DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest is Michael Solomonov, a chef who's based in Philadelphia but has earned a national reputation for his unique take on the cuisine of Israel. He's just won the coveted James Beard Award as outstanding chef, crowning him as the best chef in America. Currently, he's also featured in a new Roger Sherman documentary, "In Search Of Israeli Cuisine," in which he serves as a tour guide for distinctive Israeli foods, dishes and chefs.
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MICHAEL SOLOMONOV: This place, Miznon, Eyal Shani is, like, the top chef in Israel, one of the forefathers of modern Israeli cooking - used to be well known for doing European and sort of fancy, really got into his roots and is now doing sort of a celebration of Israeli street food. For example, ridiculously fresh, delicious pita stuffed with corned beef. This is a yam cooked for four hours at a very low temperature. It's all super fresh - a little bit of olive oil, a little bit of rock salt. This is isn't old school. This is grandmother. This is vibrant, good cooking. You can keep your truffles and foie gras. This is where it's at.
BIANCULLI: Solomonov grew up mostly in the U.S. but has strong family ties to Israel. The chef and his business partner, Steve Cook, have opened several restaurants in Philadelphia. And as The New York Times' Frank Bruni revealed in one column, Solomonov did a lot of that while battling a serious drug addiction.
His flagship restaurant is called Zahav, which is the Hebrew word for gold. As it happens, Zahav is only a few blocks from WHYY, which gave our contributor Dave Davies the chance to take an enviable research trip. In 2015, he spent an evening at Zahav hanging out in the kitchen, watching Solomonov work the bread station and oversee the preparation of hundreds of delicious offerings for customers. And every few minutes, he'd slip Dave one of the restaurant's memorable dishes to sample - nice work if you can get it. Afterward, Solomonov visited the FRESH AIR studio to talk with Dave about his latest cookbook, which is co-authored with Steve Cook. It's called "Zahav: A World Of Israeli Cooking."
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DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: You know, so much of the cookbook is about Israel and your connection to Israel. You were born in Israel but moved to Pittsburgh as a kid - right? - and really grew up as an American. Did you feel a connection to Israel growing up?
SOLOMONOV: I did feel a connection. It was just very - it was muted. You know, we didn't really speak Hebrew in the house. My parents spoke Hebrew when they were trying to, like, hide something from me. And they were a little sort of bits of Israel in the house, you know, whether it would be, like, something that we would have on the dinner table that was a little bit strange or, you know, my dad's, like, accent or whenever there would be, you know, conflict on the news while we were eating dinner, we would have to be quiet sort of. So it was there, but it was sort of in the background.
DAVIES: So your family moved back to Israel when you were, like, a teenager. Fifteen or so?
SOLOMONOV: I was 15, yeah. We moved back when I was 15.
DAVIES: How'd you take to it?
SOLOMONOV: Not well, not very well (laughter). I think the year before - I mean, it's a tough age. anyways, I think. And I was a little bit disobedient. I don't know - I was, like, a pretty crazy kid. So I - it was already sort of a weird time for me. And I - the ensuing threat of moving, you know, across the world, basically, really bothered me. So I acted out, and I was, like, crazy. And then we moved over to Israel, and I was generally unhappy. But, you know, in hindsight, some of my closest friends are from that year, and a lot of that year really shaped sort of who I am today.
DAVIES: The year in Israel.
DAVIES: Hummus is a big part of the book. And you said that your - let me get this right - that it was the hardest thing for you to figure out. Why?
SOLOMONOV: Well, it's still sort of the most challenging thing. There's no tricks, and there's no bells and whistles to hummus. It's, like, got to be just made right. There's very few ingredients. And, you know, the way that people are super possessive and provincial and weird about things like burgers or pizza or barbecue - hummus is one of those things that people - if you don't get right, they just freak out.
And our - you know, I work at the - well, you saw where I work. I work at the pass where the bread station is, and I'm totally visible to the dining room. And there are times where if we don't get something right that is so personal to somebody, they will literally come over to the pass and tell me that I'm doing it wrong.
DAVIES: A customer will do this?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And that's cool. I mean, it's - at the time, I don't think it's cool. (Laughter) But it's - it's - you know, people take food very seriously, and it's very dear to their heart. And for a lot of people, they haven't been back home in a long time, and this is our way to take them back home - to transport them momentarily.
DAVIES: You know, hummus is something that, 20 years ago, nobody in America ate very much. Now you can find it in all these tubs in supermarkets.
