The Zahav chef get serious about cookbooks, doughnuts, substance abuse, and Israeli EDM
Even by the ravaging standards of the restaurant industry, Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov hasn’t had the easiest path. And yet somehow, over the better part of the last decade, Solomonov and his parter Steve Cook have built a small empire of extremely popular — and very good — restaurants. At center stage is Zahav, an Israeli restaurant unlike any other in America (or, for that matter, in Israel), and food obsessives travel from all over to try Solomonov’s highly personal, tour-de-force cooking. In the second episode of The Eater Upsell (transcript below), Eater’s podcast hosted by Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner, Solomonov talks about launching a high-concept restaurant during the worst part of the recession, the family tragedy that brought him to Israeli food, his struggles with crack addiction, and his shameless predilection for “trance and shitty house music.” Also doughnuts. Lots of doughnuts.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, or subscribe via RSS or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Here’s the transcript of our conversation in The Eater Upsell Episode 2: Mike Solomonov, edited to the main interview. Want to know Greg’s feelings about models who talk about how much they eat, or Helen’s take on culinary lolspeak? You’ll just have to listen to the audio above.
Greg Morabito: Right now in the Eater Studios, we’re joined by who I consider to be a titan of not just the Philly restaurant scene, but the national restaurant scene right now.
Helen Rosner: He’s a big deal.
Greg: He’s a very big deal. It’s Michael Solomonov. I got the name right, yeah?
Mike Solomonov: You did. You nailed it.
Helen: Mike Solomonov runs a bunch of restaurants in Philly. He’s the chef at Zahav and the co-owner and partner at many, many more, especially if you consider that Federal Donuts has four-plus locations.
Greg: Welcome, Mike.
Mike: Thank you.
Greg: How are you doing today?
Mike: I’m great. Thanks so much for having me.
Greg: You did a very nice thing, which is you brought us a box of Federal Donuts.
Mike: I did. I did.
Helen: Which has been getting these very lustful stares from our producers.
Mike: I know. It was weird on the train up here, I thought. People kept staring at it. I feel like they, especially on the Amtrak to New York, I think people understand the brand, and they were eyeing out the doughnuts.
Helen: Federal Donuts is huge in New York.
Mike: Is it?
Helen: Which is crazy, considering it’s not here. I think there’s nothing New Yorkers love more than stuff they can’t have.
Mike: We’re talking about a $17 BoltBus ride down from New York. New Yorkers can’t have it, but they can.
Helen: Right, but you have to put in effort and time, or you have to get a friendly person from Philadelphia to bring a box of them back up on the train.
Greg: I know actually several New Yorkers, food writer people, that have made trips to Philly just to eat at your collection of restaurants for one weekend.
Mike: That’s really flattering.
Greg: Do you find a lot of cross-pollination?
Helen: Is the dining room just nothing but New York food writers at all times?
Mike: It’s weird, actually. It’s not just writers. In the summer in particular, I think that a lot of folks from DC and New York are visiting Philly, and they’re going to the Barnes Foundation or running up the Rocky steps, or whatever. There’s one or two meals that they can have, and we’re lucky that Zahav is one of them, I guess, and Federal Donuts could be another. There’s a lot of amazing restaurants in Philly, a lot of great value, and really exciting, and I think really unique to Philadelphia — not just like, “Let’s do it in New York. Let’s do it in Philly. Let’s do it in DC.” I’m flattered, and I’m happy to be part of the Philly dining scene. It’s cool.
Helen: Do you think there’s something unique to Philly that makes it such an attractor to people from other cities?
Mike: That’s a great question. I think that the cost of doing business in Philly is a little bit cheaper than DC and New York. I think that because of the BYOB culture, a lot of chefs or restaurant people — with a lot less resources than having to do it in New York or DC — can open a restaurant. It doesn’t cost quite as much if you’re going to go BYOB. I think things are just a little bit more reasonable. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s just there’s less limitations.
Helen: There’s room to be adventurous as a chef, or to not have to just be the burger-and-kale-salad restaurant.
“Hype doesn’t really work. The restaurants that do well in Philly are ones that work their ass off and the food is fantastic.”Mike: Yeah, I think so. The problem is that the restaurants can also be short lived. Philly doesn’t have the density that New York or DC has, either. I think that in order to make it in Philly, hype doesn’t really work, like the big chefs or the New York transplants. The ones that do well in Philly are ones that work their ass off and the food is fantastic.
Helen: That seems like a pretty reasonable set of requirements for success.
Mike: You’d think. I don’t know. Hype is a weird thing, and restaurants are a weird thing, and food is a really weird, subjective thing. People talk about the rage or this and that. I don’t know. It’s weird to travel a little bit. I do all the time. The last thing that I want to do is disappoint people. I don’t want people to come to Philly visiting from New York or DC, or wherever, and say, “Well, this was just okay. This is lackluster,” with any of our concepts, with Zahav, with Dizengoff, with Abe Fisher, definitely with Federal Donuts or the barbecue place, Percy Street. We don’t want to disappoint. I think that for us, and I don’t know if this is just a Philly thing, but the service has to be great, whether you’re spending five bucks on doughnuts and coffee or chicken, or you’re having a meal at Zahav, or you’re having barbecue at Percy Street. We have to kill it. I think that without that attitude, I don’t think we would do that well.
