In math circles, people talk about “Erdős Numbers,” or the degrees of separation between Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős and another person. The lower your number, the closer you are to Erdős.
For the past couple of years, I, however, have been keeping tabs on my Solomonov Number, that is, my distance from Michael Solomonov, the darling of the food world and 2011 James Beard “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic” of Philadelphia’s Zahav as well as partner of Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, Percy Street Barbecue and Federal Donuts and, recently, author, with partner Steve Cook, of the cookbook Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.
For a long time, my Solomonov Number was low (2)—but not low enough—because I am close with other foodies Solomonov knows personally. And—I think this counts, too—last year, for my parents’ 30th anniversary, we sent them to Philadelphia, where they met, and Zahav, because they celebrated their wedding with falafel and hummus.
Then, in anticipation of his November 22 DC visit, I got to interview Solomonov on the phone. Solomonov Number of 1, you are mine!
Although he denies it, Solomonov is arguably the poster child of Israeli food these days, certainly in the US.
His relationship with Israeli food started at home, but really took root when his brother David, an IDF soldier, was killed by a Hezbollah sniper in 2003. Solomonov recalls the food-filled summer he had spent with his brother just a few weeks prior and writes, “My brother had died fighting for Israel, and nothing I could do would change that. But for the first time, I began to see cooking as a powerful way to honor David’s memory. I could expose people to a side of Israel that had nothing to do with politics and didn’t ever make the evening news.”
It took five years before Zahav opened its doors, years during which Solomonov battled grief and addiction and began to weave Israeli influences into his cooking in other kitchens. Soon it became clear that a sprinkle of za’atar here and there wasn’t cutting it and that a restaurant was in order because “I wanted to show that Israeli cuisine isn’t just a falafel shop.”
These days the names Zahav and Solomonov speak for themselves, but it took a long time for that to happen—the restaurant almost didn’t survive its first year.
But Solomonov wanted to bring Israeli cooking home, too, because so much of it is casual, flexible and homey. Hence, a cookbook.
The book, like—and even more so than—the restaurant, really captures the magnitude and diversity of Israeli cooking. As Solomonov acknowledges, in some senses being away from Israel is a gift. “We are limited in that we can’t get the same produce here,” he shared with me, “But, on the other hand, it’s easy for us to look at the cuisine as a whole.” That means Yemenite soup and Bulgarian borekas, Ashkenazi brisket and Persian rice.
Beyond the individual dishes, he is a champion for the Israeli way of cooking and hosting, which is personal, abundant, welcoming, fresh and constantly changing. For example, the chapter on the salatim (salads) that open meals in Israel is subtitled “hospitality incarnate.”
And while the photos are stunning, sometimes I found myself skipping past the recipes to read the stories (“Along the way I’ll share the story of my life. It’s all inextricable, the life and the food. How could it be otherwise?”), from the raw grief following his brother’s death to his shout-from-the-rooftops love for tehina (tahini)—he is a devoted patron of Soom Tahini (the Zitelman sisters get a cameo, too), and there is a whole chapter devoted to the stuff, including a drool-worthy halva recipe. The writing is even peppered with swears, just like his speech.
He captures it all and truly does Israeli cuisine proud when he writes, “You won’t find all of the dishes in this book at a single restaurant in Israel. Together, though, they make an impression of a cuisine that is evolving even as I write this. I hope that you will explore these recipes and, in them, find some of the magic that Steve and I found in Israel. Better yet, go to Israel and see for yourself.”
On November 22, Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook will join Joan Nathan at Adas Israel Congregation for a conversation about the surprising journey that led to their Philadelphia restaurants and dazzling new cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. Purchase tickets here.
Top photograph from Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook. Photography copyright ©2015 by Michael Persico. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.