SOLOMONOV: I - you know what? - it's funny. Everyone's, like, you must have great hummus at your house. And I'm like, the truth is I don't cook a lot at my house, and I work a bunch. So my wife - I don't make fun of her when she buys store-bought hummus. I don't. I don't judge. And I may eat it sometimes with, like, peeled carrot sticks at night, maybe. You know, I just feel like there's a huge difference between the store-bought stuff and the stuff that we make.
DAVIES: You write that hummus should never be refrigerated. That's not to say served refrigerated; it should never be refrigerated. Right?
SOLOMONOV: I don't - we don't - we make our hummus, and we serve it. I think that temperature is a really big thing, and I think that a lot of people are used to, like, cold dips. But the truth is, all the nuances and the richness that you get and the robustness from the chickpeas and the butteriness of the tehina (ph) - all that is sort of pronounced when it's at room temperature.
DAVIES: You grill a lot at Zahav.
DAVIES: How is it distinct from grilling at other places?
SOLOMONOV: Well, we use charcoal only. And we - most of the protein that we cook is on little shipudim or, like, little skewers that - they suspend right over the charcoal. We don't - we use a grill grate for things like fish or things like eggplant that you can't really skewer. And on the rest of it, though, it's almost like extreme hot smoking.
DAVIES: And why do you do it that way? What's distinctive about the flavor?
SOLOMONOV: Well, it's unique to Israel and the Middle East and a lot of Arabia. And I just think that it is amazing. I mean, I think it's - you know, being that close to the charcol - extremely hot charcoal - is - I don't know. The flavor is just fantastic. And we cook kebabs, which are like ground meat mixtures that are, like, heavily spiced and distinct to the region that we want to represent. The kofta - if it's, like, Bulgarian, we, you know, do the black pepper and the paprika. And if it's Romanian style, we use, like, tons of garlic. We make lamb merguez, which is lamb - which is North African, you know, with, like, harissa, and it's piquant.
So there's an easy way to sort of - to get these, like, cultural nuances into the meat. Right? And then if shishlik - like, chunks of meat - we marinate them, usually with a mixture of onion juice, which sounds - I know it sounds crazy, but onions have got all this sugar and acid, so it helps break down the meat. Plus it caramelizes really, really nicely over the charcoal, and that gives it, itself, a distinct flavor. So we do chicken shishlik, you know, which is like a chicken thigh. And we take amba, which is like a fermented mango pickle, and puree that with onion and garlic and just let the meat sort of soak in that for a while and then grill it. And it's just - you know, it's special.
DAVIES: It is special. And of course, grills in a lot of restaurants simply mean - what? - a propane burner over a grill.
SOLOMONOV: Right. It means, like, a grill grate. And there's nothing wrong with that. I just feel like for what we're trying to do, we need - you need the charcoal.
DAVIES: One of the interesting parts of the book is you write about cooking rice...
DAVIES: ...Which is something that everybody does...
DAVIES: ...All the time.
DAVIES: And you write about a - I think you describe him as your half brother-in-law, Avi Mor...
DAVIES: ...And how, even though you'd been cooking professionally for years, his rice was a revelation.
SOLOMONOV: Yeah. Well, he's Persian. And, you know, he cooks rice with tahdig, so it's like a - this crust on the bottom of it that is developed. And I think it's - you know, the...
DAVIES: Is the - the crust is rice that's just burned enough at the bottom.
DAVIES: It's absolutely delicious. It's (unintelligible).
SOLOMONOV: It's the best. It's what you give to the guests. It's, like, the best part. It tastes like popcorn a little bit or almonds. It's so, so good. It's not impossible to make very well, but it's not very easy. What's interesting, though, is that you get this perfect crust, and then you get these great grains of rice that are fluffy, still intact and still have got all this integrity. So you've got this sort of pluralistic (laughter) pot of rice that's happening, which is - you know, from where I come from, we use chemicals. We sous vide. We, you know, confit. We do all these, like, fancy things. We do sauce-work.
But, I mean, nailing a pot of Persian rice is, like, very, very difficult. So I was struck by that. Also maybe the older I get, the more I'm just like I am uninterested in things that are incredibly complex. And the simple things are more impressive to me and also make these memories. I mean, that's the real thing. You know, you cook all these, like, fancy things. You cook for these great chefs. You maybe go to Europe and maybe not. But what are the things that like - what are the things that make me excited to cook or what are the memories that I've had that have sort of steered me to being a chef or, more importantly, being in hospitality, inviting people in to, you know, make them food and to serve them and to have them feel sort of special for that moment in my house or in my restaurant?
And it's not the Michelin-rated meals that I've had before. It's the pots of rice. It's the savory pastries that my grandmother made that, you know, if I can close my eyes right now, I can still taste. That's what we want to convey in the restaurant, and that's what we want to convey with the book.
DAVIES: Is street food in Israel an inspiration to you?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, street food is absolutely an inspiration. I think it's almost what I crave the most when I go back there.
DAVIES: What are your favorites?
SOLOMONOV: Well, there's like the shawarma falafel, which is good, and you can kind of find that all over the place. And there's arguably better ones in different locations. I like traveling for that sort of thing. Sabich is really good. Do you know what that is?
SOLOMONOV: So it's fried eggplant. It's stuffed in pita with hard-boiled eggs and tahini and, like, the amba, the mango pickle - so so good, delicious. And there is malawah, which is, like, a Yemenite flatbread that's kind of like this, like, layered, laminated, puffy, kind of greasy bread that you, like, roll up and stuff with, like, tomatoes or fresh cheese. And there are just, like, kebab sandwiches that you get. In Jerusalem, there's actually Jerusalem grill or Jerusalem mixed grill, which is, like, a bunch of organ meat, minced, put on, like, a plancha, also stuffed inside of a pita - so good.
BIANCULLI: Chef Michael Solomonov speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in 2015. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to contributor Dave Davies and his 2015 interview with Chef Michael Solomonov, who is featured in a new documentary called "In Search Of Israeli Cuisine" and just won the James Beard Award as outstanding chef.
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DAVIES: You'd gone to culinary school. You'd been a sous chef at a well-known Philadelphia restaurant when the idea of opening Zahav, this Israeli restaurant, came up with you and your partner, Steve Cook. The restaurant opened in 2008. It was a unique kind of venue, and the food was really unique. But you struggled at first. I mean, there was a point where you had to stop taking a salary, and you were kind of cutting back on staff.
SOLOMONOV: Yeah. We had such a hard opening. 2008 was not an easy year, I think, anywhere to open...
DAVIES: 'Cause of the recession, yeah.
SOLOMONOV: ...A small business, certainly an Israeli restaurant that nobody knew - nobody knew what Israeli anything was. And what was happening that year? OK, so the economy was tanking. The Phillies were in the World Series, which is great for Philly, not great for you're a new restaurant. And I was struggling with addiction and had to (laughter) had to have, like, an intervention and go to rehab. You know, it was just - there were so many awful things happening. And we, Steve and I, were completely in the weeds. We did not - you know, we didn't take paychecks for a very long time. And if we did, it was, like, minimal and, you know, took about a year or so to get back to being healthy.
DAVIES: You know, you mentioned addiction and - well, let's talk about that for a moment. This is something that had been happening for years. You'd used, like, pot, I guess, in earlier years.
DAVIES: But when you got into the depths of this, you were actually using crack and heroin at the same time seriously. I mean, boy, you don't do things halfway.
SOLOMONOV: No, I don't. I think that, you know, towards the end of it, I mean, things were just sort of falling apart. And unfortunately, that's how it goes with addiction. I mean, it's progressive, right? So as a kid, I'm, like, wild and, you know, you experiment with pot and alcohol. And then if you've got the gene or if the context is right, you end up sort of almost dying or in jail or whatever. And I just kind of feel like that's how it went with me. And then I - of course, the problem with addiction is that you drag everybody down with you. So my wife, my business partner, every one of our employees, all these people unfortunately get affected by this sort of behavior.
DAVIES: One of the things that's interesting to me about this is addiction can take over people's lives and ruin marriages and jobs and everything. But you were actually, you know, at least on the surface a pretty productive human being. I mean, you were running this big restaurant. Do you think that there was a line there that would prevent you from destroying yourself, that the restaurant was important enough that you were not going to let the drugs take over?
SOLOMONOV: No. I don't actually. I think that it would have been a matter of time, that I would have destroyed everything that I had control to do. And I think that I continue to be surrounded by people that are loving and supportive and that care. And it's also, you know, in their best interest that I don't, like, get arrested or die. I mean, so I - no, I think it would have been a matter of time. I think eventually it would have just caught up with me, and I would have stolen or done whatever I had to do. I had enough people and I was ready to stop. I mean, it was just too much for me. And I wasn't happy, and - I mean, wasn't happy. I was, like, miserable. I felt like I was dying, you know?
