Israeli Chef Michael Solomonov wins James Beard award

The road was not easy. On the way, he discovered that cooking Israeli food in America might be seen as a politically charged act.

By OMRI NAHMIAS
June 7, 2019 06:58
Israeli Chef Michael Solomonov wins James Beard award

CHEF MICHAEL SOLOMONOV: ‘Israeli food is here to stay.’. (photo credit: MICHAEL PERSICO)

 
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When Maccabi Tel Aviv beat bitter rival CSKA Moscow on its way to secure first Euroleague Championship in 1977, Tal Brody coined the term: “We’re on the map.” Some 32 years after Israeli basketball received international recognition, last month, it was the turn of Israeli cuisine to appear on the map.

Chef Michael Solomonov and partner Steven Cook’s Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, Zahav, was named “Outstanding Restaurant” at the James Beard awards, the US food world’s Oscars – with the title winner considered by food critics and chefs to be the best dining establishment in the country.

Thus, Solomonov – who used to sneak out of boarding school in Pardess Hanna as a kid to eat falafel, the youth who got his first job at a burekas bakery in Kfar Saba and later struggled with drug addiction – was able to make Americans fall in love with pargiot, matbucha, grilled cauliflower and olive oil cake.

But the road was not easy. On the way, he discovered that cooking Israeli food in America might be seen as a politically charged act.

He was blamed for “stealing” Arab cuisine and was introduced to a new term: cultural appropriation. Nevertheless, he still believes that food might succeed in bringing people together.

“I’m not naive enough to think that breaking bread or cracking pita is going to somehow create peace in the Middle East,” he told the Magazine in an interview at Zahav last week. “On the other hand, diplomacy, as we know, has not been particularly effective. When you are hospitable – inviting people in and accepting them – the approach with food can work to some degree.”

Solomonov visits Israel often and even made a documentary for Netflix, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, in which he interviewed dozens of local chefs and journalists in an attempt to define the new Israeli cuisine. After hours of conversations, he came to the conclusion that the discourse about cultural appropriation is widespread in the US, but not in the Middle East.

AS A child with younger brother David, a Golani soldier killed by a sniper at age 21. (Credit: MICHAEL SOLOMONOV)

“Israelis have no problem giving credit to Arabs or Palestinians when it comes to things like food. It’s one thing nobody really cares so much about. Yet here in the US, the idea of cultural appropriation is the first thing that Israel gets attacked for, and I’m like, ‘No, no, no.’ The salad that people here in the US call ‘Israeli salad,’ Jews in Israel call ‘Arab salad,’ and nobody has a problem with that whatsoever.”

“Food really comes from nowhere. It comes from everywhere. It doesn’t matter,” he laid out his worldview. “For example, in the US, eating a taco doesn’t make us wonder whether America was stealing Mexico’s land 100 years before, like Israeli independence. I understand why there’s animosity towards Israeli cuisine or to people cooking Israeli cuisine; I understand that Palestinians got the short end of the stick.”

“This is the sort of premise for us opening Zahav,” the chef continued. “I felt like Israel had this really bad reputation. It was very often misunderstood. When you’re watching news reports about things from 10,000 miles away on television and that’s your only connection to what’s happening in Israel and the Middle East, it’s so biased – it’s just a slice of information and that causes you to judge.

INSIDE ZAHAV. Pastry chef Camille Cogswell won the James Beard ‘Rising Star Chef’ in 2018; Solomonov was recognized as ‘Outstanding Chef’ in 2017; and co-owners Solomonov and Steven Cook won ‘Book of the Year’ and ‘Best International Cookbook’ for ‘Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking’ the year before. (Credit: MICHAEL PERSICO)

“The media seemed so incredibly misguided and unfair – without any kind of education whatsoever. Everybody is a little bit biased, and you sort of decide what stance you’re going to take by buying the newspaper or by turning to either Fox or CNN or whatever. You’ve already kind of decided what you want to hear. I felt with Israel and with cuisine, there was such richness, diversity and such tapestry that not only beg the question of what Israeli cuisine was, but where I came from, and it forces you to consider the Diaspora and it forces you to consider 1948, and conflict with the Palestinians. There was really no way around it.”

“If American hipsters can leave this restaurant and the then next time they hear “Israel” they don’t automatically think of words like genocide or apartheid or whatever, then that’s good. I want people to leave here and give Israel a bit of a chance.”

