Film Chat With Michael Solomonov

By Hannah Lee

Video — In Search of Israeli Cuisine

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.

Food Chat With Michael Solomonov

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.