Whether he intended it this way or not, the resounding success of his Philadelphia restaurant Zahav has made chef Michael Solomonov an ambassador of sorts for Israeli cuisine in the United States. And, in the coming months, the James Beard Award-winning chef will be doing even more to share Israeli cuisine and culture. In early October, Solomonov lead a tour group — including a handful of his chef friends — to Israel for a 10-day trip that includes a tribute dinner on the tenth anniversary of the death of his brother, an Israeli soldier. After that, he'll head right back to Israel to shoot a PBS documentary, The Search for Israeli Cuisine, with filmmaker Roger Sherman.
Eater caught up with Solomonov just as Feast Portland was getting underway last week to talk about what he finds inspirational in travel and collaborations, the status of the expansion of his insanely popular Federal Donuts, and his role in representing Israeli cuisine. Of the latter, he says, "I feel like I'm living my dream a little bit." Here's the interview:
Do you get to travel much out here?
No. I've been to the Pacific Northwest; this is my first time in Portland. I love it so far. I've been here for like four hours, it's fantastic. Much like Philly, Portland is super accessible. DC and New York are cool, except dropping $1,000 in a day and a half of eating is not something we can afford to do. So it's really nice to be able to bounce around and taste things and not feel like you're going to have to take a second mortgage out on your house or donate blood or rob a liquor store. The people have all trained in sort of fine dining establishments, so the standard is still there, it's just not quite as expensive.
You seem to do a fair amount of collaborations, being here and with the Momofuku trade. Why is it important for you to do that?
Honestly, restaurants are never boring, but it gets mundane and monotonous so I think it's important to do different things and see different things. Being in the presence of so many fantastic chefs here in Portland and getting a little slice of what is happening out here is important for me and my sous chef Emily. As happy as we are to travel, you get pretty provincial when it comes down to it. You're surrounded by your farmers, your diners, your demographic of people that you cook for. It's nice to exit that and see other things. Not just dishes. Everybody asks if you go eat places and it's inspiring. For me, not so much anymore. I think as a restaurant owner or somebody that's dedicated to hospitality you look at the big picture.
I think learning a dish or picking up a technique is one thing. That's obviously something that as a chef you do inherently. But getting real inspiration for what I do is looking at the way that the restaurateurs here interact and connect with the dining scene here. There's no real disconnect. This seems like a very affordable, very eclectic city with like a million restaurants. Everyone seems to be doing quite well, and it also just seems like there is this mix between national buzz and the people here that aren't tourists. I think that's what makes a healthy restaurant climate. It's the back and forth, the up and down.
Where is Philly in that? It's been getting a lot more attention.
You can make a lot of correlation between Philly and Portland. Philly is a little bit different because it's an older city and for a long time there was Le Bec Fin and tons of crime and that was about it. In the last couple years, a lot of people moved back into the city and the city itself was growing. Like everywhere else in the country, we've got a food scene that everyone is super proud of, and it's also very accessible. It's a very working-class town. The hype thing doesn't really work there.
Yeah. I mean, I'm sure people say that about Zahav, right? (laughs) But if you don't maintain or exceed expectations all the time and you're too expensive or your service, your food, or your concept is alienating, people aren't going to come to it. There's not enough of people that really give a shit. We have to relate and connect with the people that want to come in and have a beer and eat hummus at the bar two nights a week. Or the people that want to come in and have a rare Israeli or Lebanese wine and lamb shoulder at a 10-top. You have to be able to do it all. We have a tremendous amount of repeat guests. Over 50 percent of our customers are repeat customers. It's an important thing, I think.
How did the Momofuku trade-off dinners go?
It was amazing to go there because we were going to just do one seating and we sold out in like a minute. My friend Matt [Rudofker] — who's the chef de cuisine that conceived it — was like, "Well, I hate to bring this up, but what are your thoughts on a second seating?" I was totally flattered. The fact that we sold out was amazing.
It was super late at night, too, right?
It was so fucking late. The second seating was at 1 a.m. or something. We sold out of that in a second, too. We drove up, stopped at Roy Rogers on the Jersey Turnpike on the way, drank Red Bulls, and we cooked our asses off. We had so many of our employees that just volunteered to come up. Which is amazing. We prepped during the day, got in the car, drove everything up, cooked two seatings and then drove back to Philly. We got in at like 6:30 in the morning. To have that dedication and enthusiasm from employees that are essentially paid nothing or paid very modestly is very exciting. To have them be welcomed into Ssam Bar, which is one of the most important restaurants in the States, and then to have it full at 1 a.m. is amazing.
But then we got to have Ssam Bar at Zahav, which was cool, too. We can't serve alcohol past 2 a.m. in the state of Pennsylvania, so we had to just do one seating. We had so many requests PayPal crashed. So we oversold 20 people, which was sort of a disaster. But that was really cool, too. We got to eat pork shoulder at Zahav, which doesn't happen very often.