Greg: How many employees do you have in your restaurant group now?
Mike: In February, we had a holiday party. I don’t know, maybe 200, something like that. Maybe a little bit less.
Helen: Like a very, very small town?
Mike: Yeah. It’s a lot. It’s a village. We have a great restaurant culture, I think.
Helen: You have always been a cook, right?
Helen: Moving over to be a restaurateur on top of being a cook is relatively new in your career.
Mike: Yeah, I think so. I had the privilege of working for, when I was just cooking, I worked for some incredibly talented people — Terence Feury, who was a sous chef and a saucier at Le Bernardin. He was employed as the chef of Striped Bass when I just moved to Philly. His brother Patrick Feury worked at Le Cirque and then was the chef of Avenue B. I worked for both of those guys for a bit, and then I worked for Marc Vetri at Vetri when there were only three kitchen employees, Marc being one of them. Marc was just super entrepreneurial, and Terence was super French. I got a varied experience. Then the first job I had as a chef was with my current business partner, Steve Cook, who was a finance guy in the late ’90s in New York. He hated it. Went to French Culinary Institute at night and then moved back to Philly. He was a Wharton graduate, so he moved back to Philly and started cooking there. Then opened his own restaurant after just a few years of cooking. He and I became very good friends. Also, I got to not only be a chef but really work with a small business owner and we’ve obviously partnered since then. I feel like, yeah, making the transition from cook to chef to owner is really tricky. I don’t know exactly what I do anymore. I run around on trains with doughnuts. I don’t know. I like to cook at Zahav. I don’t like to wear a clean chef coat and go into all the restaurants, and pretend to be the chef. That doesn’t work. All the chefs that we have, like Erin O’Shea, who’s the partner at Percy Street, she’s also a chef, I can’t do a better job than she can there. Abe Fisher has got Yehuda Sichel, who is an old sous chef of ours at Zahav who works his ass off. Abe Fisher is part of his identity. The cuisine is part of his identity. Steve and I — Steve arguably more than I did — had to do with the menu. He and Yehuda worked mostly on the menu of Abe Fisher. I’m the full-time chef of Zahav. It’s difficult to focus more than I actually can, if that makes sense. Emily, who’s the chef of Dizengoff, I can’t do what she does. I don’t know. A lot of this is learning how to back off and not stick my face in everything that isn’t really my business. I mean it is at the end of the day, but I think that getting out of the way and letting people do their job and what they’re here to do has been a big part of it.
Helen: I feel like that’s the hard lesson that anyone who makes it into senior management has to learn: you can’t micromanage. You’ve got to let talented people be talented.
Mike: What’s weird, on one hand, you can’t micromanage. On the other hand, if I walk into Zahav, it’s immediate, I’m like, “This needs salt. The bathroom’s dirty. Make sure to smile and make eye contact.” There is micromanagement, but with the managers, they have to learn how to make mistakes, and they have to learn how to be owners, actually. That’s what we try to do. We hire cooks to be sous chefs to be chefs to be, you know —
Helen: It’s a path.
Mike: It’s a path.
Greg: If I can just rewind a little bit, how did you get into food? Were you a kid that grew up loving food? Did you cook with your family?
Mike: Not at all. I was into a couple things, but I was a really picky eater. I was really not into food. I didn’t eat tomatoes until I was 18 or whatever. I was a photo major guy or a studio arts guy, and I dropped out of school and moved back to Israel, where my family was living. I got a job cooking there, just because I couldn’t — my Hebrew wasn’t good enough to serve, so I needed a job.
Greg: What was the restaurant?
Mike: Actually, I started at a bakery, which was cool, and then I worked at a restaurant called the Coffee Tree, which is a café in the center of this little town called Kfar Saba, which is north of Tel Aviv. It was great. I loved it. I actually got into eating as I got into cooking. It was a parallel. It was awesome. I really loved it. I really do like it. I really miss cooking as much as I used to do. I miss that aspect of it, but cooking is great.
Greg: The hands-on thing about it?
Mike: Yeah. You know what’s interesting, we have a station at Zahav that is the taboon. It’s the bread station. You’re standing in front of a wood-burning oven, and you make laffa, which is a big puffy Iraqi-style pita that we make for everybody and we serve hummus with it. Everybody basically gets hummus and laffa at the restaurant. Generally, that’s the station that I work now, so I physically get to make food for just about every single person that comes in the restaurant, which is great, because as a chef of a large restaurant or busy restaurant, usually you’re not doing that sort of thing. Usually, you’re tasting food or making sure it looks right, or whatever, but you don’t get to physically make food for everybody.
Helen: What’s involved in working that station?
Mike: It’s interesting. It’s the inside expediting station. Just about all the food, minus the desserts and the salatim, come from that station.
Helen: Which are the little salads —
Mike: Exactly. We have six salads that go out with the hummus. Just about everything comes through that station, and all the tickets are expedited through that station. You get to see the front door, and it’s on the way to the bathroom.
Helen: It’s the godfather station.
