Michael Solomonov has built a reputation for his unique take on the cuisine of Israel. He's won a James Beard Award for Best Chef for his restaurants in Philadelphia.
But he says awards aren't what inspire him to keep cooking.
"It's the pots of rice," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "It's the savory pastries that my grandmother made that if I can close my eyes right now I can still taste."
Solomonov grew up mostly in the U.S., but was born in Israel and still has strong family ties to the Middle East. His younger brother was killed while serving in the Israeli military, and Solomonov sees cooking as a way to honor his brother's memory.
In 2008, Solomonov opened his first restaurant, Zahav, in Philadelphia. The restaurant, which takes its name from the Hebrew word for gold, specializes in kosher-style Israeli food. Solomonov has since opened up several more restaurants in Philadelphia, and also just published a cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.
Solomonov sees his mission as connecting people to the food of his homeland. His specialties include Israeli-style hummus and tehina, a sesame paste also known as tahini. "Tehina is sort of the Israeli mother sauce," Solomonov says. "On the first day, God created tehina."
Jokes aside, Solomonov says: "People take food very seriously and it's very dear to their heart. For a lot of [Israelis] they haven't been back home in a long time, and this is our way to take them back home, to transport them momentarily."
On opening Zahav in 2008
We had such a hard opening. 2008 was not an easy year I think anywhere to [open] a small business, certainly an Israeli restaurant. ... Nobody knew what Israeli anything was. ... The economy was tanking. The Phillies were in the World Series, which is great for Philly, not great if you're a new restaurant. And Obama was being elected basically, and nobody was coming out and I was struggling with addiction and had to have an intervention and go to rehab. ... [Business partner] Steve [Cook] and I were completely in the weeds; we didn't take paychecks for a very long time, and if we did it was minimal and it took about a year or so to get back to being healthy. ...
It's a lot of work, and you don't do it for that long if you don't love it and you don't think it's important. We're not necessarily saving the world, but there are 200 people every single night that we change, that we create this special environment for, for a few hours, and that, to me, is my life's work.
On Zahav's kosher-style food
We say that we're kosher-style: We don't serve milk and meat on a plate together, and we don't serve shellfish or pork, and the reason we did that was it would help identify what Israeli food was — that was a big thing. I eat treif [non-kosher food], I love it, it's delicious ... think bacon, mostly. Even though people in Israel eat treif and people mix milk and meat and all that, it's just culturally it doesn't happen quite as often. So when you are serving, for example, steak, here in the U.S. you might put compound butter on it ... particularly lamb, right? Lamb and yogurt. [That's] huge in the Middle East, huge in the Mediterranean. In Israel ... sesame paste would be substituted for that, and we found that to be very relevant. Milk and meat is delicious; in Israel it's served much less, and I feel like it helps give a profile to the food. If we're roasting lamb legs and serving tzatziki with it, it's delicious, it's fine — you could definitely find it in some places in Israel, but then it's just Turkish or it's Greek, and we really wanted to define Israeli food.
On tehina, sesame paste
And on the first day, God created tehina. Tehina is sort of the Israeli mother sauce, it's the bitter and it's the sweet and it's the rich, so it's used for savory, it's used for sweet. It's eaten by itself; if you're me, you eat it out of a jar. It's used to make hummus, it's used to make desserts, you know, everything.
What we do is we get a tehina paste, a sesame puree. The seeds come from Ethiopia, they are processed in Nazareth, in Israel, and then they're shipped here, and then what we do is take a mixture of lemon and garlic and a little bit of ice water and salt and cumin, and we make this sort of aerated mother sauce, this savory sauce that you can add to chickpeas to make hummus or you can just simply put on grilled meat as a sauce. It's fantastic.
