There are many ways to make a case for award-winning chef Michael Solomonov’s best-selling cookbook “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), written by Mr. Solomonov and one of Zahav’s owners, Steven Cook, being a perfect holiday gift for Angelenos. Part cookbook, part candid memoir, it traces the journey of the G’nei Yehuda, Israel-born but Pittsburgh-raised chef and somehow whisks together memories of teenage boarding school rebellion, Yemenite curry soup, and his Romanian grandmother’s cheese-and-potato borekas. He also describes how turning his Philadelphia restaurant Zahav from an almost- fail to a staple on the nation’s culinary map coincided with drug and alcohol addiction. It’s a brisk read, but what makes the cookbook a cozy fit for us because, as Solomonov will tell you, modern Israeli cuisine is all about the kind of gold-star produce that is available year-round in Southern California. Recently we caught up with Solomonov to talk about pumpkin baba ganoush, how bite-sized falafels ended up as an amuse bouche on the menu at Spago and why the sesame paste known as tehina is his greatest secret weapon.
Lately it seems as if Los Angeles chefs are sneaking Israeli influenced food onto their menu. Is there a trend on the horizon? We’re all always looking for [cuisines] that are new, exciting. When I first started cooking, it was French. Then everybody got into Spanish. So what’s the next thing? Israel has a lot to offer. So much is going on there. What’s happening is that instead of Israeli chefs going to Europe or Asia or to the States then coming back and reproducing that food, I think they’re recognizing that Israeli food itself is something to be excited about. People are cooking Israeli food in Israel and calling it that.
What sort of food should one expect to find at a modern Israeli restaurant? In the last couple of years the way that dining has trended [in Israel] isn’t just about small plates and sharing, but also relying on natural cooking. Instead of the molecular direction, it’s the opposite. We cook all of our meat over charcoal. We cook all of our bread in a wood burning oven. It’s a relatively healthy cuisine. It’s very, very vegetable-heavy. In a lot of ways it’s sort of immigrant food. It’s not huge steaks. If you take a look at Israel and how many different cuisines and cultures make up that country, it’s incredibly stimulating from a guiding perspective as well as a cooking perspective.
Meaning? That’s what we have to do in Philadelphia, right? Eastern Pennsylvania is amazing; we get great produce. But winter is very difficult to maneuver. So we have to use different spices and make it our take on Israeli food. For example, pumpkin. For the next four months, pumpkin is going to be really big. So we’ll take pumpkin and we’ll cook it very, very slowly for a long time in our wood burning oven. Then we’ll puree it. Then instead of using eggplant, we’ll use a bit of the flesh to make a pumpkin baba ganoush. Then we’ll take the rest of the puree and to make bulgur, lamb and pumpkin dumplings that we stuff with pumpkin seeds, a bit of allspice, more ground lamb and smoked lamb’s tongue. Then we’ll fry them. It’s so good! We get to use all of the pumpkin and we also get to express something that you wouldn’t necessarily find in Israel, but is still sort of Israeli.
After culinary school, you landed a job at Vetri, the famed Italian restaurant in Philadelphia. What led you to cooking food that more closely reflected your own life experiences? It wasn’t like I went to culinary school and went, “I’m going to cook Israeli food!” I wanted to cook European food and even Asian food. Then I’d go to Israel for a visit and it was like you can’t walk down the street without being amazed and astounded by all the little kiosks, produce markets, spice shops and different restaurants. Going into somebody’s home and having Shabbat dinner is the best example of that. You have so many different kinds of people in one little place. Even in families you’ll have Yemenite and Moroccan together or Tunisian and Hungarian and that’s reflected in the cooking of every meal.
Then you’ve got the holidays. Not that many people are religious in Israel but everyone still participates one way or another in Shabbat. It can be Friday night dinner or Saturday lunch. It can be religious or it can be secular. But there’s designated family meals are part of the culture. You see a lot of cooking there. Just going to someone’s house for Shabbat is totally inspiring.
If you’re going to your father’s house on a Friday night, what would you expect to see on the table? My brother-in-law is Persian and he’ll bring over a pot of rice that has turmeric, black-eyed peas and dill as well as another pot of rice that has apricots, prunes and almonds. Then he’ll bring over stewed veal with dried lime and you dump that on the rice. My father’s Bulgarian. So my great aunt brings over Bulgarian food, maybe eggplant that’s been lightly battered in egg and seared and then baked with peppers and onions or maybe she’ll bring little pastries that are almost like biscuits. My father’s girlfriend’s family is Romanian family and they’ll bring over super-garlicky eggplant and beef kabobs or chopped liver. They’ll be seedless rye, sliced. Sounds super random, right? But it’s not.
