By Hannah Lee
Remember a few years back when Americans thought Israeli food meant hummus (which they mistakenly pronounced as hum-mus, as in soil or decayed plant matter)? Michael Solomonov was amongst the individuals who changed the public’s perception of Israeli cuisine. On Sunday, Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr welcomed superstar chef Solomonov and his partner, Steve Cook to speak about their new cookbook, Zahav, which has been selling like the proverbial hotcakes. The cookbook is fine for kosher households, because the recipes do not call for shellfish and do not mix meat and dairy ingredients. If you cannot get a table at the restaurant, do get the gorgeous book and have fun trying the recipes!
Before Solomonov won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2011 and he became a national celebrity through the pages of Bon Appetit and Food and Wine, Michael was a youngster who moved between Israel and the United States with his parents. He was a picky eater and he had no ambition in life. When he got a job at a bakery in Israel, working 14-hour days for $2.50 an hour, his family was simply relieved that he was not in jail. However, the pivotal moment for Michael’s life was the death of his younger brother, David, who was killed while on volunteer duty during Yom Kippur of 2003, just days before his release from the Israeli Army service.
The search for meaning eventually led Michael to a sober life, focused on presenting the best of Israeli cuisine, applying Middle Eastern techniques and spices to locally sourced produce. When it’s not sustainable to import tomatoes in January, he can simulate the taste of Israeli food with local pumpkin and persimmon. What is particularly inspirational about his journey is that he and his family could not have predicted his career trajectory. With much hard work and learning on the job— they were on the brink of closing the currently wildly popular Zahav— Michael can serve as a poster child for the late bloomer, one who was not engaged by school.
Solomonov and his partner will soon launch the Rooster Soup Company, a deli-style place that serves only sandwiches and soup, the latter made from the bones and parts of the 1,000-plus chickens used in their Federal Donuts operation (that serves only donuts in the morning and fried chicken in the afternoon). All the proceeds from Rooster Soup will benefit the Broad Street Ministry to their work in providing meals and services to vulnerable and homeless Philadelphians. It is set to open at 1526 Sansom Street (in the former home of Sansom Street Kabob House).
Another exciting project of his of note to foodies is the January release date of his documentary, The Search for Israeli Cuisine, which will be picked up by PBS in the spring. Solomonov was followed around Israel by two-time Academy Award nominee and James Beard Award-winning filmmaker Roger Sherman. They filmed each day at five locations and Michael marveled that each food venue was new to him, who’d lived there. So imagine the novelty to us Americans, who are merely visitors to the Holy Land.