All the times Michael Solomonov proved he's America's top chef
The Israeli-born chef just won his sixth James Beard award, this time for Outstanding Restaurant.
In the culinary world, the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant is analogous to the Academy Award for Best Picture; it's the goldest of gold stars for the thousands of restaurateurs across the country vying to wow diners in a super-competitive industry.
And, fittingly, this year that gold star went directly to a "gold" recipient: Zahav, the Israeli-style restaurant in Philadelphia's Society Hill neighborhood whose name means "gold" in Hebrew. The 11-year-old eatery, owned by now-six-time James Beard winner Michael Solomonov, essentially wrote the book on bringing Israeli food to American consumers.
So that's one reason we're so smitten with Solomonov and everything he touches. The Israeli Kitchen has been covering the 41-year-old Israeli-born culinary-pioneer for half a decade. We've swooned over his impeccable ability to blend old-world cuisine with modern trends. And we've always kept apprised of his next big opening, or cookbook release, or prestigious award. Let's take a moment to highlight some of that coverage:
That time we drank wine and ate donuts with him in Miami.
Clockwise from top right: Michael Solomonov, the "Purple Rain" donut with edible glitter, savory rugelach with caramelized onions and fried cauliflower with herbed labneh. (Photo: Dara Pollak/Courtesy)
In 2017, Israeli Kitchen contributor Dara Pollak joined Solomonov at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBEWFF), one of the most highly anticipated culinary events of the year. There, the two sipped wine and ate “Purple Rain” donuts (vanilla lavender with edible glitter) from a wall display. And Solomonov revealed his ultimate food festival fantasy: a yacht party with wake boarding and, of note, tandem water skiing with Martha Stewart.
That time he opened a restaurant in the airport.
Airports are known for lots of things. Long lines, loud talkers, lots of people looking frantically at their watches while weaving briskly through wheelchairs and strollers and frustratingly slow walkers – but good food? Not so much.
If there's anyone who can buck that trend, it's Solomonov. In 2017, he was tapped as head chef at a Centurion Lounge, a 6,300-square-foot restaurant at the Philadelphia International Airport. Menu items include kebabs, challah French toast, Israeli salad with feta, kale tabbouleh with apples and pomegranate, and malabi pudding.
That time he became a movie star.
After weaving through the festival circuit for 14 months, "In Search of Israeli Cuisine," which put Solomonov in the role of culinary travel host extraordinaire, was screened in select theaters across the U.S. in 2017, followed by a run on Netflix the following year.
Solomonov and a crew spent three weeks traveling by bus, following him to more than 100 locations in Israel to film the documentary. They visited restaurants, markets, farms, orchards and wineries on an epic journey through a rich culinary landscape that's not always easy to define.
"This is a firsthand experience that invites participants to draw their own conclusions," Solomonov said of the filming experience. "Food describes humanity."
That time he opened a restaurant and donated all the profits to charity.
The Rooster, opened in early 2017, is the product of a partnership between the Broad Street Ministry, an outreach organization for impoverished Philadelphians, and CooknSolo, the acclaimed culinary duo of Solomonov and his business partner Steven Cook.
The restaurant started out as a way to combat food waste, a huge problem restaurateurs face. Now, it's expanded to include a wide range of sandwiches and salads with Solomonov's unique flair. But as was its pledge the day it opened, the Rooster donates 100% percent of its profits to charity.
A couple of us here at Israeli Kitchen visited the diner-style cafe the week it opened. Heartwarming highlights, other than the restaurant's noble mission, include the impossibly creamy vegan cauliflower soup; the Rooster "BLT," where the "L" stands not just for lettuce but for latkes, too; and cilantro-centered Thai salad.
"People are starting to think about restaurants differently than they used to," manager John Nicolo said. "It's not enough to just have really good food. You have to really set yourself apart."
That time he revealed the secrets to a lot of his recipes.
Thanks to Solomonov's 2015 release of "Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking," you don’t have to live in Philly to enjoy Solomonov’s recipes for fried cauliflower, lamb shoulder, crispy halloumi and mouth-watering falafel.
"Every dish in the book has been served at Zahav at one point or another," Solomonov said. “I like to keep it simple and use the best ingredients possible and showcase them.”
The book went on to win the 2016 James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year.
That time his pastry chef got her day in the sun.
Camille Cogswell got her start at a Bruegger’s Bagels in Asheville, N.C. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, she worked in New York City before landing in Philadelphia, where she's been creating Israeli-inspired desserts with her own modern twist at Zahav under Solomonov's tutelage. That's where she caught the eyes of the James Beard Foundation.
Cogswell, 28, was named Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2018. She's only the second pastry chef ever to win the award.
“All these people nominated me based on what they think I’m going to do," Cogswell said. "This is really about the future.”
And a bright future it will be. In one of several new openings to come for Solomonov and his team, Philly is about to celebrate the opening of K’Far, an Israeli bakery and cafe that will be helmed by Cogswell.
“It means so much to me, knowing that people believe in me,” Cogswell told Philly.com after receiving her award.
That time he announced he's opening three new restaurants in Philadelphia.
Adding a few more notches to his belt – as if he needed them – Solomonov has announced he'll open three new eateries in his beloved adopted hometown. You'll be seeing the aforementioned K'Far, helmed by Cogswell, going up in early July. Then, look for Merkaz, which philly.com reports will be a sandwich shop, opening around September. The third in the works is reportedly a Zahav-like outpost in Philly's Kensington neighborhood, with a grill-centered menu run by Zahav's chef de cuisine, Andrew Henshaw.
Once those three debut, it would bring to nine the number of restaurants under Solomonov's reign. Will one of them grace the Beard Awards someday? With Chef Mike in the kitchen, it's truly possible.
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE:
Related Topics: Food News