Michael Solomonov, co-owner of the James Beard Foundation’s most outstanding restaurant, talks about repping Israeli food in Philly, being a sober chef, and the ugly truth about where vanilla flavoring comes from.
Ah, the Philly cheesesteak sandwich. What a blessing, what a curse. It’s a blessing of course because it’s cheese on top of steak on top of bread. It’s a curse because it is still, stubbornly just about the most famous thing about Philadelphia, a millstone of meat around the neck of that city for all time. Philadelphia should be able to move past the cheesesteaks. They should be seen as a serious food town, it is a serious food town.
That’s why what happened this month at the James Beard Foundation Awards was a big deal. Of the approximately 650,000 Americans restaurants currently searing steaks or dunking fries or sous vid-ing whatever it is that people sous vide these days, only one gets to be named America’s most outstanding restaurant by the Beard Foundation. This year, 2019, that honor went to Zahav, a modern Israeli restaurant whose chef and co-owner Michael Solomonov is the guest on this episode of The Trip. We recorded this episode before he won, but you can hear the elements of victory here: the intensity, the sense of mission around Israeli cuisine, the pride for Philadelphia. It’s a heady mix, and I’m psyched for him, and psyched to have had him on the show, talking about making Israeli food in Philly, being a sober chef, and the ugly truth about where vanilla flavoring comes from.
Nathan Thornburgh: I’m excited about getting this fizzy natural sound of us uncorking the… How do you even pronounce it? Is it LaCroix or LaCroix?
Michael Solomonov: Well it should be LaCroix, but everybody calls it LaCroix.
Thornburgh: LaCroix, okay. That’s the one. All right.
Solomonov: Don’t call it LaCroixs.
Thornburgh: So to tell me chef, why are we into this can? What’s the story behind it? You requested the blue can.
Solomonov: Well, I like the plain. I just like spicy water, as we call it in my house and our company. Just carbonated water. I don’t drink booze, so club soda has gotten me through a whole lot. And being Jewish, it’s your birth right, you know?
Thornburgh: We were chosen to drink club soda.
Solomonov: It’s like the champagne of water, right?
Solomonov: I think it’s pretty good. And everyone asks, “Oh, what flavor?” But I feel like if you want flavor, then you add a lemon or an orange or a lime. But that whole artificial flavor thing I think is really weird. Dude, artificial citrus is so far from citrus.
Thornburgh: It’s one of those things where I imagine where they just have a long row of horseshoe crabs and they’re just bleeding them for their blue blood for medical research or something.
Solomonov: Well, do you know that the fake vanilla, you know about that?
Thornburgh: Oh, no. I’m not going to want to know this. It’s like an anal gland or something.
Solomonov: Yeah, exactly. They extract a substance from an anal gland of a badger, or an otter I believe.
Thornburgh: They’re just expressing glands into your vanilla Breyer’s ice cream.
Thornburgh: We had this conversation actually with Matt Orlando: Who was the first person to ever eat a sea cucumber? Which is one thing, but the first person to express an otter ass-gland and decide that this would make delicious vanilla flavoring? Hero or…?
Solomonov: Was there a sea otter drinking water out of a stream and somebody tripped and fell and put their mouth on its ass and they were like, “Man, this could be great in heavy cream.”
Thornburgh: I’m sure that’s what they told the village elders what happened.
The restaurant industry is under this microscope all the time.
Thornburgh: So you don’t drink alcohol. Chef sobriety has been back in the news. Did you read the piece that came out of Joe Beef?
Solomonov: I haven’t read it in its entirety just because I haven’t had a chance to sit down. But yeah, it doesn’t surprise me. I think the headline was, I stopped drinking and my life got better, or my restaurant got better, or my employees liked me, or I was better at my life, you know? I think that that’s kind of the same old story and for a long time, it was just taboo in general, not just in the industry, but in general, to talk about sobriety, which is really strange and paradoxical because in sobriety you’re supposed to not have any secrets. Guilt and shame are triggers and they’re part of that cycle. I don’t have any coping mechanisms for what it is that I feel, which is guilt and shame, except for using, right?
So you have to break that cycle, but then you’re also supposed to be very honest about who you are, because lying and keeping secrets is part of the symptom of active addiction or substance abuse. So you’re in this weird place when you get out of rehab or detox, or you’ve got like 24 hours or 30 days or a year clean and sober, where you’re also supposed to be anonymous and a little bit strange about the way that you approach these things, right? And because now if you quit drinking, it’s a big deal. People will ask, “Why, what’s wrong? Are you pregnant?” “Do you have an allergy? Is is January?” We say that “I’m sober, I’m trying to get clean and sober,” and people can either say, “Right on. I’m proud of you,” or you’re like a leper to them.
Thornburgh: Right. There’s nothing in-between. Everybody’s got an opinion about it.
Solomonov: Yeah, but I think that’s changing a little bit, and I had this revelation the other day, where I felt, we’re so lucky. The restaurant industry is under this microscope all the time. We have been dealing with immigration issues forever. Addiction and substance forever. Gender inequality and misogyny forever. The world, or the media, looks to us to solve these things, and we’re put up on this pedestal like everywhere else. People care about chefs. They care about restaurateurs. We’re on TV. I think that it’s an interesting time, and you’ve got chefs like Gabe Rucker, Sean Brock, and the Joe Beef guys now too that are sober. making a case for sobriety. But I’ve known a lot of people, including myself, that have been sober and clean for a very, very long time. And now there’s a fantastic forum that we can discuss these things where it’s okay to have non-alcohol. Alcohol wasn’t even my drug of choice. I don’t drink though. I don’t drink at all. I don’t take any drugs. I don’t do any of those things, but it was a conscious decision to not drink when I got out of rehab as well.
