Making Gold Out of Falafel: Israeli-American Restaurateur Is Up for 'Best Chef in U.S.' Award

Besides being a finalist for this top James Beard prize – as well as a few others – Israeli food maven Michael Solomonov has just opened his 10th eatery and is star of a new documentary

Award-winning Israeli-American chef Michael Solomonov.
Steve Legato

As I passed a multiplex near New York’s Lincoln Center, a familiar face peered out at me from one of the movie posters. Yes, it really was Michael Solomonov, chef of the Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia.

Solomonov’s story, which I have told here before, is a real Cinderella story. As a boy, the Israeli-born chef couldn’t find himself, and became addicted to alcohol and drugs. His brother was killed while serving in the Israel Defense Forces, along the country's the northern border. But one thing always excited Michael: Israeli food.

For the last nine years, Zahav (the name means "gold" in Hebrew) has been one of the shining stars of Philadelphia’s culinary scene. Some will tell you it’s the best restaurant in the city. It’s usually full, and getting a table on there on weekends is often mission impossible.

But Zahav is much more than just one in a sea of trendy places: The restaurant was virtually the first in the United States to turn standard Israeli food into gourmet fare and it has won acclaim from both critics and the media. Indeed, Solomonov – who as of a few weeks ago owns 10 eateries, mostly in Philly – has played an important role in heightening awareness of modern, sophisticated Israeli cuisine internationally.

Back in 2011, the chef, who is today 38, won the prestigious James Beard Award for best chef in the mid-Atlantic region. In 2016, he won the James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year for his “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” as well as the James Beard Award for International Cooking. And a lot is happening in Solomonov's life these days too: On May 1, the James Beard Foundation will hold its annual awards gala in Chicago, and he is one of five finalists competing for the title of best chef in the United States; Camille Cogswell, creator of the desserts at Zahav, is a candidate for the foundation's award for "rising star chef of the year."

Zahav is also a contender for the James Beard award in the “outstanding service” category – which makes Solomonov laugh. “Who would have believed an Israeli restaurant would be nominated for the outstanding service award?” he says.

Israeli born chef-restaurateur Michael Solomonov's signature hummus dish, at his Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia.
Courtesy of Zahav

In addition to all that, Solomonov is also the star of a new film. Released in March in New York, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” a documentary directed and produced by Roger Sherman, tells the story of Israeli Jewish and Arab cuisine through Solomonov’s eyes, as well as the chef’s own touching, personal story. The movie, which was screened at the Haifa Film Festival last October, is due to be shown in 24 cities across the United States and in theaters worldwide, and is available through various streaming services.

What sort of delicacies are featured on Solomonov's menus? A meal often begins with a selection of salads, as in Israel, but with a few small culinary twists. Solomonov offers excellent hummus and tahini, served in thin layers, nouvelle-cuisine style; tuna tartare with labneh, a strained sour-ish yogurt; and chicken shishlik (skewered, roasted meat) with amba, a tangy sauce made with fenugreek seeds and red cabbage. The best dish, in this writer's modest opinion, is his lamb shoulder, which is cooked for a long time in pomegranate juice and served with Persian rice.

Respect for hummus

I met the busy chef at Dizengoff, his fast-food restaurant in New York’s Chelsea Market, which is a kind of upscale complex for food and clothing thronged with tourists and Google employees. Dizengoff is a branch of a place with the same name in Philadelphia – a hummus joint that Solomonov co-owns with Steven Cook, his partner in all his restaurant ventures. At lunchtime, the place is packed. Here, too, Solomonov has done the near-impossible. Who would have thought a hummus joint would open in a stylish place like this and be successful to boot?

Just days ago, Solomonov opened yet another new restaurant: a falafel joint in Philadelphia called Goldie. Why Goldie? “It’s the American version of the name ‘Zahav,’” he explained. “It’s our little girl.”

Why on earth would a chef in the running to be named chef of the year open a falafel joint?

Solomonov: “Look, when I opened Zahav, people expected us to have falafel. Falafel has become the cliché of Israeli fast food. It’s like going to an American restaurant and finding cheeseburgers. And I didn’t want to create a cliché ... Then I created a hummus joint, and people once again asked why I didn’t make falafel with the hummus. So I answered that I wanted to give hummus the respect it deserves.”

He adds: "Everyone in Israel has his own falafel. Mine is from the days when I was at boarding school in Pardes Hannah and we ate falafel at Devora’s in Karkur. So what I serve is inspired by Devora. She didn’t give or sell me the know-how. I made something that I thought represented what she made.

“We serve the simplest falafel possible: falafel balls, tahini salad, all in fresh pita – and that’s it,” he says. “We don’t even serve French fries. We also opened quietly, with no announcement, a few days ago.”

Solomonov apparently has the golden touch: I went to his new falafel joint in Philadelphia on Saturday, and at about noon, there was already long line that stretched out onto the sidewalk. Not far away from Goldie, the chef-restaurateur and a few partners have a small restaurant called the Rooster Soup Company, which opened in January; among other things, they make soup there out of leftover chicken parts from their Federal Donuts eatery (which serves doughnuts, but also fried chicken wings). All the profits from Rooster Soup go to feed the needy.

I asked Solomonov why he never opened another Zahav — in New York, for instance.

“A restaurant like Zahav requires me to be there. It’s a complicated restaurant to run, and I can’t run it by remote control while visiting from time to time," he says. “The truth is that even as it is, I travel a lot, and I don’t want to travel even more. One Zahav is enough for me.”