And I was ready to stop, and I had people that were in my corner that were there to support me and to get me help and to be there for me for, like, not only up until I went to rehab but, I mean, for the first year, I didn't drive by myself. I wasn't by myself. I mean, I didn't carry money on me. Steve would pick me up every single day, drive me to work, talk to me and make sure I was OK, get me - you know, whatever support I needed. And my wife would pick me up every single night and drive me home. And it was like I - you know, I needed that.
DAVIES: You know, one thing that people know about the restaurant business is how intense it is when things are busy. And that's certainly something I observed when I was there. And it, you know, it made me think about your experience with addiction and think restaurant people, they, you know, do four or five hours or more that's just this really crazy, intense thing.
DAVIES: And I wonder if it makes people more inclined to, you know, use chemicals to come down or to stay up.
SOLOMONOV: Well, it's interesting that you say that. I mean, I think that - it's possible. I think that, you know, the rush that you get from cooking or being in a, you know, volatile sort of environment I think can sometimes replace maybe the substance. I don't know. I go home right (laughter) - I go home after work. You know, I walk home. I live two blocks away. I walk home.
I listen to a song and then I - on my walk home with headphones and put, like, a hoodie on. And then I, like, watch TV for, like, 45 minutes and drink chamomile tea. And then I go to sleep, you know?
DAVIES: What do you watch on TV?
SOLOMONOV: I actually watch horror movies (laughter), like, a lot of - I don't know. So maybe that's an argument against - I don't know. So in any case, that's what I do now. I don't go out, really. I mean, sometimes we'll go out and I'll, like, eat food. But I try not to eat that late at night. And I feel like it's very difficult to go home after you've sort of, you know, saved the world or what - you know, as line cooks, you think that you're, like, destroying the comet that's going to explode, right?
SOLOMONOV: Like, you think you're going to save the world and...
DAVIES: Well, you're sending 200 people away happy, you know, I mean...
SOLOMONOV: Listen, it's a lot of work, and you don't do it for that long if you don't love it and you don't think it's important. And we're not necessarily saving the world. But there are, you know, 200 people every single night that we create this special environment for for a few hours. And that, to me, is, I guess, my life's work, right? So it's very, very hard to go from doing that to going directly to sleep.
You know, it doesn't really work. So it's natural to go out, to maybe have a couple of drinks and wind down. And, you know, if you've got an insane personality, it's natural to drink, like, many beers or party or do whatever. So I don't - it's not as easy as just, like, going home.
DAVIES: You have a really busy life. You've got all these businesses. You get in the kitchen as often as you can.
DAVIES: What's food like at your house? What do you and your family eat?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, God, I knew you were going to ask that. I - let's see. Food - my wife is a fantastic cook, and we've got two, like, little kids. So I don't know. It's probably oftentimes eating, like, organic, like, chicken fingers over the sink trying to get them to eat stuff. Luckily, my kids have always liked - our oldest too has always enjoyed Asian noodle soup and pizza and, like, brisket.
And that is a gift. That's a blessing, you know? But I don't know. Like, I made - the other night, I just, like, slow roasted some meat and put it over, like, butter noodles. And I got one of our kids to eat a little bit of it. And the rest my wife and I ate over the sink.
DAVIES: And I would think you'd be bringing home delicious bags from Zahav, no?
SOLOMONOV: No, no, we don't do that (laughter). Our oldest came in and ate hummus and spit it out on the plate, like, in the dining room. And I was like, dude, come on, have some respect. This might be paying for your college one of these days, you know?
DAVIES: (Laughter) Were you a picky eater as a kid yourself?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, my God, I was the worst eater - the worst. Yeah, I, like, ate nothing. I would take pizzas and, like, take that cheese off of them and wipe the sauce off and put the cheese back on. And, yeah, it's hilarious to my family that I became a chef.
DAVIES: And when did it change? When did you get a real interest in food?
SOLOMONOV: Actually, when I started cooking I did. I started cooking in Israel when I was, like, 18 years old or - yeah, I was 18.
DAVIES: At a bakery, right?
SOLOMONOV: At a bakery and then as a short-order cook at a cafe. And I really loved - I think I loved sort of creating and building and, you know, formulating things. I don't know, I was definitely inspired by that. And I enjoyed the camaraderie of the kitchen. And then I started to love to eat.
BIANCULLI: Chef Michael Solomonov speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Solomonov, who is featured in a new documentary called "In Search Of Israeli Cuisine," just won the James Beard Award as outstanding chef. After a break, we'll visit with comedian Chris Gethard and have reviews of two new films. John Powers reviews the new documentary called "Risk" and David Edelstein reviews the newest Marvel Studios movie "Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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