Zahav has plenty of candid passages, about drug addiction, the death of your brother David when he was an Israeli army soldier. Were these parts tough to write about, and are they to talk about on the promotion circuit? They’re pretty important parts to the story of Zahav. I’m not an Israeli chef cooking Israeli food in Israel. I think it’s important to be clear about it. And I also think that people can relate to loss or personal challenges. And it gives a different perspective to why we cook the way we do and maybe a different perspective on Israel in general.
Your restaurant falls under the category of “kosher-style,” meaning no shellfish, pork or mixing of meat and milk on a plate. Were you concerned that “kosher” is like “vegan,” that it scares some customers away? No. For us, it was just a way to give a little bit of identity. I wasn’t trying to make a religious statement. In Israel some people are into mixing milk and meat and some people aren’t. It’s very personal.
For us, I didn’t want to start adding dairy to meat. I use this example a lot, but roasting lamb and then serving it with yogurt makes plenty of sense. Shish kabob with yogurt is very good but it’s not an Israeli flavor. It just isn’t. If you’re accustomed to not mixing milk and meat, then you’d use tehina. That’s what everybody does in Israel. Tehina is so important to the balancing of dishes, to the saucing, to the palate of Israel. Once you started adding dairy to meat, it changes things. That’s what we’re going for. I think we just had to prove that we were a viable restaurant, and not just a trend.
You say that getting the hummus right at Zahav was difficult. Why? It’s sort of a scientific process, but it’s also an emotional one – you have to taste it over and over and over again. Our manager at the time was a Moroccan Israeli from Ashdod. We kept giving it to him to taste. And when we finally [cracked it], he said, “That’s it!” What makes Israeli hummus – in my opinion – is that it’s very tehina-rich. The point that I was trying to make in the book was there’s nowhere to hide. You can’t put stuff on top of it. You can’t jazz it up. It has to be made perfectly every day and that can be a tremendously difficult thing to do in a restaurant.
You’ve always maintained that you’ve never seen a problem that tehina couldn’t solve. Can you give some examples? At Zahav, we are always trying to figure out how to take winter vegetables and turn them into something that you have in the Middle East. I just feel like the application of tehina with so many things is fantastic. Adding it to a little bit of pasty or cookie dough is always very good. Finishing a little bit of sauce is an easy way to add richness to the dish without overwhelming it, just giving it something a little special and nutty. Or even adding fresh herbs to it and using it to dress a salad or bitter greens is always so good.
In your book you claim that you learned to make exquisite latkes at Vetri, not at home. What’s the difference between a northern Italian potato pancake and one that a nice, Jewish grandma might make? There’s no flour or eggs. I just grate, squeeze, salt, press them out and fry them in grapeseed oil or canola.
What’s the starter recipe in the Zahav cookbook, the one that gives you confidence to tackle the more complicated dishes? All the recipes are pretty simple. I think everybody will buy this book for the hummus recipes. But I think the easiest things to do are the salads. I think the ones that people have the hardest time with is dessert. The lamb shoulder [braised with pomegranate molasses] takes a little bit of time with the brining and roasting and braising. You just have to be comfortable with the process.
The conventional wisdom is that Israeli restaurants are better on the east coast than they are in Los Angeles. Why is that so? I don’t know why but between you and I and everybody reading this, if we just picked up Zahav and moved it to California, it’d be a better restaurant. I love California and Southern California in particular – even though I grew up on the east coast so I was sort bred to hate it. It’s really fantastic here. And produce-wise you can’t compare anywhere else in the States.
One last question: Why is perfect rice so difficult to make? I think that appreciating the fact that rice is really, really hard to make is the secret. Obviously purchasing rice from a place where it hasn’t been sitting around forever is helpful. I like to rinse Jasmine rice and I also like to cook it in the oven, which is a little bit slower but I feel like boiling it is a little bit weird.
Why weird? You’re supposed to bring it down to a simmer but depending on the pot size that you have and the stovetop that you’re using it can be a little bit problematic. You’ve got a little bit more of a window with a non-convection oven, you know? But you need to respect the process and then cook it over and over again. But the truth? I [screw] up rice all the time. Still.