Do you get the sense that given the hyper-partisan reality in America, you need to choose between being pro-Israel and being liberal?

“That’s the problem. When you are in my position and you’re left-wing and a Democrat, but yet you still want to advocate for Israel’s right to exist, it puts you in a bad position. If I hadn’t grown up attached to Israel – quite frankly, with my brother getting killed the way that he did, hit by Hezbollah snipers in Lebanon firing over international borders, I would feel very differently just because of my politics. In the States, it’s like, are you Right or Left? You have to fall into line with all those things. I think you can be pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel at the same time, recognizing another group’s human, civil and social rights. Yet now you’re made to feel like you must feel one way or the other.”


Solomonov’s brother David served in Golani and was killed by a sniper in October 2003, in the final week of his military service. He was 21.

“He was a great kid. We moved to Israel when I was 15 and he was 12. It wasn’t an easy time for him to move. My parents got divorced a year later, and he endured a lot. Throughout all of it, he always was generous and empathetic – and had really every reason in the world to be an asshole. After he died, I toured the base and all of his fellow soldiers said he was just the best – always supportive and generous and caring.”

ZAHAV’S HOUSE-SMOKED sable with halla and fried egg. (Credit: ALEXANDRA HAWKINS)

Solomonov decided to honor his brother by cooking a large meal for his fellow soldiers in Golani.

“It was tremendously important to me. I brought with me my mentor and the chef that I cooked with at the time, Mark Vetri. He happened to be on a flight with a Birthright group of American kids who were drinking and partying on a vacation. When we picked him up, he was exhausted. Then, 12 hours later, we were up in the North, cooking for kids the same age, but Israelis. They were covered with mud, had M-16s on their backs and could spare only a few minutes to eat before having to go back out in patrol like my brother did. The way that it affected Mark was maybe a light bulb for us, because I wasn’t cooking Israeli food before like that.”

Can you say today that it changed the course of your cooking career?
“Of course. Yes. Definitely. I was working at this Italian restaurant for years and David was killed while I was working there. The next logical step after cooking there would be to go to Italy. I got a job as a chef, my first chef’s job, and I created a menu and I would make my grandmother’s Bulgarian kabobs wrapped in cabbage. People understood that my lineage had a lot to do with the cuisine. And then after a while, we just decided that we should open this Israeli restaurant.”

IN THE past few years, new culinary trends have emerged in the US: Japanese ramen, Vietnamese Pho and Bahn Mi, Korean BBQ and the Chinese hotpot all got their 15 minutes of fame as the next best thing, which raises the question:

Is Israeli food here to stay or is it just a trend?
“I don’t think it’s a trend,” says Solomonov. “Israeli cuisine in Israel is changing and Israeli chefs are more comfortable saying, ‘This is where I’m from. Maybe my mom’s side of the family is from Poland and my father’s side is Yemenite.’ Instead of going abroad and learning how to cook French, Italian, and then opening a stupid French restaurant in Tel Aviv, they were looking at where they come from and saying this is what we do. It’s evergreen and it’s always changing, and I feel like it’s here to stay. I don’t think it’s a trend.”

Do Americans have different preferences than Israelis? Did you have to adjust the flavors?

“I don’t think so. High acid, high salt is what you find a lot in Israel, and we sort of cook the same. But there’s an emotional relationship people have – for example, to their family’s food or the hummus place that they grew up with. We’re never going to be able to compete with that. But I would put our food up against anything; our hummus is really good.”

Solomonov is a walking encyclopedia of Israeli food. He pays attention to every tiny nuance and can tell you the difference between cucumbers from the Jordan Valley and cucumbers from northern Israel. But what about Americans?

He says that he took some of them to Israel for a tour in his favorite places, so they could have a point of reference.

“A couple of them have been to Israel and I spent a lot of time with them and talking to them about where things come from and the context. The way that we put together menu items is usually like – we get a delivery from the farm and say, ‘So English peas are in season? Where do we go from there? What happens next?’ Or we’ve got asparagus. ‘So shall we make asparagus al ha’aish [on the barbecue]?’ Even though I’ve never had that in Israel, the flavors can be Israeli, they can be Moroccan, they can be Yemenite, they can be Lebanese. We figure it out using spices, techniques and using the context of the story in your head.