On the culinary problems tehina solves
You can use it to enrich sauces, which I find to be very good. I think that a little bit of tehina to glaze vegetables is fantastic. Coming from a sort of French or Italian background, you use dairy to help bind, to help enrich, to help emulsify, which is great. I mean, I love it, I think it's really good, just not for Israeli food. The tehina is what does that. So we do a sort of a riff on the green bean casserole that you make for Thanksgiving, that has got the soup mix that you, like, dump in, like cream of mushroom soup or whatever — we saute cremini mushrooms and we lightly blanch haricots verts, and then we dress them with tehina to give it a richness, to give it implied dairy, when in fact it's just the sesame butter. It's a bit healthy and it's definitely a little bit more interesting, and you don't have to open a can of soup for it.
On how hummus is personal and provincial
It's still sort of the most challenging thing. There's no tricks and there's no bells and whistles to hummus; it's got to be just made right. There's very few ingredients, and the way people are superpossessive and provincial and weird about things like burgers or pizza or barbecue, hummus is one of those things that people, if you don't get right, they just freak out. ... I work at the pass where the bread station is, and I'm totally visible to the dining room and there are times where if we don't get something right that is so personal to somebody, they will literally come over to the pass and tell me that I'm doing it wrong.
On Zahav's hummus
I just feel like there's a huge difference between the store-bought stuff and the stuff that we make, and our book takes you through it step by step, and it's a very simple process, so I would encourage people to make it themselves at home.
We make our hummus and we serve it. I think that temperature is a really big thing, and I think a lot of people are used to cold dips, but the truth is all the nuances and the richness that you get and the robustness from the chickpeas and the butteryness of the tehina, all that is sort of pronounced when it's at room temperature.
Recipe: Basic Tehina Sauce
This simple sauce is one of my basic building blocks and is so versatile that once you master it, there are a million things you can do with it. The important step here is to allow the garlic and lemon juice to hang out for 10 minutes after blending but before adding the jarred tehina. This step helps stabilize the garlic and prevents it from fermenting and turning sour and aggressive, which is the problem with a lot of tehina sauces (and therefore the hummus made from them).
Because you're making an emulsion (oil-based tehina incorporated into water and lemon juice), the tehina sauce can sometimes separate or seize up. Don't panic! Keep a glass of ice water nearby and add a few tablespoons at a time to the lemon juice-tehina mixture while you're whisking, until your creamy emulsion returns.
(Makes about 4 cups)
1 head garlic
¾ cup lemon juice (from 3–5 lemons)
2 generous cups tehina
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Break up the head of garlic with your hands, letting the unpeeled cloves fall into a blender. Add the lemon juice and ½ teaspoon of the salt. Blend on high for a few seconds until you have a coarse puree. Let the mixture stand for 10 minutes to let the garlic mellow.
Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large mixing bowl, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Add the tehina to the strained lemon juice in the bowl, along with the cumin and 1 teaspoon of the salt.
Whisk the mixture together until smooth (or use a food processor), adding ice water, a few tablespoons at a time, to thin it out. The sauce will lighten in color as you whisk. When the tehina seizes up or tightens, keep adding ice water, bit by bit (about 1 ½ cups in total), whisking energetically until you have a perfectly smooth, creamy, thick sauce.
Taste and add up to 1 ½ teaspoons more salt and cumin if you like. If you're not using the sauce immediately, whisk in a few extra tablespoons of ice water to loosen it before refrigerating. The tehina sauce will keep a week refrigerated, or it can be frozen for up to a month.
Recipe: Hummus Tehina
By now, you'll not be surprised to learn that the secret to great Israeli-style hummus is an obscene amount of tehina, as much as half of the recipe by weight, so it's especially important to use the best quality you can find. Unlike Greek-style hummus, which is heavy on garlic and lemon, Israeli hummus is about the marriage of chickpeas and tehina. In fact, there are no other ingredients, just a dash of cumin. The only lemon and garlic involved is in my Basic Tehina Sauce. There are countless variations, but I'm not talking about black bean, white bean, or edamame hummus. Those might be perfectly nice dips, but since hummus is the Arabic word for chickpeas, that's what we use.
