Should we ever get to the point where hungry folks ask, "What do you feel like-Italian, Chinese, or Israeli?" we can thank Michael Solomonov.
Solomonov, the James Beard Outstanding Chef of 2017 and guest speaker at the 2018 Lion Luncheon on Sept. 6, is on a mission: to bring Israeli food- beyond hummus and falafel-to the world, one restaurant, one film, one book at a time.
"Food represents culture," said Solomonov, who was born in Israel then moved to the U.S. when he was 3. "The unique culture and history of Israel is all there in the food." Israel is home to more than 100 nationalities; its cuisine shows influences from Eastern Europe to North Africa, the Middle East to the Eastern Mediterranean.
It was a tragic event that brought Solomonov back to Israel and its food. He was living in Philadelphia in 2003, working in an Italian restaurant, when his younger brother David, a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, was fatally shot by a sniper just days before he was to be released from duty.
Several months later, Solomonov returned to his brother's army base to hold a memorial dinner. It was there that he realized that Israel was in his blood and Israeli cooking was his calling. "After my brother's death, the path I was going to take became clear," said Solomonov. Israeli food became his way of sharing his brother with the world.
In 2008, he and his partner, Steve Cook, opened Zahav (Hebrew for "gold"), a restaurant named in honor of the light that gleams off Jerusalem's stone. With its high-end, re-imagined Israeli food, it's become a destination for foodies and has put Philadelphia on the culinary map.
A typical meal might start with hummus served with fresh baked laffa (flatbread), a selection of vegetable salads, fried cauliflower, house-made yogurt, and lamb shoulder with pomegranate and chick peas, accompanied by Israeli wine. For dessert, Turkish coffee custard.
"Then you take a nap at the table," said Solomonov, "and we call you a cab."
In addition to Zahav, Solomonov and Cook own several other spots: Abe Fisher, which features food "inspired by the American experience" (chopped liver-accompanied by onion pastrami jam.); Dizengoff (named for a street in Tel Aviv), which serves hummus with various toppings; Goldie, a vegan falafel bar; and Federal Donuts, which serves fried chicken.
The team has already opened a Dizengoff in New York and a Federal Donuts in Miami, with more to come. As for a Chicago outlet, Solomonov said, "Ask me in six months."
There's also Rooster Soup Company, a luncheonette. Every week, Federal Donuts cooks its 500 pounds of spare chicken parts into the broth that's the foundation of Rooster Soup's menu. All the proceeds fund the Broad Street Ministry which served more than 76,000 free meals in 2016. The Ministry also distributes clothing and personal care items, offers medical care, and provides legal services.
To keep things fresh, Solomonov returns four times a year to Israel, where his father still lives. As host of the award-winning documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine , he traveled from one end of the country to the other, speaking to chefs, vintners, and cheese makers. The film has been called "a portrait of the Israeli people through food." He's also written Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking , the 2016 James Beard book of the year.
2008 was a big year for Solomonov. Not only did he open Zahav, he came to terms with his addiction to crack cocaine, heroin, and alcohol. "I was living a double life," he told The New York Times . "I look back and I'm horrified."
Solomonov decided to go public in 2014 because "it was the right time to be honest. The response has only been positive," he said. "It seems everyone has someone in the family who's an addict. It feels healthy to give back."
There was a time when no one in America knew what pad thai was. No one ate
or tuna poke bowls. Solomonov says one day
may be as ubiquitous as burritos and lasagna. "Twenty or 30 years from now," he said, "Israeli food will be everywhere."
The Women's Division 2018 Lion Luncheon (co-chaired with the JUF Women's Board, Young Women's Board, Women's City Council, and Young Women's City Council) celebrates those who give an individual women's gift of $5,000 to the 2018 JUF Annual Campaign. For more information, visit www.juf.org/2018lionluncheon.
Cheryl Lavin is a Chicago journalist whose column, Tales from the Front , appears on the Chicago Sun-Times website.