“It’s a big deal for our customers to know that an owner is there, going down like a ton of bricks on the bread station.”Mike: Exactly. Speaking of micromanagement, right? I’m like, “Why are there 10 people waiting without their— ” For me, it’s awesome, because I get to, I don’t know. The customer experience, the guest experience, is the most important thing in any restaurant. Whatever it is that they walk away with, whatever memory you give them that they walk away with is the most important thing. You get to physically be part of that. Not just making the food and not just making sure the food is going out okay, but literally, telling people the bathroom is on the left. That’s a big deal to me, and it’s a big deal for our customers, I think, to know that, and for the employees, to know that an owner is there, going down like a ton of bricks on the bread station. That’s the thing, too. You get fucking buried on that station.
Greg: You still get in the weeds, even—
Mike: Oh my god, yeah. Every day. Not every day, but a lot.
Greg: How many nights a week on average are you working at Zahav?
Mike: Usually, it’s five nights a week. Because we’ve got a cookbook going out and because there’s a lot of events that seem to be happening all the time — like today, for example, I should be at Zahav doing the chef’s counter at the tasting menu. Tonight, I’ve got my sous chef Beau doing it. I would say five nights a week mostly, but if there’s weird stuff happening elsewhere —
Helen: But that’s no bullshit. That’s not just paying lip service to being, “I’m the chef at Zahav.” You are actually the full-time chef at Zahav.
Mike: That’s it. Any sort of menu changes and all that stuff. It’s a huge restaurant, or huge for Philly standards, too big for me. My business partner Steve, who everybody thinks is just the money guy or whatever, he and I come up with menu ideas all the time. My sous chefs, I try to empower them as much as humanly possible, so the menu’s always changing. Yeah, it’s a lot of work.
Helen: Zahav is an Israeli restaurant, which is an interesting type of food, because Israel is a relatively young entity, from a conceptual perspective, and also that Israel, much like the United States, is a nation largely comprised of immigrants. What does Israeli food mean in the context of a restaurant in Philadelphia?
Mike: Israeli food. This is a great question. Every day, we ask ourselves what it is that we’re doing. The easiest thing to say is the Israeli food is food that’s being cooked in Israel right now, which is a paradox when you’re in Eastern Pennsylvania or in Philly cooking food that should be in Israel. Really, Israel is made up of I don’t know how many different cultures. You have the Jewish community that has all moved back to Israel, basically, after being in the diaspora post-Babylon.
Helen: Right, so the last four or five thousand years of spread.
Mike: A little bit less than that, but still thousands of years. You’ve got Palestinians. You’ve got the Ottoman influence, which is huge in that area. Then you’ve got the surrounding countries. You’ve got Jews that have moved from Syria. You’ve got Druze from Lebanon, Syria. You’ve got Greeks and Turks, Yemeni, North African, like Libyan, Algerian, Moroccan, people from Cyprus. My grandmother was from Bulgaria, but from Spain before that, like the Inquisition. You have so much. Then you also have it all in one place, being incubated in this part of the world where modern agriculture began. It’s super stimulating as far as cooking goes. What we try to do at Zahav, though, is look at Israel as a whole and say, “We’re going to do this with this with that.” If you’re in Israel and you want Yemenite food, you go to a Yemeni restaurant. If you want Moroccan, you go to a Moroccan person’s house or a Moroccan restaurant, or whatever. We have the third-person perspective where we can bring it all together.
Helen: Synthesize it and do the entire country.
Mike: We can do it. We can take all the different cultures, and we can bring it together. We can use different cooking techniques, like cooking royal trumpet mushrooms, which you don’t really find in the Middle East. You can cook those over the charcoal and marinate them like you would lamb shashlik, so it tastes super meaty, and then just —
Helen: I made that recipe the other day from your cookbook.
Mike: That’s what I heard. How was it?
Helen: It was amazing. It was so terrific. This cookbook is coming out in October, right?
Mike: Yeah, October 6th. Yep.
Helen: Basically, my most prized possession right now is my galley of this book.
Mike: Oh, thank you so much.
Greg: It’s true. She let me look at it for 10 minutes, and then was like —
Helen: Then I demanded it back.
Mike: Took it back?
Helen: Where is it right now, Greg?
Greg: It’s in my backpack, actually.
Helen: Okay, cool.
Mike: Right next to the stolen doughnuts.
Helen: No, but it was an amazing recipe. It did feel like it had that fusion. There’s king trumpet mushrooms. That’s not a traditional Middle Eastern ingredient.
Mike: No. Not at all.
Helen: Then you have this marinade of pureed raw onions and allspice, which is this genius crazy addition.
Mike: Right. That’s like the meat. It makes it taste like steak or like lamb, or something. Yeah.
Helen: What’s the thought process behind coming up with a recipe like that?
Mike: A couple things. One, using things like onion juice and garlic juice help break down meat. When you cook them over charcoal, or not, but when you caramelize them and the sugars cook in the onion and the acid in the onion is broken down, the meat, it tenderizes it. It gives everything this robust Israeli barbecue kind of thing. The idea of cooking vegetables as a meat is also a big thing in Israel. For many, many years, it was super poor, so the diet is very vegetable heavy. Even now, when you go there, it’s cucumber-tomato salad three times a day for a meal. The idea of using vegetables as the entrée is actually a very much Israeli thing. The mushrooms — when you marinate them with the onion juice and especially the allspice, which is particular to that dish, and you roast them — to me it really does taste like roasted meat. Why not showcase it and serve it with a little techina, bring it over to the plate on the skewer, and you’ve got something that is vegan or vegetarian — but not because you’re only serving a vegan customer, because it tastes really freaking good. Trumpet mushrooms and hen-of-the-woods are things that we get in Philly all the time.