Remember to leave time for dried chickpeas to soak overnight.
(Makes 3 ½ cups)
1 cup dried chickpeas
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 ½ cups Basic Tehina Sauce (see above), plus a bit more for the topping
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
Chopped fresh parsley
Olive oil, for drizzling
Place the chickpeas in a large bowl with 1 teaspoon of the baking soda and cover with plenty of water. (The chickpeas will double in volume, so use more water than you think you need.) Soak the chickpeas overnight at room temperature. The next day, drain the chickpeas and rinse under cold water.
Place the chickpeas in a large pot with the remaining 1 teaspoon baking soda and add cold water to cover by at least 4 inches. Bring the chickpeas to a boil over high heat, skimming off any scum that rises to the surface. Lower the heat to medium, cover the pot, and continue to simmer for about 1 hour, until the chickpeas are completely tender. Then simmer them a little more. (The secret to creamy hummus is overcooked chickpeas; don't worry if they are mushy and falling apart a little.) Drain.
Combine the chickpeas, tehina sauce, salt and cumin in a food processor. Puree the hummus for several minutes, until it is smooth and uber-creamy. Then puree it some more!
To serve, spread the hummus in a shallow bowl, dust with paprika, top with parsley and more tehina sauce if you like, and drizzle generously with oil.
Recipes excerpted from Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, by Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook. Excerpted by permission Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov, has earned a national reputation for his unique take on the cuisine of Israel. Solomonov grew up mostly in the U.S. but has strong family ties to Israel. The 35-year-old chef and his business partner, Steve Cook, have opened several restaurants in Philadelphia. And as The New York Times' Frank Bruni revealed in a column last year, Solomonov did a lot of that while battling a serious drug addiction. His flagship restaurant is called Zahav, which is the Hebrew word for gold. As it happens, Zahav is only a few blocks away from WHYY, which gave our contributor Dave Davies the chance to take an enviable research trip. He spent an evening at Zahav, hanging out in the kitchen, watching Solomonov work the bread station and oversee the preparation of hundreds of delicious offerings for customers. And every few minutes, he'd slip Dave one of the restaurant's memorable dishes to sample. Yesterday, Solomonov came to our studio to talk with Dave about his new cookbook, which is co-authored with Steve Cook. It's called "Zahav: A World Of Israeli Cooking."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Michael Solomonov, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, so much of the cookbook is about Israel and your connection to Israel. But I thought we'd talk about that for a moment. You were born in Israel but moved to Pittsburgh as a kid - right? - and really grew up as an American. Did you feel a connection to Israel growing up?
MICHAEL SOLOMONOV: I did feel a connection. It was just very - it was muted. You know, we didn't really speak Hebrew in the house. My parents spoke Hebrew when they were trying to, like, hide something from me. And there were little sort of bits of Israel in the house, you know, whether it would be, like, something that we would have on the dinner table that was a little bit strange or, you know, my dad's, like, accent. Or whenever there would be, you know, conflict on the news while we were eating dinner, we would have to be quiet sort of. So it was there, but it was sort of in the background.
DAVIES: So your family moved back to Israel when you were, like, a teenager, 15 or so?
SOLOMONOV: I was 15, yeah. We moved back when I was 15.
DAVIES: How'd you take to it?
SOLOMONOV: Not well, not very well. I think the year before - I mean, it's a tough age anyways, I think. And I was a little bit disobedient. I don't know. I was, like, a pretty crazy kid. So I - it was already sort of a weird time for me. And I - the ensuing threat of moving, you know, across the world basically, really bothered me. So I acted out. And I was, like, crazy. And then we moved over to Israel, and I was generally unhappy. But, you know, in hindsight, some of my closest friends are from that year. And a lot of that year really shaped sort of who I am today.
DAVIES: The year in Israel.
DAVIES: And you had a younger brother, David.
