The Mid-Atlantic's winning chef

Chef Michael Solomonov immersed himself in Israeli culture after a brother's death.
Chef Michael Solomonov immersed himself in Israeli culture after a brother's death. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZStaff Photographer)
Posted: May 19, 2011

Through tense silence at Avery Fisher Hall in New York earlier this month, he heard his name wash over him.

Michael Solomonov. Pronounced correctly, even. Sol-ah-MON-ov.

Beaming, he made his way to the lectern, where he was handed a bronze medallion bearing the visage of James Beard, attached to a yellow ribbon.

Best chef, Mid-Atlantic region.

Solomonov had no prepared speech for the James Beard Foundation, the Oscars of the food world.

"I didn't want to lose again and go home with a speech in my pocket," said Solomonov, 32, who was nominated last year in the same category and two years ago in the category of rising-star chef.

At Zahav, the three-year-old Israeli-inspired restaurant in Society Hill he owns with business partner Steven Cook, the medal's place of honor was on a desk in Zahav's office, in a crawl space above the restaurant. "I might display it," he says. "I don't know." (Zahav, incidentally, means gold in Hebrew.)

Showmanship is not the style of Mike Solo, as everyone calls him. The restaurant's name, not his own, is embroidered on his chef's jacket. He's a slender guy with a salt-and-pepper buzz cut, earnest, close-set eyes, and prominent black eyebrows. He and his wife of five years, Mary, are expecting a son in July and live in South Philadelphia.

The older of two boys of a Bulgarian-born, Israeli-raised jeweler and a Pittsburgh-born teacher, he straddled two worlds. He was born in Israel but the family moved to Pittsburgh when was a tot. The family returned to Israel when he was 15 - "at the prime of my adolescence," he says. That didn't work. He moved back to Pittsburgh to finish high school, and spent a moment at the University of Vermont. He returned to Israel as his parents divorced, and got a job at a bakery. Though paid next to nothing, he learned about time management. "You defy the laws of physics to get things done," as he puts it. Next was a line cook's job at a cafe, where he got a sense of purpose. He returned to the States to enroll at Florida Culinary Institute.

His time was up at the end of 2000 and his then-girlfriend wanted to move north, closer to her brother in Yardley. Solomonov got work at Avenue B with Terence Feury (now at Fork) and at Striped Bass with Patrick Feury. "I was blown away by the quality of the chefs up here," he says, pointing out that Jennifer Carroll (now at 10 Arts) was the meat cook who "kicked my [rear] every night."

Solomonov joined Marc Vetri at Vetri. Then came the unthinkable. On Yom Kippur 2003, Solomonov's brother, Dave, 21, an officer in the Israeli army, was killed in an apple orchard by two snipers.

Vetri was there for his sous chef. When Vetri, the restaurant, closed for vacation in early January 2004, Vetri and Solomonov went to Israel, where the men cooked for Dave Solomonov's brigade. "We went through a lot of stuff together," Vetri says. "The best of times and the worst of times. We emerged to be basically brothers."

Wounded by Dave's death, Solomonov immersed himself in Israeli language and culture. He wanted to join the military. "Marc talked me out of it," Solomonov says. "He said, 'Why don't you stay and make something of yourself?' "

But Vetri was keeping sous chefs only two years, urging them to leave the nest. (Last year's Beard winner for this region was onetime Vetri sous chef Jeff Michaud, whom Vetri and Jeff Benjamin brought in as a partner at Osteria. Vetri himself won the same award in 2005. Philadelphia's other Beard Mid-Atlantic winners are Susanna Foo, Georges Perrier, Jean-Marie Lacroix, and Guillermo Pernot.)

In mid-2005, Solomonov went to work for Steve Cook at Marigold Kitchen in West Philadelphia. Cook, a onetime investment banker, wanted to manage more and cook less. Cook's style was American. Solomonov - his Israeli roots stirred - infused the menu with Middle Eastern touches, such as konafi and labneh.

"We used to stand by the kitchen door and talk about what we could do," says Cook.

"He has the best palate I have ever seen," says Solomonov.

For their first partnership in late 2006, Cook and Solomonov opened Xochitl, a Mexican restaurant in Society Hill. Cook, meanwhile, sold Marigold.

They wondered how an Israeli concept - refined food in a showpiece of a dining room - would fly. In early 2008, they opened Zahav, in the outer building at Society Hill Towers, to strong notices.

Although Solomonov wanted Zahav to be as authentic as possible, he reasons, "We're not in the Middle East."

Local tomatoes, for example, are plentiful in February in Tel Aviv, not in Philadelphia.

The menu has broadened to include Persian, Yemeni, and North African ingredients.

"The food that I make is nothing like what he does," Vetri says. "I don't know of another restaurateur who is making that style food, on that level, in the United States. And he's only just begun."

Solomonov says he has no idea of what the Beard win will mean to Cook+Solo, the partners' company, which now includes Percy Street Barbecue on South Street and, later this summer, a chicken-and-doughnuts shop in South Philadelphia called Federal Donuts. "Any sort of validation is just another opportunity for us to keep moving forward," he says.


Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.

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