Zahav, the Israeli restaurant run by Michael Solomonov in Philadelphia, was named the outstanding restaurant of 2019 by the James Beard Foundation – known colloquially as the Oscar of the culinary world – at a festive ceremony in Chicago this week.
The win represents one of the greatest achievements by an Israeli restaurant in the United States. The Israeli-American Solomonov has elevated Israeli cuisine to the ranks of elite restaurants across America.
Zahav's new title as outstanding restaurant of 2019 is the latest in a string of accolades for Solomonov. He was named best chef in the United States in 2017. A year earlier, he and his partner Steven Cook won James Beard Book of the Year and Best International Cookbook for “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.”
Solomonov is in good company at Zahav. The restaurant's pastry chef, Camille Cogswell, won the James Beard Foundation's rising star award in 2018. She will also be a chef at K'Far, an Israeli bakery and café that Solomonov and Cook plan to open this summer in Philadelphia.
Born in Israel, Solomonov’s family moved to Pittsburgh when he was two years old. At age 15, he returned to Israel to study at a boarding school in Pardes Hannah with a group of American youth. He began college in Vermont, but dropped out. After being labeled an at-risk youth, he was sent back to Israel and worked at a bakery in Kfar Sava. There, he learned to bake rugelach, bourekas and challah.
When he returned to the United States, Solomonov decided to attend culinary school. From there, it was a short road to the kitchens of Philadelphia's restaurants, where he began as a sous chef at a local Italian joint.
In 2003, Solomonov's brother was killed while serving in the Israeli army on the Lebanon border, just weeks before his scheduled release. Following the blow, Solomonov left the Italian restaurant and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. While in recovery, he began cooking at good friend's Israeli restaurant.
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In 2008, he decided to strike out on his own and opened Zahav, basing the menu on the cuisine he grew up with. Several months later, Esquire Magazine recognized Zahav as one of the 20 best new restaurants in the United States. Solomonov has been a regular prestigious culinary lists ever since.
Solomonov's achievements symbolize the recent success of Israeli cuisine in the United States. He has opened the door for other Israeli chefs, including Erez Komarovsky, Nir Zuk, Meir Adoni and Eyal Shani, among others, who flourished in Israel before branching out to the United States, mainly in New York.
Last year, Solomonov released his second cookbook, which deals with Israeli street food. Israeli chefs have thrived in New York, but Solomonov tops them after being recognized as the leading chef in the United States.