By Hannah Lee
There were 700 people at the Gershman Y on Monday night for the Philadelphia premiere of In Search of Israeli Cuisine with the James Beard-winning chef Michael Solomonov as the Chef Guide. The film captures the political culture of Israel during its major culinary revolution. It takes viewers on a culinary adventure to over 100 locations throughout Israel, visiting top chefs, great home cooks, amazing wine and cheese makers, street food vendors, farmers, and more.
The director, Roger Sherman, has won an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and two Academy Award nominations, among other honors. The Restaurateur, a portrait of renowned restaurant owner, Danny Meyer, won the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Documentary, Broadcast Journalism.
In Search of Israeli Cuisine is a gorgeous film that took three years to produce and another two years for fund-raising. Even Solomonov, a frequent visitor to his birth country, was surprised by the fabulous food and chefs that he met during the filming. At the post-film Q&A, Sherman and Solomonov were asked what were their biggest misconceptions about Israel. Sherman said his disillusion was that all Israelis keep kosher, when the reality is that secular, non-observant, non-kosher Jews are in the majority in the Holy Land.
Solomonov said that he thought all Israeli food is Middle Eastern. His own greatest culinary influence was his beloved late grandmother, a Bulgarian Jew who spoke Ladino. After Solomonov’s grandmother died, he could no longer serve bourekas in his restaurant, Zahav, because he was raw from grief and he couldn’t tolerate any potential criticism of the food. When asked if he cannot separate the personal from the professional, Solomonov flatly said no.
As for the political ramifications, Solomonov said that we all approach a country through its food. Sherman quoted the chefs he’d met and filmed who told him, “You cannot sit at my table and be my enemy.”
Asked why does he stay in Philadelphia, Solomonov said it’s where met his wife, it’s where he met his partner and co-author of his 2015 book,
“Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” Steven Cook. This is home.
However, he and Cook will soon open another location of their popular hummusiya, Dizengoff, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City (75 Ninth Ave., at 15th St.; 646-833-7097). Like the original on 1625 Sansom Street in Philadelphia, the restaurant will offer set meals of hummus, fresh-baked pita, salads, and pickles during the day. But unlike the original, Dizengoff NYC will offer dinner. Also new to New York are shakshuka served daily for breakfast, rotating vegetable salatim inspired by the half-dozen that start a meal at Zahav, and Israeli wines by the glass.
Solomonov keeps a heavy travel schedule promoting his book and the film, but he stills cooks four to five times a night in his restaurants. It’s what he enjoys most, compared to speaking before an audience of 700. The film is slated to be shown in 55 film festivals over the next year.
Food tours of the people and places mentioned in the film are scheduled for May and October of this year and January of 2017. They’re organized by Florentine Films in conjunction with Avihai Tsabari’s Via Sabra, with guest appearances by Solomonov on the May tour.