“People here care about locality, but Israel has been eating local food forever by necessity. You eat a cucumber that has been grown either in Jericho or further north. There are different growing seasons in this tiny little country. And 100 or so different cuisines were native: Palestinian, Druze, all those things. And then every other culture that has come back to Israel brought with them their Jewish cooking that in some cases doesn’t exist anymore there, because all the Jews [in Yemen, for example] are gone. So the only place where it is preserved is in Israel.

“And since everybody mingled at the Shabbat table in Israel – well, it’s mind-boggling from a culinary perspective. It’s all over the place. It’s crazy. And not only is it the Jewish cooking, but you’ve got the laws of kashrut and Shabbat and holidays that sort of help steer all these different cuisines. And it’s the conversions of the spice in the Silk Road and it’s the Mediterranean and Golan and modern and ancient winemaking and agriculture. It is fascinating and unique.”

SALATIM AND hummus with laffa. (Credit: ALEXANDRA HAWKINS)


Tell me about the award. How important it was for you to do get this recognition?

“It’s hard to say. I don’t know. There’s no tangible reasoning behind it. I’m really excited for the team. You just asked whether Israeli food is here to stay. We won that award this year, which is the best honor that anyone can ever get –it’s huge. And a year before that, our pastry chef Camille won rising star and the year before that, I won outstanding chef. And a year before that we won two awards for the Zahav cookbook. One was best international book and then book of the year. So I don’t know – for the past four years, these are huge national awards. Israeli food is here stay; that is evident when we’re getting this kind of national recognition.”

IN ADDITION to Zahav, Solomonov also owns the Goldie falafel shop; hummus spot Dizengoff; Federal Donuts, featuring both doughnuts and fried chicken; The Rooster, a kosher-style deli that donates its profits – and soon there will be a burekas bakery called Kfar. When asked if he ever considered pivoting toward a different kind of cuisine, such as French or Japanese, he says it’s out of the question.

“When you have this sort of emotional or spiritual relationship to what you’re doing, it just works a little better. We owned a barbecue restaurant before we had a Mexican restaurant. It just didn’t work out. It didn’t, it wasn’t right. There’s the experience of falafel in Israel which is magical that nobody was getting right in here, in my opinion. And I [thought that] I want the fresh pita. I want the hot, fresh falafel that doesn’t taste like fermented garlic, that isn’t sitting around under a heat lamp. Very simple, fresh vegetables. I just want [it to be] like the first time I had it at Falafel Devorah in Karkur when I was in boarding school in Pardess Hanna. I want to give people that, and it’s hard. If I didn’t grow up in Japan or if I didn’t have that experience, I’m not sure how I could give that to people.”

Why have you decided to open a burekas shop in the middle of Philly?
“The Israeli bakery and cafe is a special thing; it’s not just a bakery. People don’t eat baked goods in this country enough for us to have a restaurant based around it, but if you think about the all-day cafe in Israel and the cafe culture, it’s something that, if it’s eight o’clock in the morning or if it’s nine o’clock at night, there’s sort of something for everybody.
“And I want fresh burekas.”

The writer is Washington Bureau chief for The Jerusalem Post.



Konafi and Saffron Syrup is excerpted from Israeli Soul, Michael Solomonov and Zahav co-owner Steven Cook’s 2018 cookbook.

Konafi
Serves 4.   

4 cups frozen kataifi (shredded phyllo pastry)
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 (8-ounce) ball fresh buffalo mozzarella, thinly sliced
½ cup Saffron Syrup (recipe follows)

Konafi (Credit: MICHAEL PERSICO)

Put the kataifi in a bowl and comb through it with your fingers. Melt the butter in a stainless-steel or cast-iron skillet over low heat. Add the kataifi, spreading it out evenly and patting it down in the skillet. Sprinkle with the sugar and arrange the mozzarella slices on top. Cook until the cheese melts and the bottom is golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat. Invert onto a plate, drizzle with the Saffron Syrup and cut into wedges.

Saffron Syrup (Credit: MICHAEL PERSICO)


Saffron Syrup
Makes about 2 cups.

1 cup water
2 cups sugar
Large pinch of saffron threads

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture comes to a simmer and the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Strain into a covered container. Refrigerated, the syrup will last for up to 6 months.




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