Born near Tel Aviv and raised in Pittsburg, Michael Solomonov returned to Israel at 15 to attend boarding school—only to return to America for a few smoke-filled semesters at the University of Vermont. Back in Israel with negligible Hebrew skills, Solomonov found work at a bakery making traditional breads and pastries. Something sparked, and after advancing to short-order cook, Solomonov began to explore the prospects of becoming of chef.
His next move took him to culinary school in West Palm Beach, after which he migrated north to Philadelphia. Solomonov was soon cooking in the French kitchens of Chefs Terence and Patrick Feury and under the mentorship of Chef Marc Vetri in his growing Italian empire. While he advanced as a cook, Solomonov always felt the pull toward the flavors of Israel.
In 2003, Solomonov’s brother was killed while serving in the Israeli army, and the tragedy pushed Solomonov to focus on better understanding his country’s language, food, and culture. After two more years cooking with Vetri, Solomonov took over as executive chef of Steve Cook’s Marigold Kitchen. Solomonov and Cook proved to be a dynamic pair and went on to open Mexican Xochitl and Solomonov’s dream restaurant, Zahav in 2008. The Israeli restaurant is a celebration of Jewish and Middle Eastern cooking, and the passion he poured into Zahav earned Solomonov the James Beard “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic” Award in 2011. The team soon formed Cook + Solo restaurant group and has since opened Percy Street Barbeque, two Federal Donuts locations, and kosher Citron and Rose.
Interview with 2013 Philadelphia Rising Star Restaurateur Michael Solomonov
Caroline Hatchett: Tell me about your different restaurant concepts.
Michael Solomonov: We opened Xochitl, and then we opened Zahav in 2008. It was the worst year to open a restaurant. We opened Percy Street Barbecue two years later. We opened Federal Donuts one year ago. We’re opening Citron and Rose two days from now. It’s on the Main Line, 15 minutes outside of the city. We're doing Jewish European food. It's kosher, and we’re operating it—we’re not allowed to own it because we own non-kosher restaurants.
CH: Tell me about your role within your restaurant group, Cook + Solo.
MS: We made the poor financial decision to get into restaurants. [Steve Cook and I] gel—everything we do is different. We're about to open a restaurant, and we embrace the chaos. We have Israeli food, barbecue, and doughnuts. I genuinely spend my time at Zahav. I love doing that, cooking bread. I hate sitting in meetings. I get to yell and bark and run around.
CH: How do you motivate your staff?
MS: It’s pretty easy. Pick a great group of people. The customers pick up on our enthusiasm and interest. The more we do this, the more we grow. I understand the correlation between the food you put out, service, and the feeling people get. We need to blow people away. The best is when people come in from Israel, and they’ve never tasted food like this. We make them feel fucking special. There are 100 restaurants they can go to, but they chose to come here.
There are easier ways to make money than working in restaurants. All of us go skydiving. We spend a lot of time together and do lots of fun stuff. People want to be here, and it gives guests a better experience.
CH: What’s the toughest challenge you have had to overcome?
MS: This business pretty personal to me, so I really had a hard time letting things go. Listening to guests, I didn't do that at first. I wanted to do 10-course tasting menu. There was no cohesion. Eventually we woke up, and something clicked—I wanted to cook Israeli food that I thought was important. I'm a trained chef, not a grandmother. We took more liberties. It’s not modern—it’s cooking meat over charcoal. It’s just more relevant.
CH: Who are your mentors and what have you learned from them?
MS: Marc Vetri is mentor and good friend. I would say my business partner, Steve Cook. I look up to him in a lots of ways. I love Danny Meyer and the Eleven Madison Park regime right now. It’s so different.
CH: How many opportunities do you have here?
MS: A lot. It's so weird. It's hard to stay focused. My partner is conservative and pragmatic. Our interests are changing. The week after you open, you want to throw it out. I crave constant growth—that's what makes restaurants good. We opened and things were totally different. We don't need to rest on our laurels here. Vetri owned his restaurant for 10 years and changed it all of the time. When I was there, we started a tasting menu. We took out seats. We don't want to do more business. We can't make our kitchen any bigger. We have four seatings on Friday and Saturday and do a menu that I cook—12ish courses for 90 bucks. I wouldn't change the beauty of the dining room, but maybe a different experience.
CH: What’s your next project?
After we opened Zahav
, we were fascinated with Montreal smoked meat. It was Romanian and Czech, super cool. We’re figuring out the relationship with Texas barbecue. It would be cool to do the other side of it. My mom is Ashkenazi Jewish.
This guy approached us, and we were like, “Fuck, we can do kosher.” It happened at the right time. It’s an Eastern European thing, Central European. The pressure is difficult. It’s our reputation. Someone else is cutting checks, and it looks beautiful. We have 3,000 square feet of kitchen with a smoker and dry aging. There’s a catering kitchen, an enormous walk-in, and Montague ranges.