“Travel to Israel with Chef Michael Solomonov,” read the item, tucked away in July’s Travel and Leisure magazine. The Philadelphia-based chef, known for his award winning Israeli-style restaurant Zahav, was heading to Israel for a 10-day culinary journey, the magazine announced –“and a few lucky fans will get to go with him!”
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Cut to October, and Solomonov, 35, along with his Zahav chef de cuisine Dean Hildebrand and his business partner Steve Cook - and with two dozen of those lucky fans traipsing behind them - is wiping up spicy shakshuka with fresh pita bread in some hole-in-the-wall restaurant-with-no-name in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market.
In the mix of hands and mouths and “mmmm” and “ooooo” murmurs surrounding the hot saucepans set up on a rickety fold-up table in the outside alley are seven other award-winning chefs, each of whom was personally invited by Solomonov to join the journey.
Mourad Lahlou, the San Francisco-based chef of Aziza, the first Moroccan restaurant to receive a Michelin star, is there, posing for photos in front of the graffiti-filled walls. Israeli-born Alon Shaya from New Orleans’ Domenica, one of the only chefs there who had been to Israel before, is trying out his slightly rusty Hebrew to ask about the eggplant dish.
Tattooed Nate Appleman, the executive chef at Chipotle, who was recently named one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs, is there too, as is another tattooed winner of that award - Cleveland-based chef Jonathon Sawyer.
Adam Sobel, celebrity chef of the French bistro RN74, is hanging out at a nearby juice stand, chatting with Jason Marcus, chef and owner of the uber-trendy Williamsburg south side restaurants Traif and Xixa (pronounced shiksa, and named in honor of his girlfriend and business partner, who is not Jewish). Jewish cuisine queen Joan Nathan, the award-winning cookbook author and writer, who tops off the list of celebrities, is busy taking down notes about the various side dishes.
It’s long past lunch time, but meal hours are of no consequence to these dedicated foodies and their fearless chef leaders, who started the day with Jaffa hummus, nibbled the afternoon away through the specialty stalls of the Levinsky spice market, and are now, at 4 P.M. on a Friday, slowly proceeding down the narrow food market en route to an early gourmet dinner at a nearby restaurant.
The fast pace and nonstop eating was par for the course on this trip, which had promised participants (who each shelled out $6,750 to join the chefs) that they would “eat and drink their way through the country where Solomonov was born.”
But that was just one facet of the experience. The trip, beyond being a culinary journey, was also a personal, highly emotionally charged one for Solomonov, his family, friends and followers.
Ten years ago, Solomonov’s younger brother David, then a solider in the Israeli Defense Forces, and mere days away from finishing his three-year service, was hit by a sniper’s bullet near the Lebanese border and killed. The trip to Israel this week, as such, was also a memorial of sorts – one which concluded up on the Golan, in the apple orchard near where David fell.
The children of an American-Israeli mother and a Bulgarian-Israeli father, the Solomonov brothers were raised between Israel and Pittsburgh. When David was killed, Michael was back living in the United States and just starting out as an Italian food chef, under the mentorship of famed chef Marc Vetri.
A few months after the tragedy, Solomonov came to Israel to commemorate his brother in the way he knew best – with food. Joined back then by his mentor Vetri, Solomonov prepared and hosted a dinner for David’s entire Golani army unit. The evening, he says, was so meaningful for him, that he pledged to return and do it again. More generally, he attests, the death, the dinner and that whole period of time was what awakened his desire to connect to his brother, and the country he died for - through food.
This eventually led, in 2008, to Solomonov opening Zahav, a restaurant that celebrates Jewish and Middle Eastern cooking and earned him a James Beard “Best Chef” award. Since then, Solomonov, together with Cook, also opened the Percy Street Barbeque, two Federal Donuts locations, and the kosher Citron and Rose.
And now, on the 10th anniversary of David’s death, Solomonov, who sports a big tattoo of the Golani unit’s emblem on his shoulder, finally made true on his promise to return and host a repeat commemorative dinner for David’s friends from the unit. This time, he came without Vetri, who could not make the trip - but with other reinforcement chefs in tow. The seven chefs, who gathered the ingredients they needed Friday and spent all of Saturday cooking, came up with a meal for 120, which was served up in a park in Kfar Saba, where the Solomonov children used to play.
Appleman made a homage to shakshuka dish of spicy lamb meatballs in a tomato sauce topped with slow-cooked egg yolks. Sobel and Sawyer teamed up to make roasted vegetables stuffed with a sausage-based filling and topped with a sauce of labaneh and caramelized pomegranate. Lahlou prepared a couscous with Moroccan spices and a braised chicken with turmeric and olives, and Marcus prepared a tomato and avocado salad with tehina to go with his bonito white tuna escabeche poached in olive oil.
Shaya roasted a giant squash with date honey, put guava and avocado into a Jerusalem bagel-based panzanella and, being a New Orleans man, just couldn’t help himself and also cooked up some jambalaya rice. Solomonov and Hildebrand prepared the main stew with fennel, chickpeas, tomatoes and grilled eggplant, as well as roasted Jerusalem artichokes in a paste of sun-dried cherry tomatoes, dill and cheese. And Nathan pitched in with a delectable dessert of traditional Greek filo pastries.
What would his brother have made of the mega gourmet meal in his honor? Solomonov smiles. “He would have liked it, of course,” he says. “But then again, he was 21 years old when he died. He also might have left to go pick up a bacon cheeseburger around the corner.”