medals for Cookbook of the Year and best international cookbook at The James Beard Foundation Book, Broadcast & Journalism Awards. On Monday night, he was at the Beard gala in Chicago after being honored as one of the country’s most outstanding chefs. The award went to Los Angeles chef/restaurateur Suzanne Goin.
Humble and humorous, Solomonov easily answered questions posed at the Wilmington synagogue. The large crowd seemed well-acquainted with his restaurants and most in the room raised their hand when asked if they had ever visited Israel.
After being introduced, Solomonov seem somewhat embarrassed by his accolades, which include a James Beard Award in 2011 as Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic and sometimes cooking for the famous “food salons” held in the New York by Gehry apartment building of his longtime friend Questlove, the leader of The Roots, the house band featured on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
“I’m a pretty normal dude,” Solomonov said chuckling, and apologized to the crowd for having to listen to his biography.
He was born in G’nei Yehuda, a small town south of Tel Aviv, and left when he was 2 and grew up in Pittsburgh. His Bulgarian-born father wanted to live “the American dream.”
“He loved football and had a Cadillac,” Solomonov said. He was living a upper-middle class “Jewish kid” lifestyle in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, when his family moved back to Israel in his teen years. “I was a punk American kid. I didn’t want to grow up in Israel,” he says.
Solomonov left after graduating high school and eventually attended culinary school in West Palm Beach, Florida. While trying to figure out the direction of his adult life, he came back to Israel to work in a bakery.
“My Hebrew, much like today, is terrible,” he says, and communication was difficult as he also didn’t speak Arabic or Russian, other languages frequently spoken in Israel. Solomonov’s job included baking as well as “chasing rats around with a pizza peel.” But he began gaining an appreciation for the country’s food culture.
“People love carbohydrates in Israel,” he joked. “It’s like magic. The food is great. They’re not even cooking to be cool. There are no Yelp reviews there.”
After cooking school in Florida, Solomonov and a girlfriend made a chance stop in Philadelphia to visit her stepbrother. He broke up with the girlfriend, but stayed in Philadelphia to work with restaurateur Neil Stein at his former Avenue B restaurant, and later at the old Striped Bass.
He later moved to Vetri’s eponymous Vetri restaurant, considered one of the best Italian restaurants in the United States, and quickly moved up the ladder as sous chef. After his brother’s death, Solomonov admits he foundered. Then, he and Vetri took a trip to Israel, a year after David died, to make a dinner for his brother’s former troop. They cooked for 150 soldiers – “18-year-old kids, covered in mud” – and he knew where his life would go next.
“Showing Israel in its entirety is my life’s work,” he says. He moved on to Philadelphia’s former Marigold Kitchen, owned by former investment baker turned chef/restaurateur Steven Cook, and they began to form a plan to open a restaurant serving their interpretation of modern Israeli cuisine. Cook who wanted to move away from the kitchen would handle the business end, Solomonov would be in charge of the food.
“I’m Johnny-don’t-know-anything-about-business,” he joked.
Solomonov does not keep kosher. “I’m not kosher. At all. At all,” he says, but at Zahav restaurant, and in the cookbook, he and Cook chose to honor the spirit of a few fundamental rules of kosher cooking.
They don’t serve pork or shellfish and don’t use milk and meat in the same dish. Solomonov says he does this because kosher rules help define the boundaries of Israeli cuisine. If pork or shellfish is in a dish, it can become more Greek or Turkish, rather than Israeli. Dishes with yogurt are more like those found in Lebanon or Syria.
As for the future, Solomonov and Cook are planning on opening a second version of Dizengoff in New York. Solomonov’s favorite topping for hummus? “Fatty lamb with pine nuts.”
Israeli cooking is finding an audience in other parts of the country. At Monday night’s James Beard Awards, Shaya, an Israeli eatery in New Orleans from chef Alon Shaya, was named  the 2016 Best New Restaurant in America.
Solomonov says there will only be one Zahav in Philadelphia. The chef says he works at the restaurant in the city’s Society Hill neighborhood most days.
“I love it. I love going to work every day. I get to honor my brother every day I do this.”
Contact Patricia Talorico at (302) 324-2861 or and on Twitter @pattytalorico.
In his James Beard Award-winning cookbook “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” author Michael Solomonov says he likes to poach whole, peeled carrots until they are just tender. He then reduces the seasoned poaching liquid, which becomes part of the dressing. He slices the carrots after cooking because he says they hold up better.
6 large carrots, peeled
Kosher salt
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 orange juice
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon chopped fresh minto
1 teaspoon ground Aleppo pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Put the carrots in a large deep skillet and just barely cover with water. Add a pinch of salt. Cook over medium-high heat until the carrots are just beginning to soften, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove the carrots with a slotted spoon and set aside, reserve the cooking liquid. When they are cool enough to handle, cut the carrots into half-moons and set aside. Simmer the carrot-cooking liquid until reduced and almost syrupy, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for about 1 minute more. Off the heat, add the oil, orange juice, lemon juice, cilantro, mint, Aleppo pepper, cumin and 1 teaspoon salt. Whisk well to combine. Toss the carrots in the mixture and refrigerate before serving. Makes 4 to 6 servings.


Leave a Comment