Americans still have a hard time getting their heads around Israeli food. To Michael Solomonov, the chef/owner of Zahav modern Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia, it’s because the cuisine is exceptionally diverse. So at Zahav (“gold” in Hebrew), the James Beard Award-winning chef plays around with the menu. “We wouldn’t be cooking this food if we were in Israel,” he says. “Our context and the way that we perceive it is through our eyes as a restaurant based in Pennsylvania. The story that we can tell and the way that we express it is unique.”
Solomonov, who was born in Israel and raised in Pittsburgh, also co-owns Dizengoff, a hummus eatery, Abe Fisher, a Jewish-inspired restaurant, Federal Donuts and Percy Street Barbecue. He just released his first book, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, and is on a book tour until December. (To see the stops, click here.) We talked to Solomonov from Philadelphia, where he discussed the melting-pot history of Israeli food and how he makes it all his own.
What can people expect from the Zahav cookbook?
It’s awesome. A long, deep project in the making. We’ve been open about seven years. It’s got some history about Israel, some history about my family and the story of the opening of the restaurant too.
How has Zahav the restaurant evolved since you opened in 2008?
When we first opened, we were trying to replicate food that you would find in Israel. And it didn’t make any sense because we’re not in Israel. The climate is totally different, the customers are different, the context is totally different. We have access to great ingredients here, and to make a modern restaurant in the States relevant we had to make it our own. For example our pomegranate and kale salad. It’s not something that you’d ever have in Israel, but why not make it? We’ve got great kale that we get almost year-round and the flavors are truly Israeli.
We’re trying to use as many Israeli cooking techniques as possible but with American ingredients. We feel like assholes when we have to import Israeli tomatoes in February. Chopped salad is great and everything, but when it’s 7 degrees F outside, it just doesn’t make sense and it’s irresponsible to get tomatoes shipped. Particularly when you can get persimmons maybe from California and pickle them and sort of get the same effect.
Have you seen peoples’ expectations of Israeli food change?
Yeah, at first people think falafel or shawarma and we don’t really do that. I think now people are just kind of accepting. They can see beyond the general or stereotypical food. They’re interested in the depth of it and the informality of eating like that, on a bunch of little plates with lots of vegetable-focused dishes. Our diners have become more comfortable.
Why are there still so many misconceptions about Israeli food?
Middle Eastern food is often too mysterious or too misunderstood or too varied. It’s very difficult for people to get their heads around it. Israeli food isn’t really Middle Eastern. Well part of it is Middle Eastern. And then part of it is North African, part of it is Balkan and Eastern European. It’s a lengthy gastronomy. For us it’s cool, because we have so many different influences to sort of rework and play around with. For diners it’s cool too, I just think it’s kind of a lot to take in.
We look at Israeli food as a whole and all the different influences. Our perspective is different; we wouldn’t be cooking this food if we were in Israel. Our context and the way that we perceive it is through our eyes as a restaurant based in Pennsylvania. The story that we can tell and the way that we express it is unique.
Do you think you need to be Israeli to cook good Israeli food?
Oh man, that’s a loaded question. Probably not, but it depends on who you ask. A lot of people say you can’t cook Israeli food if you aren’t in Israel. I understand that, but I don’t necessarily agree with it. People get defensive about all cuisines. The truth is food comes from everywhere and it goes all over the world. It’s brought through different trade routes and through different migrations. Israel is super old, but also a very new country. Most of the inhabitants don’t necessarily come from there. You could go to somebody’s house for Friday night dinner and the meal is based on the ethnicity of the countries that they’ve moved from. It’s very common to go to someone’s house and the mother’s from Morocco and the father’s from Yemen. It’s such a cool melting pot. All of the history is so fresh and all of the traditions are so fresh, you can see everything happening sort of in real time.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep