Philly chef comes clean about his addictions

Federal Donuts owners Steven Cook (left) and Michael Solomonov (right) with general manager Brien Murphy. Their new Rooster Soup Co., due to open in 2015, will support the Broad Street Ministry.
Federal Donuts owners Steven Cook (left) and Michael Solomonov (right) with general manager Brien Murphy. Their new Rooster Soup Co., due to open in 2015, will support the Broad Street Ministry. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 13, 2014

Two months into the life of Zahav, with major reviews still pending for the groundbreaking Israeli restaurant, its star chef suddenly disappeared.

Chef Michael Solomonov's culinary star had been rising and nearly $1 million had been invested in this 2008 passion project in Society Hill with partner Steven Cook.

"There was no way forward that included failure for Zahav," said Cook.

But then Solomonov was nowhere to be found for 10 days.

Six years later, the now nationally celebrated chef is finally well enough to reveal where he went: to rehab to deal with his longtime addiction to heroin and crack cocaine.

"The kind of secret I had became more challenging to hold the more press we got," said Solomonov.

He decided that the time was right, as he was opening two more Center City restaurants (Dizengoff, a hummus cafe, and Abe Fisher, its ambitious next-door sibling), with a PBS documentary on Israeli food in the works, and a Zahav cookbook soon to be finished with Cook.

"It felt insincere, and I didn't want to hide it anymore," he says. "I'm not on a quest to represent all drug addicts - but it's also part of what I do now. Nobody expects someone like me to be a drug addict."

Solomonov, 35, clean now for nearly six years, alluded in general terms to a history of drug abuse in a Philadelphia magazine profile in June 2013: "But I was not prepared to be candid about it."

The whole story was revealed Sunday in a New York Times column by Frank Bruni - a bombshell whose details have surprised even those who know the chef well.

"I knew he had some issues going on, but I didn't know the whole thing," said chef Marc Vetri, a mentor, friend, and former employer.

His wife, Mary Solomonov, who was with Michael for three years before a traumatic episode of heroin withdrawal while on vacation betrayed his demons, believes his saga can have a positive public impact.

"I'm so proud of Mike and his recovery," she said. "If it can help anybody to hear about his story - just one person - it will be worth it."

Solomonov detailed, in further conversations with The Inquirer, his lifelong struggle with addiction, from the cocaine and Xanax overdose that put him in the hospital and derailed his brief college career at the University of Vermont (where he dealt pot), to the ebbs and flows of alcohol, crack, and heroin abuse that accelerated after his brother, David, was killed by a sniper in 2003 while serving in the Israeli army on the Lebanese border.

"At some point, it switched from me grieving," he said, "to using grief as an excuse to go out and get high."

By the time Zahav opened, Solomonov's habit was spinning out of control.

"I was putting in 16-hour days at the restaurant, and said, 'I'm not going to take a day off until [The Inquirer review] comes in," Solomonov said. "I started to use heroin with the idea that I'd use less crack. I put us in tens of thousands of dollars in debt."

And then one morning, after Mary had found bags of heroin and realized that Michael's illness on a vacation to Bermuda had been caused by his withdrawal, Solomonov came downstairs to find his wife, his business partner, and colleague chef Erin O'Shea waiting for him in his living room. "I'd seen enough Lifetime movies to know this was an intervention."

"We're going to detox," said Cook.

He left immediately for rehab in Chester County for 10 days.

"That night," Solomonov recalls, "after my entire life had been flipped upside down for the first time in years, it was so much of a relief ... so good to finally be honest."

Cook says that, in hindsight, all the signs were there. "It seems so obvious. But I was oblivious. He'd come over to the house after finishing up at the restaurant at midnight, and I just thought he was mentally exhausted. But he was high. And he had a huge interest in covering it up.

"It was scary, for sure," says Cook. "Our fates were tied together."

Henry Kranzler, a Penn professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Studies of Addiction there, says, "It's not uncommon for people to use drugs both during times of great tragedy and great success ... as an adaptation to stress."

Solomonov was enduring both - the heavy blow of losing his brother from which he still carried guilt ("if one of us should have ended up dead at a young age, he didn't deserve it," he told the Times), and the pressure of expectation that came from his soaring culinary career, which had taken off since arriving at Cook's Marigold Kitchen after leaving Vetri.

"I thought I'd lose my creative edge if I didn't use. I thought I could stop when I wanted."

The early reviews of Zahav were largely positive, though also critical of the restaurant's initial concept: a dual menu that presented traditional Israeli street food in the main space, and an elaborate tasting of wildly creative small plates in a side dining room dubbed the Quarter. In retrospect, Solomonov said, that menu was a metaphor for his state of mind as a junkie.

"Addiction is super-self-centered and utterly selfish," he says. "I thought [the Quarter would be] how people would judge me as a chef - showing off my stuff with four separate canap├ęs, an eight-course tasting, and extras to take home. But it was so self-indulgent to ignore the other 100 people in the restaurant, to worry about the few who were eating these fancy little plates. There's a lot of stripping of the ego before you can move forward."

It was only after the Quarter was abandoned and Solomonov's creative energy was melded back into updating the core menu's traditional flavors that Zahav truly flourished. Multiple James Beard awards followed. The restaurant was awarded four bells, The Inquirer's highest rating. As recently as last week, the national restaurant critic for the website Eater.com, Bill Addison, called Zahav "the most thorough and sensuous answer in America" to the question "What is Israeli cuisine?"

Since Sunday, Solomonov and his support network of family and friends have been answering far more personal and challenging questions.

And they have little to do with the silky hummus and fresh-baked pitas being offered at Dizengoff, the new "hummusiya" across from the partners' Federal Donuts at 1625 Sansom St., which officially opened Monday.

The rigorous early safeguards to keep Solomonov clean - prohibiting him from driving or carrying cash, disposing of an old BlackBerry programmed with his dealers - have eased slightly as he passed landmark anniversaries without drug use. He still attends multiple support group meetings each week.

"The amazing thing is that it didn't crash the restaurant," says Cook. "But to see him attack [recovery] the way he goes after everything he does in life, when the stakes were that high, was very cool."

"Five years is an outstanding indicator of his capacity to remain clean," says Kranzler. "And the beneficial part of [making the addiction so public] is not only the unburdening, but a way of getting a larger support network. If you openly admit you've used, you've made an overt commitment to staying clean."

That was Vetri's interpretation of Solomonov's desire to tell his story. "I read this as a success story. I felt very happy for him."

But Solomonov, now the father of two, is keenly aware of the dangers of relapse, especially after the high-profile death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a heroin overdose in February after being clean for decades.

"I feel like you can have a greater impact if you tell your story before you die," he says. "And I don't look 20 years down the road. I look forward 24 hours. I wake up and make a decision about whether or not I'm going to stay clean today."

After some admittedly nervous moments in the days before his secret was revealed, Solomonov said his public confession was already having a positive effect: "Hiding secrets makes you sick. But I slept incredibly well last night."


claban@phillynews.com

215-854-2682 @CraigLaBan

www.inquirer.com/craiglaban

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