Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov opened his modern Israeli restaurant, Zahav, in 2008 and won a James Beard award in 2011. But he's also battled drug and alcohol addiction, and suffered the loss of his brother David, during his service in the Israeli Army. Today, Solomonov has much to celebrate: he’s cleaned up and his debut cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, (HMH, Oct. 6) is about to publish.
HMH bought the book (written with Solomonov's business partner, Steven Cook) in a preempt and is putting advertising muscle and a 15-city tour behind the title. There’s also a PBS special in the works. Zahav "is a big deal for us," says Rux Martin, editorial director at Rux Martin Books, who shepherded the book to completion. PW talked to Solomonov about what Israel food means in America today and the impact of his brother’s death on his cooking.
What is unique about the cookbook?
What’s different about this than most Israeli cookbooks is that it’s written by somebody who’s a chef in the United States. We express Israeli food using most of the cultures in Israel. We’re not just Sephardic, we’re not just Ashkenazi, we’re not just Moroccan. We’re not just Bulgarian. We’re all those things. And our perspective being in the United States give us a little bit more of a clearer narrative.
You’re more than a little bit American. You grew up in Pittsburgh. You work and live in Philadelphia. You own fried chicken and barbecue restaurants.
The book is intended for Americans to cook Israeli food. We could develop menus that are 100 percent something that you find only in traditional restaurants in Israel. But that’s not me. I’m not an Israeli grandmother. We are not a little stall in a shook in Israel.
Nearly 50 pages of the book are devoted to hummus. That seems like a lot of chickpeas!
Hummus is really, really big in Israel. Israelis didn’t event it. I think they just kind of popularized it and helped market it. But they do absolutely love it.
How did you and Steve Cook divide the work of writing the book?
I did a lot of talking and a little bit of writing. Steve did a lot of writing, a lot of editing. The person who produced it, Dorothy Kalins, steered us in the direction we needed to go. I remember writing an introduction that was 10,000 words. It was the entire story of my life including my parents and my grandparents and my and brother and how all these things influenced my cooking and the opening of the restaurant. Dorothy was, like, no. She was the one who was getting to the bottom of what the book was about, the definitive Israeli cooking from an American perspective.
How did your brother's death influenced your cooking?
For me, the easiest way to connect to [David] is the food and it’s an obligation that I have to him in a way. I wouldn’t be cooking this food, and I guess this restaurant probably wouldn’t exist, if it weren’t for David’s death.
After David was killed, you struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. Can you talk about that?
The thing about addiction is that it’s incredibly selfish. What we practice here [at Zahav restaurant] is the opposite of that. We want people to feel special when they walk in the door. We want to always give them a memory. When you are abusing drugs and alcohol you are doing the opposite of that. You want memories gone. You want to feel as anonymous as possible and you want to think of nobody else but yourself.