Helen: Talk about the amazing agriculture that you have in the Middle East. Philly has incredible seafood coming from the east, and incredible dairy coming from the west. I feel like the farmers’ markets in Philly are unlike any that I’ve seen on the East Coast.
Mike: They’re really good, except for that we don’t have cucumbers and tomatoes every single month. We only have them for two or three months. What we have to do is take butternut squash or take cabbage and say, “What spices, what technique, what little nuance of cooking is going to make this taste appropriate for what we’re doing?” Because I’m not going to order tomatoes in February when it’s seven fucking degrees outside. I’m not going to do it. That, to us, has been what has been so liberating. That’s what makes our restaurant relevant. I’m not an Israeli grandmother. It wouldn’t taste right —
Greg: Wait, hold up?
Mike: Yeah. I know. I feel like a freaking Israeli grandmother. I’m tired. I want to just play backgammon and not talk to people. Unfortunately, I’m not. What we have to do is figure out what makes it relevant. Like I said, that’s what’s given Zahav identity. When we first opened, we had this little private room that I would do chef’s tasting menu, ego, “I’m a molecular chef, and I want to show off” or whatever. Then we would do the classic stuff that was not really creative. It was just like, “This is what they do in Israel. Let’s do it here.” And it sucked. The whole experience sucked, because we weren’t paying enough attention to the regular menu, and because we were cooking modern Israeli modernist food for ten people in 2008. Nobody liked it, and it was stupid. To me, after that period, it just wasn’t working. We almost closed, actually. We almost went under in 2008. My business partner and I —
“I feel like a freaking Israeli grandmother. I’m tired. I want to just play backgammon and not talk to people.”Helen: It was a rough year.
Mike: It was not a great year to open an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia — especially in Philly, because the Phillies were in the playoffs. It was a new election, the stock market, everything sucked. Personally, there was a lot of horrible shit happening in my life. My business partner and I were in the weeds. At one point, it was like we weren’t listening to our customers, we weren’t focusing the attention on what we wanted to express with Israeli food. At one point, my business partner was like, “Dude, you got to just cook.” I’m a chef. I need to be creative. I need to interpret. I need to have outlets for whatever ideas I have. He was like, “You’re not doing it with what we’re doing right now. This isn’t connecting with people.” It worked after a while. We stopped with the fancy food. I threw out the circulator. We cook meat over charcoal. We cook laffa to order in a wood-burning oven. That’s the exciting stuff. I don’t need to copy what everybody else is doing just so we can have a cook plating technique.
Greg: When did people take notice of these changes and that you guys pivoted?
Helen: Pivoting. It’s like a startup.
Mike: We did a pivot. Actually, we got a lot of really good press out of the gates. I just think it was very hype-based. Nobody was really doing Israeli food, and I think that that generated a lot of buzz. We started to take paychecks or not be concerned that we were going to fail probably in April of 2009, so it took about a year, almost a year, to make it. I remember we had our first anniversary party, and it was like, thank god. We were so ecstatic, because we could pay people, and eventually started taking paychecks, and all that stuff. It was cool.
Helen: And now it’s six or seven years later, and —
Mike: Yeah, May 5th will be seven years.
Helen: Wow. That’s forever —
Mike: Yeah. It’s like dog years, I know. Speaking of Israeli grandmother.
Helen: I feel like now, in the last year in particular, the palate of the Middle East has become a trendy palate in the United States. It was Chinese, and then it was Korean, and then it was Californian. Right now, everyone is losing their minds with excitement over, like, sumac.
Mike: Yes, sumac, za’atar, all those things. What’s ironic is that the Pennsylvania Dutch, the guys that we buy our produce from, they’ve been using sumac to make pink lemonade for hundreds of years.
Helen: That’s really cool.
Mike: Yeah, totally. It’s good.
Helen: Because sumac is lemony.
Mike: Sumac is what the lemon flavor was in the Middle East before the Moors brought lemons, actually. Yeah, sumac’s been used forever. It’s awesome. You can cure things with it and it doesn’t ceviche — there’s no real acid, or no substantial amount of acid, so you can rub something, like a piece of fish, with tons of it to make it lemony without cooking it.
Helen: That is a good food hack.
Mike: Yep. There’s a Palestinian dish called summaqiya, I think—.
Helen: Which just means “the sumac dish,” right?
Mike: Basically. It’s braised lamb that’s finished with a shitload of sumac. It’s super sour and pomegranate, so it’s got that red fruit and lemony, and you finish the stew with techina. It’s awesome. Yeah, sumac is great. People are using it. I think that people are calling food “Israeli” now. Like, Israelis in Israel are opening restaurants that are about Israeli food. They’re not going to Michelin restaurants in Spain or in France, and coming back and trying to reproduce that, you know? For me, that’s what everybody was doing in my generation. Everyone was going to Spain. I almost actually, before I met Steve, I almost went to Arzak. They have a two-year unpaid stage in San Sebastian that I was going to do, and I’m glad I didn’t.
