Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook were in town this month to promote their new book, “Israeli Soul.” For those who don’t follow the culinary scene, Solomonov has pretty much become the face of Israeli cuisine in this country (though others have followed since). He and business partner Cook are the owners of Zahav, a 10-year-old restaurant in Philadelphia, along with several hummus restaurants and a chain specializing in doughnuts and fried chicken.
During their visit, they participated in a Shabbat dinner put on by the JCCSF atop Salesforce Tower with local chefs Yoni Levi, Dominique Crenn, Louis Maldonado, Mourad Lahlou, James Syhabout and Bill Corbett, each of whom offered interpretations of dishes from the book. For example, the chicken shwarma recipe became a shwarma-spiced grilled duck, served on a kind of root vegetable latke with blackberry amba rather than traditional mango, in the skilled hands of chef Syhabout.
Solomonov’s path to becoming a James Beard Award-winning chef has enough drama for a feature film. Not only did he battle addiction to crack cocaine, hiding it even from Cook as they opened Zahav, but his brother David was killed by a Hezbollah sniper three days before his release date from the Israeli military in 2003. It was that tragedy that propelled Solomonov to start cooking Israeli food.
The JCCSF dinner sold out in a matter of minutes and 108 people came to enjoy a short discussion along with a multicourse meal paired with wine donated by Covenant, Berkeley’s kosher winery. The ritual blessings were led by Rabbi Batshir Torchio.
“The Israeli Soul Shabbat dinner is exactly the kind of JCCSF program we’re so proud of creating: delightful Jewish experiences that really surprise and wow the audience — in this case, the intersection of contemporary Israeli culture, world-class talent and local connections,” said CEO Marci Glazer.
While in town, Solomonov and Cook also made a few lower-key appearances, including at San Francisco Cooking School, where chopped liver was served alongside hummus and a few other recipes from the book. For Jodi Liano, who founded the school in 2012, hosting the pair was a thrill.
“My family was from Rhodes going way back when, so the Jewish food we ate was much different than what’s commonly known as Jewish food,” Liano said. “I’ve been really excited with the attention they’ve gotten, in seeing the food from my own family being introduced to the world.”
Unlike the Zahav cookbook, which came out in 2015 and features dishes from the award-winning restaurant, “Israeli Soul” features recipes that Solomonov and Cook collected from some of their favorite eateries in Israel.
We had barely scratched the surface of Israeli cuisine.
“We realized with Zahav that we had barely scratched the surface of Israeli cuisine,” Cook said. “This one goes much more in depth. It’s like getting on a plane and exploring the food that makes Israel so great.”
But rather than going in depth on the dramatic rise of Israeli cuisine, the talk, which was moderated by Paolo Lucchesi, food editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, focused more on what culinary students — past, present and future — would want to hear from successful restaurateurs.
Solomonov, who grew up in both Israel and the U.S., dropped out of college, where pot smoking could have been his major, he has said previously. He chose this industry, he said, because “food was something that I loved that wasn’t going to get me into prison or killed, and I was really good at it.” Cook, a rabbi’s son, started as a chef in another restaurant but now handles the business side.
The restaurant industry is not for the faint of heart, Solomonov warned, as “there are much easier ways to not make a lot of money.”