DAVIES: Three years younger?
SOLOMONOV: Three years and four, like, school grade years, you know. So he was three years younger than me, but I think he was, like, four grades.
DAVIES: So you're 15, which is not an easy age...
DAVIES: For a kid to make an adjustment. He was more like, what?
DAVIES: How did he do in Israel?
SOLOMONOV: Well, before we moved, he was gung-ho. And then we got there, and I think it was very difficult. He - I went to an American boarding school. And he assimilated into, like, an - like, the Israeli public school system. So I think it was really difficult for him. Fifteen's a tough age, but 12, 13 is also not easy. And I think that being immersed in a new culture, learning a new language and just dealing with all that was really difficult.
DAVIES: And - but he eventually kind of connected with Israel in a way that you didn't, right? You came back to the states.
SOLOMONOV: Well, he became Israeli. And I've - you know, there was Israeli identity that was, like, manifested after I was there. But it was different. I was hanging out with American kids. And I was having, you know, an experience in Israel. My brother eventually was going to go into the army. It's, like, a very different mindset. You know, I was sort of dipping my toe into Israel, where he, you know, was sort of immersed in it.
DAVIES: And tell us what happened to your brother after that.
SOLOMONOV: Well, so I came back from that trip. And I guess that was in August and then - the end of August - and went back to work. And then on October 6, which was Yom Kippur that year, I was driving back from Pittsburgh. I had picked up my dad's old car that was going to be my brother's when he finished with the military and moved back to the states. And I got a call saying that he had been killed in action, which was, I mean, obviously shocking. But we had all assumed that he was done. He was - he was three or four days away or so from finishing his military service. And he was patrolling the border with Lebanon, which again was, like, strange because it was so quiet. I mean, these - I think he and his group, they were spending a lot of time in Gaza and in the West Bank. And, you know, the border with Lebanon at that time - that was before the war, the most recent war with Hezbollah. So it was, like, very, very quiet. And he was patrolling on Yom Kippur, and three snipers - Hezbollah snipers that were in Lebanon - fired over the border and killed them.
DAVIES: I mean, any military death is tragic. But it's particularly heartbreaking that he was days away from finishing his service and I think filling in for a more religious soldier, who wanted to be off on Yom Kippur.
SOLOMONOV: He was. He was - he shouldn't have actually even been on that - on that mission.
DAVIES: We're recording this interview on Monday, but it's being broadcast on the day which I guess is the anniversary of your brother's death.
DAVIES: Do you have any ritual associated with the anniversary? Is it a different day for you?
SOLOMONOV: It's always different. And I think that in general, the high holidays are always kind of a weird period. Like, you know, fall sort of starts happening. And I feel like I need to crawl under a rock a little bit. So no, it changes every year, the way in which I sort of react to it. I mean, this year, the book happens to be coming out on that day, which, you know, is difficult. I mean, October 6 isn't an easy day. It's also the anniversary of the Yom Kippur war in Israel. So it's not - it's not just me that's grieving that day. But I think in a way, you know, you just sort of have to accept these things. And I think that maybe there's something serendipitous about that that could be also a little bit positive, you know?
DAVIES: We're speaking with Michael Solomonov. He co-owns a restaurant in Philadelphia called Zahav, which has innovative takes on Israeli cooking. And he has a new cookbook called "Zahav: A World Of Israeli Cooking." You'd gone to culinary school. You'd been a sous chef at a well-known Philadelphia restaurant when the idea of opening Zahav, this Israeli restaurant, came up with you and your partner, Steve Cook. The restaurant opened in 2008. It was a unique kind of venue, and the food was really unique. But you struggled at first. I mean, there was a point where you had to stop taking a salary, and you were kind of cutting back on staff.
SOLOMONOV: Yeah, we had such a hard opening. 2008 was not an easy year, I think, anywhere to...
DAVIES: 'Cause of the recession, yeah.