Greg: Understanding that Middle Eastern food, Israeli cuisine, there’s bigger awareness about it and people are getting really interested in it, did that influence at all the way that you put the cookbook together? Is it going to break down the ingredients for people?
Mike: It is. I think that Zahav the cookbook is definitive. It’s definitive Israeli cooking for Westerners, basically, I think. Not for just Westerners, but I think that the thing about the Middle East, and what I think a lot of people are experiencing lately: it’s so mysterious. Everything is ancient, and it’s huge. It’s ambiguous. North African cooking is totally different than food of the Levant. Israeli food, for a long time, people thought was just falafel and shawarma, which is not native to Israel, either. So, I think that we just wanted to break it down and make it approachable, and try to not make it, asterisk, “Go to your local Middle Eastern supermarket,” and be terrified of not being able to find the right ingredient, or whatever. We really wanted to make it approachable and definitive, and give logical steps, while encompassing what we felt like was representative of Israeli cuisine.
Greg: Did you have fun writing the cookbook, or was it a nightmare? I’ve heard both. It could be either.
Mike: Honestly, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had involving food. My business partner Steve wrote the book. Dorothy Kalins, who’s just a freaking genius and a pioneer —
Helen: She’s amazing.
Mike: — produced the book. Don Morris did page layout, and my good friend Mike Persico shot the book. Mike and I have been friends forever. This is his first cookbook. It was about Israeli food in the States, and it was about our restaurant. It was about my family. Honestly, when we finished, I was like, “I have a greater understanding of what it was that we were trying to do for so many years.” It gave me perspective on what we were doing. I feel like that’s some magical shit right there.
Helen: That’s amazing.
Greg: There’s a touch of personal narrative mixed in with all this?
Mike: Most of it is personal. The fact that it wasn’t written by a ghostwriter or somebody that was a professional cookbook author, which would have made it a lot easier.
Greg: I wish they categorized cookbooks that way in the bookstore. With a ghostwriter, without.
Mike: That’s the thing. There are plenty of people that do a really good job at that. It would have been great. The fact of the matter is, Dorothy saw — my business partner Steve wrote a chapter or a headnote, and she was like, “Okay, you can do this.” She just nudged when she did. I wrote the intro, which was 20 pages fucking long, and she was like, “Naw, dude. You got to redo that.” She directed everything. Steve, he and I share a large part of this book. I mean, even the restaurant was sort of built by us, right? Steve and I have known each other for years and years, and we’ve been through good times and really awful times together. It just seemed like the right thing to do. It is my narrative, I guess, and it’s Steve’s narrative, as well. I don’t feel terribly comfortable writing or talking about myself. And also, I’m a chef. I don’t know how people write this shit on their own. I would need six months of not doing anything else. We’re running restaurants, opening restaurants, all that stuff. It would be incredibly difficult to write a book, I think, by yourself.
Helen: We’re writers, and we don’t run restaurants on the side. Yeah, no —
Greg: Well, you don’t, Helen.
Helen: Greg has a secret restaurant.
Mike: It’s really difficult. I don’t know how you guys do it, but writer’s block is a thing.
Helen: It’s the worst.
Mike: It is the worst. For me, I experience it with writing menu ideas or whatever, and I can’t be in the restaurant. I can’t come up with great ideas when I’m in the restaurant cooking. I have to be on a train, or I have to be somewhere else. It’s difficult. It just takes so much discipline. So for Steve to write the book and for us to continue doing our jobs, it was really a lot of work.
Helen: Let’s talk a little bit about your personal life, though, even though you just said you don’t like to. The book is dedicated to your brother, David, who was killed while serving in the Israeli army. How long ago was that?
Mike: That was in 2003.
Helen: So before Zahav came into existence, but after you were a chef.
Mike: Yeah, so, I had started cooking, and I was working at Vetri restaurant. I had just accepted the sous chef position, which is funny, because it was like three employees. I was the guy that did the ordering. What [Marc Vetri] used to do at Vetri, which is super Italian, is closed in the summer for three weeks, which unfortunately he doesn’t do anymore.
Helen: He’s a big deal now. People want to come to the restaurant.
“We got to hang out for weeks, and just do brother stuff. Those were pretty formative years that we had missed, so it was awesome.”Mike: Also, I’m like, “Who closes a restaurant for three weeks?” I wish we could do that. I went to Israel, and I hadn’t been there in almost four years, since I had started cooking. My brother David, unlike me, had assimilated and gone to high school in Israel. When we moved back, I stayed American, and he became, I guess, Israeli. Everyone goes to the military. Everyone does their army service. He was in an infantry unit and was right before his— So, I went back from Vetri to visit, and he was on his last month of service. We got to hang out, and we hadn’t really spent a lot of time together in almost four years. We got to hang out for weeks, and just do brother stuff. Those were pretty formative years that we had missed, so it was awesome. And then I came back to the States. He was supposed to finish. Then a few days before his release, which happened to coincide with Yom Kippur, he was killed. Patrolling the Lebanese border, basically.
