Celebrity chef Michael Solomonov may have reached stellar status in the food world, but he’s very down to earth when you meet him in person.
The Israeli-American restaurateur and cookbook author has garnered six James Beard Foundation Awards, the most prestigious honour one can achieve for a cooking career in the United States.
Solomonov won for best chef, best cookbook and, this year, his Israeli-style restaurant, Zahav, was named best American restaurant. He also starred in the documentary film, In Search of Israeli Food, which aired on PBS in 2017 and is now available on Netflix.
Although he’s a culinary rock star, Solomonov was genuinely upbeat and enthusiastic about his work with the Jerusalem Foundation of Canada (JFC), when he spoke with The CJN on June 13, shortly after he arrived in Toronto.
He was the celebrity guest at the JFC gala, which was held at ArtScape Daniels Launchpad in Toronto on June 13. For the event, the Philadelphia-based restaurateur created a meal that was inspired by the menu from Zahav, one of a dozen restaurants Solomonov co-owns with Steven Cook.
The Jerusalem Foundation is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life of all people living in Jerusalem, regardless of their ethnic background, a mission that Solomonov supports.
The JFC gala, a dinner for some 65 people – about half of whom were millennials – marked the move of JFC’s head office from Montreal to Toronto. JFC’s national executive director, Robin Gofine, explained that in effort to reach out to millennials, JFC was making Israeli food the focal point of the gala.
The evening included a Q-and-A with Solomonov conducted by restaurateur and cookbook author Anthony Rose.
The timing of the JFC gala turned out to be auspicious, coming just five weeks after Zahav received the James Beard Award for best restaurant.
Solomonov spoke about that evening in May when Zahav won the coveted prize. “We brought a lot of our team to Chicago. We decided to splurge this year. It was $500 per head and we brought 10 of the staff,” said Solomonov.
He also took his eight-year-old son, David, the older of his two boys. “We got him a tux. I wanted to take him in case we never got nominated again. We didn’t know we were going to win,” he said.
Solomonov was born in Israel to an Israeli father of Bulgarian heritage and an American mother with an Ashkenazic background. The family moved to Pittsburgh when he was a toddler and returned to Israel when he was a teenager.
He spoke about his academic struggles and how he discovered his professional footing in culinary school. “I finally found something that I loved doing,” he said.
The death of his younger brother, David – who was killed in 2003 during his military service – had a huge emotional impact on Solomonov. In his first cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, he wrote that his decision to specialize in Israeli cuisine was a way of staying connected to his brother.
He said that when he and Cook were planning to open Zahav, many people were concerned that an Israeli-style restaurant might be seen as a political move. For Solomonov, however, it made good business sense.
“I thought Israeli food would be the next big thing,” he said. “People were becoming more health conscious. Most of what we serve is vegan and vegetarian.”
He said that true Israeli cuisine follows the laws of kashrut and does not mix milk and meat, or use pork or shellfish. He abides by these dietary laws at Zahav.
Solomonov described Israeli cuisine as a melting pot of the many different culinary traditions that were brought to the country by the various immigrant groups who settled there. But he also acknowledges the strong Palestinian influence on the Israeli diet.
He described Zahav as a casual dining establishment that’s accessible price-wise, but reservations are generally booked 60 days in advance. “The Saturday after the (James Beard) awards, when we opened at 5 (p.m.), 100 people were in line waiting to get in,” he said.
The five-course menu served at the JFC gala was very extensive. The hors d’oeuvres included French fries with za’atar, roasted zucchini with zucchini babaganoush and pomegranate-glazed salmon. There was a salatim plate with hummus, as well as beets with tahini and a mezze course with roasted cauliflower, tahini and silan, and tuna tartare.
For the entree, people dined on shabazi roast chicken and eggplant carpaccio with lentils and tahini.
The recipes for some of those dishes can be found in Solomonov’s award-winning cookbook, Zahav. Each guest at the JFC gala received a signed copy of his newest book, Israeli Soul.
Pomegranate Glazed Salmon
Adapted from Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook
ο 1 small clove garlic, minced
ο 15 ml (1 tbsp) finally grated orange zest
ο 7.5 ml (1½ tsp) kosher salt
ο pinch of pepper
ο 1 (680-900 g) skin-on salmon fillet
ο Canola oil for greasing the skewers
ο 60 ml (1/4 cup) pomegranate molasses
Mix the garlic, orange zest, salt and pepper in a small bowl. Sprinkle the mixture on both sides of the salmon and wrap it loosely in parchment paper. Refrigerate for 4 hours.
Cut the salmon into 2.5-cm (1-inch) pieces. Brush the skewers with oil. Thread the salmon pieces onto the skewers and grill, skin side down, directly over hot coals. While the skin side is cooking, brush the flesh side with the molasses. When the skin is crisp, flip the skewers and brush the skin side with the molasses. Continue cooking until the fish is cooked through, about 2 more minutes.
Makes 4 servings.