Zahav, Philadelphia. [Photo: Facebook]
And in a couple weeks you're going to Israel leading this trip. How did that come about?
I'm terrified that we're actually doing this now. I feel that I have to put my money where my mouth is and go do this. I'm having a little anxiety about it, but it's going to be a blast. I just wanted to go back. I did a dinner with my mentor and chef Marc Vetri a few months after my brother was killed in the military in Israel. I was like, "I really want to go to Israel and cook a dinner for my brother's army unit." He was like, "I'm going to come with you."
It had a huge impact on his perspective on Israel. I'm all about culture and food and, even personally, I just like to avoid [politics]. It's almost besides the point over there. It's important to see that country for what it is, and I think the easiest way to do that is to eat food because you're exposed to so many different cultures and so many different people that all have their own perspective and own story. So it made a huge impact.
At the time, I was cooking Italian food. I wasn't planning on cooking Israeli food. After that trip, I was like this is what I'm going to do. Zahav was conceived a few years after that. The 10-year anniversary of my brother's death is this trip, essentially. So we're going to go back. Marc actually can't make it. He just opened many more restaurants and he's super busy, but we've got about seven or eight chefs from across the country that are going to come. We've got about 20 people that are paying, and we're going to go to Israel and just grab some food and cook a big tribute dinner.
Did you put together the itinerary?
Yeah. And one of my brother's buddies that he served with is now a tour guide there, so he's going to be leading the trip. We were going to have it in the apple orchard right next to where my brother was killed, but because of what's happening with Syria... I just don't want to have armed guards around us while we were eating dinner, so we're just going to go to my brother and mom's hometown and just have a big dinner out in the park. It should be cool. This is literally going to be us picking shit out and making it for the people trip, all my brother's friends and some friends of the family. Hopefully it'll go well.
How many people are going? It sold out right?
It sold out in a day or something. It's going to be 30 people total, about 22 paying people and about eight chefs. Joan Nathan the writer is coming as well. Steve [Cook] my business partner, Jason [Marcus] from Traif and Xixa in Brooklyn, Adam Sobel, Mourad Lahlou, Alon Shaya. It's going to be a blast. We sold out so quickly I think we're going to do this probably once a year.
And then you're going right back to shoot your documentary.
I'm grateful. I just have to say, I feel like I'm living my dream a little bit. This is sort of what I feel like I'm meant to do. So to be able to do those things is really great.
To kind of be an ambassador?
I guess that's what it is. It's all about hindsight with me. I don't know how I got to this right now, but we're going to go for it. It becomes a bit more cognizant after the fact and how it affects my relationship to the country or my brother even. It happened afterwards. It's a dream.
How do you think the American perception of Israeli food has been changing?
It has absolutely been changing. I think Israel is having a moment right now. I'm really happy to just be here for it and be a part of it. I think [chef Yotam] Ottolenghi's books have really done a lot. Now people are starting to take it really seriously. Before if you opened an Israeli restaurant in the States, it meant that you were an Israeli businessman that knew very little about food that made shitty falafel or shitty shawarma. That was everybody's impression.
But there's so many different cuisines that are in one place. We cook Bulgarian, and Romanian and Moroccan and Yemeni and Tunisian and all these things. If you're in Israel, you'd have to go to a restaurant for each one of them, but they all happen to be part of Israeli culture. So we get this third person's perspective on it, which is cool. I think diners are getting it. They understand.
So what are you trying to get across in the documentary?
I think that the diversity and the abundance of not just food but culture is so important. On a greater level, it's more important than just the food. Understanding the country, I think, is probably on everybody's mind. But to be able to do it without being overly political and being as grassroots as possible by just focusing on food is ... I'm curious to see how this comes out.
Switching gears a little, last year you talked about a big Federal Donuts expansion. Is that still happening?
Yeah it is. We're going to do a few more probably in Philly and then hopefully check out new markets. DC, New York hopefully. DC [is] probably more likely than New York, even though there's a couple places that have literally ripped us off. But that's okay.
That was such a shitshow when they accused each other of being rip-offs.
I know, it's crazy. They were accusing each other and I'm like, dude. But it's fine. It's awesome. We kind of knew it was going to happen. We don't own doughnuts or Korean chicken or coffee. And we think obviously we have the best anyway, so it doesn't really matter. But yeah, it's flattering and I think it'd be cool. There's plenty of people in DC. So we're looking forward to that. I really want to open one on the Jersey Shore so that I can deliver chickens first thing in the morning. I want to drive the truck. So Federal Donuts is happening and we've got a couple other things that are almost officially in the pipeline that I can't actually talk about.