Mike: Yeah. So, you know, after that — this is all hindsight, I didn’t realize this — but I needed a way to get close to him, because I had missed so many years and because he was 21, and I felt like shit was just falling apart. It took a while to ring it in and understand what it was that was happening. After that, I didn’t want to really cook Italian food. It didn’t make sense for me to do. The cliched idea of “cooking Israeli food to get close to my brother” wasn’t something that we could, like, formulate. It just happened. It made sense, and people liked it. Steve hired me at Marigold. I started cooking — it was American, New American or whatever, but we started using Israeli ingredients, like hawaij, which is a Yemenite spice blend, or za’atar and sumac, and all these things. People took notice. It was a way to identify with Israel, to be perfectly honest with you. It’s a way to advocate for Israel without having to get political, and I guess in a way, it brings me closer to Dave. In a way.
Greg: I gotta say, that’s really touching. Thank you for sharing that. Because as someone who doesn’t really cook very much, it’s very hard for me to understand the idea of cooking in somebody’s honor or to get closer, like you were saying. Is that just it’s the process of doing it?
Mike: I think it is. I don’t think it’s terribly cognitive. It’s not happening in real time. You look back, and you’re like, “Okay, this is why all this has happened.” It definitely wasn’t easy, too. Speaking of personal stuff, I had gone through a lot of substance abuse issues after my brother was killed. It took a long time to focus on just the good or the bittersweet. I don’t, when I’m rolling bread out, I’m like, “I’m doing this for Dave,” or “This laffa is for David,” or anything. I don’t know. His story is unique. I think that Israel can tend to get a bad rap sometimes. He was just doing his job. He was patrolling a border, and he was shot by Hezbollah snipers that were in Lebanon firing into Israel. It was just totally unfortunate and fucked up. He was a peaceful kid that didn’t hate Arabs or anything like that. It’s important for me. I don’t want to move back to Israel. Actually, after he was killed, I was considering moving back to Israel to join the military, which would have — I would have shot my eye out or something. I would have sucked at that, and I don’t think that that’s the best way for me to represent Israel and for me to pay homage to my brother. I don’t think that would have been the right thing to do, so this seems more appropriate.
Helen: Cooking in general, but a restaurant in particular, is a really subtle and powerful avenue to express your allegiance and appreciation to a place without having to be there.
Helen: To serve as an ambassador.
Mike: Totally. Totally. I think that we’re celebrating food, which is celebrating people and culture. I just think that this cliched shit comes all the time. I’m not going to create peace in the Middle East through food, but honestly, it would be a much easier, more diplomatic way than what’s actually happening now. Maybe at some point. I want to be able to celebrate these cultures that David died defending. Plus, we have a lot of fun! That’s the thing, too. I don’t want to say it’s all for my brother or whatever, because the truth is, we have 60 employees that work their ass off every day at Zahav to have a great restaurant, to provide great hospitality.
Helen: The diners who come in and have amazing, delicious meals that have huge amounts of happiness and celebration attached to them, as opposed to a somber memorial.
Mike: Right, exactly. All this what I’ve just said about my brother, that shouldn’t minimize the work that everybody does every single day to get through service.
Greg: Around this time last year, there was a story in the Times by Frank Bruni that was about your personal history with substance abuse and some of these things we just talked about. I just remember reading that and applauding the fact that you were so candid about this stuff, and that you were sharing, because I’ve always understood that there has been a lot of substance abuse in just restaurant life in general, and that people don’t really talk about it.
Helen: When they do, they talk about it in such a glorifying way, like, “Yeah, you can totally just shoot up heroin and go work the line.”
Greg: It’s like the Kitchen Confidential —
Mike: I know. I just felt like I had been clean and sober for a while. I was fine talking about that, and I wasn’t that particular or that specific. The more positive accolades we got, I thought, I don’t know, it just seemed like the right time to be brutally honest. I don’t know. It sort of scared the shit out of my parents. They knew that I was clean and they knew when I went to rehab, they knew I was in recovery and I was in a program, and all that stuff. The details, I think, probably shocked a lot of people. If you have any experience at all with substance abuse, you realize that any substance can be super dangerous. Everyone’s like, “Whoa, you smoked crack. Isn’t that crazy?” And I’m like, “I guess so, but if I got drunk and drove into somebody and killed them, it would be just as upsetting.” I think that I wasn’t trying to glorify, and I think that it was a little bit shocking and a good read, but I think that for every good piece of literature that was written about us or about me, or whatever, I think — I don’t know, it’s very useful to other people that are either struggling in the industry or not in the industry, to know that this is something that is happening and that we’re all vulnerable and susceptible to this kind of stuff.
Greg: Is there anything you do as a restaurateur with a big staff, presumably a lot of younger chefs, do you ever talk about this stuff with them?
Mike: I do. I’m pretty open about it. I don’t preach or whatever. When I got back from rehab, I was like, “Oh, shit. Everybody here has got a problem,” or whatever. The reality was that I was the worst drug addict of anybody. If you had to rate, my behavior was the worst. It took a little bit of time, but I would like to think that the culture in our restaurant or maybe our organization is a little bit more tame. Nobody gets fucked up during service. It’s not part of the culture. It’s a really demanding restaurant, so if people get wasted or are up all night partying and coming to the restaurant and don’t perform well, it’s a problem. People can do whatever they want. That’s fine. If it starts affecting work, then it’s a huge problem. And if I see people that are struggling personally, I’m going to try to help them, and if I can’t help them, then they’re going to leave.
