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In 2008, chef Michael Solomonov was one week away from closing his newly opened Israeli restaurant, Zahav, in Philadelphia. “It was a really hard time," he said, recounting a heavy period which coincided with the recession. "It was our first big restaurant," referring to him and his business partner Steve Cook, "we had some critical acclaim but I went to rehab like four months after we opened and we were doing about 15 covers a night - really, really slow. It was not an easy time at all."
Fast forward 11 years to 2019 and Solomonov, donned in full Tuxedo, stepped on stage at the James Beard Awards in Chicago to receive the coveted award and title of Outstanding Restaurant in America. "It was magical," he said after the announcement, "under no circumstances were we going to win."
Playing understated underdog is something the chef does well, but the tale of his path into cooking, his determination to keep Zahav alive from nearly closing to best restaurant in America, and the seriousness and responsibility he carries in telling stories through the delicious food he serves are all attributes to be highlighted and celebrated. But first, back to the week he was about to close.
"I was 60 days clean. I was white-knuckling through recovery, going to meetings and I had to call my dad in Israel to ask him to borrow $10,000 to make payroll. He knew I was in rehab, 'Baba, we’re not going to be able to pay our employees I need to borrow $10,000'. He was like, 'okay, alright, no problem'. I was standing outside with my business partner Steve and my dad called him straight away to check if I was alright."
Solomonov had picked up a drug habit in 2003 after the passing of his brother who was killed serving in the Israeli army. "I met my business partner, met my wife, opened Zahav, all while I was hiding this addiction and I came to the end where I could no longer hide. We opened in May and I was in rehab in July."
Why mention such a personal side of a man's story? He's certainly not the first and won't be the last chef to have a habit but ridding himself of the affliction of addiction was what eventually allowed Zahav to grow into the 250-cover-a-night powerhouse it is today.
"The act of addiction is so selfish. You take and that’s sort of the opposite of what you need to do to be good at hospitality...There’s introducing food and there’s education but there’s also being really committed to hospitality which is the most important thing. It’s about making people feel comfortable, it’s about exceeding expectations whatever they are and its about giving and giving yourself to them."
This, along with a revelation in the kitchen that he didn't need to be super traditional to what he'd cooked back home, "copy pasting dishes from Israel and serving them in February in Pennsylvania didn't make any sense", meant that Zahav was starting to hit the right track, at just the right time.
"Immediately after asking my dad to borrow the cash for payroll, Philadelphia Magazine rated us the number one restaurant in Philly and all the customers came in - we never cashed my dad’s cheque but it sat in a desk in the office for years. I think that cheque is somehow burned into our minds and our souls because it’s like never forget that feeling, but here we are eleven years later and winning awards."
And winning them for good reason. The energetic wave guests ride upon entering Zahav is one that lasts long after they leave the restaurant, the memory of the dishes: the sweet, sour, crispy, tart, juicy and delicious lamb that's cured, smoked and confited in chicken fat before being lashed in sticky pomegranate sauce is arguably one of the best bites of meat in America. The hummus, aerated with buttery tahini, provides the fluffiest of beds for lashings of rich olive oil. The mezze - which adorn the tables - are executed with precision and provide the perfect hits for those random stabs of the fork.
Zahav has been a big part of the continued growth and popularity of modern Israeli cuisine in the U.S and they have also helped in a large part in defining people today call modern Israeli. "My business partner kept saying, 'Israeli food will be the next big thing' and I remember him writing that and us going out to explain to everyone that Israeli food wasn’t falafel and Shawarma - that was the first question everyone asked."
"What we are doing is really talking about a hundred different types of cuisine pushed in one place. Really recording the diasporic cultures in gastronomy that made there way back to Israel, celebrating Palestinian food, not just from the West Bank but also from Gaza, the Bedouin food from the North and the South, the Levantines and then street food and the Challah dinners you find all over the country on Fridays and Saturdays. It really is this living and breathing, real-time tapestry of different cuisines and that to us is what Israeli cuisine is. It was also a way to advocate for Israel without having to get political and celebrate the things that I love, that my family has sacrificed a lot for its existence."
"We had the vantage point of not being in Israel because ten years ago if you walked down a street in Tel Aviv and you asked “where is the best Israeli restaurant?” they would be like, “what are you talking about?” Is it chopped salad? Is it couscous? Kebab? Shawarma? It’s the way that these symbiotic cuisine have melded together naturally on the tables throughout the country that have made it what it is. To be able to put all those influences together is what makes modern Israeli cuisine, techniques are not modern, it’s cooking meat over charcoal and bread in a wood burning oven. It’s the idea of the globalization of this cuisine and using ingredients that we have here and spices and techniques to imply something very traditional but hopefully give someone a visceral reaction when they eat it."
Hot off the back of the win, Solomonov is set to open three new locations this year in Philadelphia. A new cafe and bakery, K'Far, alongside his pastry chef Camile Cogswell who was last year's James Beard Rising Star. A Pita and Sandwich place called Merkaz that will serve snitzel and fried eggplant sandwiches and kebab place called Laser Wolf where vegetable heavy salads will be served alongside charcoal coked meats. Israeli food continues to grow in popularity across the States and the chef hopes to use his restaurants status to continue a dialogue around the food and country he loves.
"I think the next step for us is diplomacy and with this understanding of Israeli cuisine what maybe we can do is talk about Palestinian cuisine and culture and really focus on diplomacy, maybe using hospitality as the gateway. I don’t know, maybe I’m putting the cart before the horse but I do feel like that in this age that we live in traditional forms of diplomacy aren’t as effective and there’s something so honest about food and cooking and the act of hospitality, I don’t know, I just think it’s sort of the next step for us."