When I came out of rehab, I remember eating at a restaurant and going through severe anxiety, because thought, everybody’s going to know. I’m ordering club soda or ginger ale with lime. The people in the kitchen are trying to send out beers or do whatever, drinking wasn’t even my thing, but how am I supposed to get through a tasting menu or even an extra course that the chef will inevitably send out without a glass of scotch or a glass of wine? So I could not enjoy restaurants for the first six months.
Thornburgh: Because you were just constantly afraid of being called out?
Solomonov: Because it was too much of a trigger or because I was embarrassed or because I just didn’t know what you’re supposed to do for that many hours without booze at a table.
Thornburgh: One of the things that was interesting about [David McMillan’s] essay was about being the Joe Beef guy who then has to sober up, [and] they have an additional problem which is unique in the hospitality world. They still have a fucking wine menu. They still have to know what they’re doing and these guys are sober, but they’re spitting wine like the king of France.
Solomonov: Yeah. It depends. And it’s a very different thing. When I first got sober, I said, well I’m going to have to still be able to smell or taste wine, and I would spit a little bit. And then after a few months I decided it’s just not worth it to me.
And we have mocktails on the menu. Of course, I’m part of that and I’m proud that we can do that. I was in a 12-step meeting a couple years ago, close to Zahav. There was a person who had less than a year of sobriety. The first year is super rough. And this person had been visiting. They were from out of town and they were sharing about going to this restaurant and how they had all this anxiety and that their family didn’t want to come with them so it was just them by themselves. They were foodies and they wanted to sit, and the only place they could sit was at a bar. And they didn’t feel comfortable doing it, and they sat down and told the bartender that they didn’t drink. The bartender said, “No problem,” removed the beverage menu, and then put a mocktail in front of them and made them feel so comfortable. And this person was sharing about it and then she says, “Yeah, it was this Israeli restaurant called Zahav.” And everybody there knew who I was and they were laughing about it. And that makes me so goddamn proud.
Thornburgh: What’s it like in Israel being sober? How do people engage with that?
Solomonov: I think that people don’t understand. Drinking and drug and binge drinking is not as much of a thing in Israel as it is here. So, the reaction to sobriety is a little bit more awkward there. Also, people don’t care about etiquette, so they’ll ask, “What do you mean? Not even wine?” “What, what’s wrong with you? I don’t get it.”
Thornburgh: You’re repping Israel here in Philly. You grew up here, but you were born [in Israel] and you went back.
Solomonov: Yes, I was born there. I grew up in Pittsburgh. I moved back [to Israel] when I was 15. My whole family moved back. I moved back to the States by myself and finished high school in Pittsburgh. Went to college, went to UVM for a minute. Dropped out and moved back to Israel. Got a job working at a bakery and then worked as a short-order cook. Decided I wanted to go to culinary school. Went to culinary school in Florida.
I wanted to really make a case for the country that I love. And I could do it through food.
Thornburgh: And you did your [military] service before the bakery, or?
Solomonov: No service, no.
Thornburgh: No service. Wow, man.
Solomonov: I weaseled my way. It’s actually the only regret I have in my life, is not completing service, but I don’t know. I regretted not doing it just because I feel like it was something that would have gotten me closer to my younger brother, David, who did serve, and ended up dying in battle, or in service on patrol. So it would have brought me closer to him.
Thornburgh: Yeah, because it’s coming to your life through David’s death anyway.
Solomonov: 100%. Well I wanted to join after he was killed. I wanted to go back and join and then my friend and mentor and chef at the time, Mark Vetri, said, “Don’t do that. Stay here in this country and make something of yourself. Don’t go back.”
Solomonov: And he was correct. I would have been going back for the wrong reasons. But I did make it my mission to represent Israel, or parts of Israel, that I believe in, the parts of Israel that my brother, David, died defending. I wanted to represent the country and I wanted to fight. I mean, “fight” in air quotes. But I wanted to really make a case for the country that I love. And I could do it through food. It sounds cliché, but it kind of is what has worked for me and I feel like my influence, the positive influence or the positive effect that I can have on the country has come from being abroad and really using things like food to help make a case for Israel.
We couldn’t just copy/paste Israeli food and make it here in Philadelphia
Thornburgh: What did you learn about cooking Israeli food for Philadelphia?
Solomonov: That’s a good question. We couldn’t just copy/paste Israeli food and make it here. We tried that and it didn’t work. It was really about taking advantage of the fact that we weren’t in Israel, because if you go to Israel and you ask somebody, “Where’s the best Israeli restaurant,” there’s no answer. Right?
Thornburgh: Right, I agree.
Solomonov: Because if you want Libyan, you go here. If you want Bulgarian, you go here. If you want Palestinian you go here. And we can actually take all these components and put them together. We have that luxury of doing that. So it was really accepting this freedom and our responsibility and being comfortable doing it. And I wasn’t this third-generation falafel shop owner or a grandmother. I didn’t need to be steeped in traditions. So, we have to be creative here. We’re in eastern Pennsylvania. The climate is a little bit different than the Middle East. So we had to use the things that we have. We have to use cooking techniques and spices and ingredients a little bit differently to tell a story. And when you’re mixing the Yemenite, the Romanian, the Bulgarian, the Ashkenazi, the Sephardic, the Arabic, the Palestinian, the Syrian, all those things together, sometimes it’s easier to not be locked in to this dynasty of recipes that you need to adhere to.
Thornburgh: Right. All of it done with Amish produce.
Solomonov: Yeah, we don’t have tomatoes nine months out of the year. We have to be creative. And I think once we did that, we also accepted our role as restaurateurs and chefs and people in modern hospitality. And it allowed us to really have this conversation with our guests, and that is the key to success and what it is that we do. It’s the relationship between the guest and the restaurateur.