Helen: Has it changed the way you think about kitchen culture in general?
“People use the word ‘functioning’ drug addict or alcoholic. You’re only functioning until you’re not.”Mike: I think in general, yeah. People talk about working in restaurants because they can party and get banged up. I’m like, “I don’t know, dude. My friends that work in banks or whatever, they don’t get wasted at work when they’re counting money.” Maybe they do. Not that I know of. I think that we work more effectively as a team when everybody’s there to do the job. I also think that if you have an issue with substances, eventually it’s going to catch up. People use the word “functioning” drug addict or alcoholic. You’re only functioning until you’re not. I hid an addiction while I met my business partner, while we got all these awards, while we opened restaurants, while I got married. I hid an addiction from my wife. She didn’t find out until two years after that she was married to a crackhead, basically. Yeah, if I functioned, fine, but I was always a step away from dying or a step away from getting caught — I mean, so many close calls. I think that eventually, things just go really bad. You have to deal with those things. Whether they’re people that I know that work for me or with me, it’s my responsibility as an employer but also as a friend or as a recovering addict to try to help.
Greg: Sounds like you’ve had a very busy, very intense last decade or so of your life.
Mike: Yeah. That’s what I mean. I’m like an Israeli grandparent, dude. It’s time to just play checkers and shit, on park benches. I wish I could do that.
Helen: You’ve earned that, I think.
Greg: So, what’s next for Federal Donuts? Things are humming along.
Mike: Yeah, we’ve got some really cool stuff happening with Federal Donuts.
Helen: To totally change the subject.
Mike: Exactly. Whew, thank God. I just pissed my pants. All of us at Federal Donuts, but spearheaded by Steve Cook, he sits on the hospitality board of Broad Street Ministries, which is a community church that also provides social services and food, like they do meals at a church on Broad Street in Philadelphia for people that are in need. We started volunteering there. Our company goes in quarterly and will serve lunch or serve a meal to a few hundred people that need it. Broad Street Ministries does counseling for people. It’s a mailbox for people. You can’t get benefits or whatever without an address, so it’s an address to maybe a thousand people or something like that, or even more in Philly. Steve sits on the hospitality board, and we decided that what we were going to do at Federal Donuts was get whole chickens, and the pieces of chicken that we couldn’t fry and serve — because we serve doughnuts and fried chicken — we were going to make soup out of. I was like, “We’ll make soup, and we’ll give soup out to people.” That’s not what Broad Street does. They don’t want to just serve chicken soup to people standing in line on the street.
Helen: It’s so Dickensian.
Mike: Right, exactly. Their mission is to be an actual service to people. We canned my stupid-ass idea, and what we’re going to do is take all the chicken backs and everything that we can’t serve at Federal Donuts, and make a soup restaurant out of it, basically, and 100 percent of the profit goes to Broad Street Ministry.
Helen: Cool. When’s it opening?
Mike: It’s called Rooster Soup. I don’t know. We’re getting very, very close on a location. So that’s going to be happening really soon, within the year. Then separately, there’s a school in Philly called the Workshop School, which is all project-based learning. They’re going to take all of our chicken fat and fryer oil, and convert it into fuel, biofuel, basically.
Helen: The fried-chicken-powered car.
Mike: Oh my God, it smells so good. No, I want to wear a chicken suit and drive around a scooter in Philly fueled by chicken fat or whatever. That’s my dream. These guys are amazing. They won, what was it, the X Prize? The West Philadelphia High School had a — Simon Hauger basically was the physics teacher, I believe, and also had this after-school program that took kids and taught them basically how to build cars. Then I can’t remember the name of this. I am really shitty at this sort of thing. There was this contest that was to build, I think, the fastest — maybe it was an electric car? Basically, the West Philly High School kids got second place in the country. He got his own school, and they’re doing this amazing stuff. They’re going to work on powering a car with our fryer fuel, and they’re also going to take the byproduct, which is glycerin, and make Federal Donuts soap. We’re going to market it and sell it.
Helen: That’s amazing. You could call up Federal Donuts, order up some fried chicken and doughnuts, have it delivered to you — not that you do delivery, but in theory —
Mike: No, by me, literally by me.
Helen: Literally by you, Mike Solomonov in a chicken suit —
Mike: I’ll sell you soap.
Helen: — on a biofuel-powered scooter with the chicken fat, and then you wash your hands afterwards.
Mike: Wash your hands, and the Workshop School kids will —
Helen: With their soap.
Mike: Exactly, will sell you soap.
Greg: Then you take your Federal Donuts towel and wipe your hands off.
Helen: You go to sleep in your Federal Donuts bed, in your Federal Donuts house.
Mike: I know. It’s all circular.
Helen: You’re taking over the world.
Mike: I know.
Helen: Are you going to come to New York? I bet everyone — you don’t have to answer that.
Mike: That’s a good question. I don’t know. We’re looking to expand. We have four, and then we’ve got one at the ballpark, and then we’ve got another top-secret project that we’re working on in Philly, as well, that’s not bricks. It’s something else. We’re looking to expand. I don’t know where it’s going to go. We were looking in New York —
Helen: We have space in the Eater office.
Greg: Oh, yeah.
Mike: I love it. I think New York would be awesome. I just think it’s a lot. We sell doughnuts for a buck-fifty and chicken for under 10. We need to figure out how we can organize so we can keep it the same. I don’t want to just come to New York and make it expensive because we can. That’s not what our mission is.
Greg: Do you people ask you if you’re going to expand to New York all the time?
Mike: All the time.
Helen: I’m sorry.
Mike: All the time. No, don’t worry about it. For Zahav, I thought that’s what we were going to do. I thought that that would be the ultimate goal. Being a chef in New York is kind of like, the thing, right? We were talking about it. But there’s something really cool about having an Israeli restaurant in Philly that people go to from New York and from DC. I don’t know. New York is awesome, and I love it, but it’s nice being in Philly. Are you guys going to beat me up?
Helen: No, no.
Helen: I don’t know. I don’t want to speak for Greg, but I get kind of sick of New York sometimes. I like having a reason to leave.
Greg: It’s always good to have a reason to leave.
Mike: We’ve got 10 reasons for you to leave.
Helen: Just 10? More, more.
Greg: Boom! There’s that BoltBus.
Helen: Yeah, 17 bucks. Listen, before we say goodbye, we have a lightning round.
Mike: Oh, God. Okay.
Greg: What is your airport vice?
Mike: People magazine and Sour Patch Kids.
Helen: That’s a good one.
Greg: For real?
Helen: That’s a good combo. That’s very well paired.
Greg: Then you’re all set up. You got your first 30 minutes of the flight.
Mike: Ready to go. You’re good.
Helen: Who’s your favorite People storyline? Are you a Kim Kardashian guy, or the Princess Di reissues, or what’s your jam?
Mike: Usually, it’s the people that make fun of people for what they wear. The commentary —
Helen: “You look terrible.”
Mike: It’s fucking witty. The human interest story, I have a hard time reading there in that particular magazine, but I don’t know. It’s easy reading.
Helen: Yeah. When you’re on a road trip, what’s the album that you blast?
Mike: That’s a great question. I have mostly Beck CDs in my car. I like old and new Beck a lot. I’m really into hip hop, and I feel like that does well with cars, like car trips. I’m also, because I was born in Israel, secretly I like trance and shitty house music. I like electronic music, okay? Fuck it. I said it. There.
Helen: This is a safe space.
Mike: It is a safe space. Nobody’s here. Nobody can hear us. But I feel like that works really well in cars.
Helen: If you were not a chef, what would you be doing?
Mike: That’s a great question. I would probably be a drug counselor. But really, I want to surf or snowboard all day. You know what I want to do? I want to make dinner for my family every night. That’s what I want to do. It’s going to take a little bit of time to get there.
Helen: How often do you cook for your family?
Mike: Maybe twice in, like, ever.
Helen: Our next question, actually, is what is your go-to meal for cooking for your family off the cuff?
Mike: Oh, so here’s what we do. We’ll have leftovers from our barbecue restaurant, Percy Street. That was a gratuitous plug, right? We get brisket from Percy Street Barbecue, in between 9th and 10th on South Street in Philadelphia. Seriously, the brisket is out of this world. Erin’s brisket is better than —
Helen: Is it Southern-style brisket, or Jewish-style —
Mike: It’s Texas style. It’s the best kind of Jewish deli meets Texas. I would battle any brisket with that brisket. We’ll have leftovers. There’s also, on 9th Street, which is very close, in the Italian market, is a tortilleria. They make fresh tortillas, and you can get a kilo of it for like three bucks. We take leftover beans, and we take leftover burnt ends, and we make like a bean-burnt-end situation. We put in on fresh tortillas with cheese. It is so freaking good.
Greg: That sounds like a whole new restaurant there or something.
Mike: It’s so good, man. Fresh tortillas, there’s nothing better with barbecued brisket. It’s crazy good.
Greg: We want to thank you so much for coming into the Eater Studio.
Mike: Thank you so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure.
Greg: When does the book come out?
Mike: October 6th. Yeah, October 6th.
Helen: I bet you could pre-order it 20 years in advance.
Mike: Go right now and pre-order it. You can go to our website, or you can go to the place where you pre-order everything.
Helen: That one website.
Mike: I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say it. In any case, pre-order it right now. I think it’s inexpensive. Do it. Oh, and come to Philly and check us out, yeah?
Helen: Wait, if I want to get into EDM, what should I listen to?
Greg: Israeli EDM, specifically.
Mike: I like the progressive house from the late ’90s. But if you want good electronic music, listen to Dieselboy. He’s the best, on the ones and twos.
Greg: He’s a foodie, by the way.
Mike: Yeah. He’s awesome.
Helen: I don’t even know what “ones and twos” means.
Mike: Like DJ, like turntables, one and two.
Helen: I’m such a —
Mike: Like Pauly D on the ones and twos.
Helen: I’m like, the uncool kind of nerd.
Mike: Yeah, but Dieselboy’s sick, so check him out, alright?
Helen: All right, cool. Thanks for being here, Mike.
Mike: Yeah. Thank you guys so much.
from Eater – All http://www.eater.com/2015/5/25/8646921/eater-upsell-mike-solomonov