How Zahav Got The (James Beard) Gold


When Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook first launched their Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia just over ten years ago, they weren’t sure the doors would stay open for a year. Solomonov, Zahav’s executive chef, and Cook, the business manager and co-owner, told The Jewish Week in a phone interview that they were concerned Philadelphia just wasn’t ready for Israeli cuisine in 2008. Hard to believe now but business was slow.

Solomonov was battling his own demons. In 2003, his brother David who was a staff sergeant in the Israeli Defense Forces was killed by sniper fire on the Lebanese border. It was Yom Kippur, and though he was not scheduled to be on duty, he reportedly switched with someone so that another solider could go to the synagogue.

Solomonov, 40, said he resorted to crack and even heroine to deal with the pain.

“I’ve always been sort of addictive,” Solomonov said. “I went through years of addiction and hiding after David was killed. It took me five years to come to terms with that and heal.”

His wife at the time and Cook did an intervention and took him to rehab to detox. He couldn’t be left alone so his ex-wife would drive him to work and Cook often drove him home.

“I had a lot of anxiety and fear,” Cook said. “We basically sunk everything into Zahav and we were facing the existential problem not only for the business but for Mike’s whole life. As a friend and a brother, obviously my instinct was to do whatever I could to help him.”

Cook, who left a lucrative career in investment banking to team up with Solomonov, admits that it was a crapshoot. But, it turned out to be a smart gamble.

Zahav was named Outstanding Restaurant at the 2019 James Beard Awards in Chicago recently, which is considered to be the culinary Oscars.

“I think best restaurant in the country just sounds crazy and I didn’t ever expect to win,” Solomonov said. “We’ve had the good fortune of winning a lot. We like to keep it modest and keep it real.”

The pair previously took Book of The Year and Best International Cookbook in 2016 with “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” and on Yom Ha’atzmaut in 2017, Solomonov won the award for Best Chef.

“It means a lot to us to vouch for Israel,” said Solomonov who was born in the Israel and moved to the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh as a child. Cook’s wife Shira’s favorite school teacher was Solomonov’s mother. Incidentally, his father, uncle, great uncle, brother and sister-in-law were all rabbis.

They will be opening a few new restaurants including one called Laser Wolf, after the famed butcher from “Fiddler on The Roof.” Solomonov recalled that as a student at Solomon Schechter, he played Mottel in the play and sang “Miracle of Miracles.”

He admits he’s a better chef than he is a singer. “I was doing it while I was going through puberty so I did not do a very good job of it,” Solomonov said.

The restaurant is known for its creamy hummus, salatim (Israeli-style small salad plates), skewers cooked over charcoal and its tender lamb shoulder. Zahav is not kosher, though there is no mixing of meat and dairy, and no shellfish or pork are serves.

Solomonov said adding a mashgiach for kosher supervision and closing on Shabbat and holidays was too much of a financial gambit,and in terms of his patrons, he wanted to reach a critical mass.

He is glad hisrestaurant has become a place to experience Israeli culture in the United States. In a stark cintrsst to its early days, the restaurant is now full and there can often be a two-month waitlist for reservations.

The hard work remains, despite the accolades.

“We try hard not to dwell on them,” Cook, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and also has degrees from the Wharton School of Business and The French Culinary Institute said. “You can’t eat awards. We have customers and their expectations have to be met, otherwise they’re gonna leave disappointed.”

Solomonov also hasn’t forgotten having to make pastries in the morning, do a lunch service and then bake at night, all while trying to get his head on straight.

“Here we are 11 years later, I got clean, we’re doing great and I couldn’t have done it without the people behind me,” he said. “I’m not religious. On the other hand, I don’t believe in coincidences. People talk about bashert and what’s meant to be. I don’t believe in coincidences. Before, whenever there was a threat of me failing, I ran away from it. Now, it’s just the opposite.”