SOLOMONOV: Open a small business, certainly an Israeli restaurant that nobody knew. Nobody knew what Israeli anything was. And what was happening that year? OK, so the economy was tanking. The Phillies were in the World Series, which is great for Philly, not great if you're a new restaurant. And Obama was being elected, basically. And it was just, like, (laughter) nobody was coming out. And I was struggling with addiction and had to - (laughter) had to have, like, an intervention and go to rehab. You know, there's just - there were so many awful things happening. And we - Steve and I were completely in the weeds. We did not - you know, we didn't take paychecks for a very long time. And if we did, it was, like, minimal. And, you know, it took about a year or so to get back to being healthy.
DAVIES: You know, you mentioned addiction. And - well, let's talk about that for a moment. This is something that had been happening for years. You'd used pot, I guess, in earlier years.
DAVIES: But when you got into the depths of this, you were actually using crack and heroin at the same time, seriously. I mean, boy, you don't do things halfway (laughter).
SOLOMONOV: (Laughter) No, I don't. I think that, you know, towards the end of it, I mean, things were just sort of falling apart. And unfortunately, that's - that's how it goes with addiction. It's progressive, right? So as a kid, I'm, like, wild and, you know, you experiment with pot and alcohol. And then if you've got the gene or if the context is right, you end up sort of almost dying or in jail or whatever. And I just kind of feel like that's how it went with me. And then I - of course, the problem with addiction is that you drag everybody down with you. So my wife, my business partner, every one of our employees, all these people, unfortunately, get affected by this sort of behavior.
DAVIES: What was your life like in the depths of this?
SOLOMONOV: I don't - I feel like the sun did not come out for, like, the last five months before I went to rehab. So it was no sleeping, pretty much. It was a lot of running around. It was a lot of making weird, weird excuses for why I was late, where I was, what I had to do. My behavior was completely erratic. I was not a good manager, was not a good leader, couldn't inspire anybody.
DAVIES: You'd disappear at night, wake up in the middle of the night, go off...
SOLOMONOV: I wouldn't really wake up. I just didn't do a lot of sleeping. I think that I would get back to my house at, like, 5 or 6 in the morning and pretend to be asleep and then get up at 8 or 9 or whatever and get to work. And then eventually, that stopped working. You know, for so long, I could do that. I could get by with no sleep. But then, you know, I'd wake up at, like, 3 o'clock in the afternoon with, like, 20 missed calls. People just - you know, where are you, and yeah.
DAVIES: One of the things that's interesting to me about this is addiction can take over people's lives and ruin marriages and jobs and everything. But you were actually - you know, at least on the surface - a pretty productive human being. I mean, you were running this big restaurant. Would - do you think that there was a line there that would prevent you from destroying yourself, that the restaurant was important enough that you were not going to let the drugs take over?
SOLOMONOV: No, I don't actually. I think that it would have been a matter of time, that I would've destroyed everything that I had control to do. And I think that I continue to be surrounded by people that are loving and supportive and that care. And it's also, you know, in their best interest that I don't, like, get arrested or die. I mean, so I - no, I think it would've been a matter of time. I think the thing is - you know, you talk to all these people. They're like, well, now you have kids. It must be so easy to stay clean. And you're like, no, no, no, if I were still using, I would just manipulate my children, or I would steal from them. It doesn't, you know, it - for me, at least, it wasn't about that. I think eventually it would have just caught up with me, and I would have stolen or done whatever I had to do. I had enough people - and I was ready to stop. I mean, it was just too much for me, and I wasn't happy. And, I mean - wasn't happy, I was, like, miserable. I felt like I was dying, you know? And I was ready to stop. And I had people that were in my corner that were there to support me and to get me help and to be there for me for, like, not only up until I went to rehab. But, I mean, for the first year, I didn't drive by myself. I wasn't by myself. I mean, I didn't carry money on me. Steve would pick me up every single day, drive me in to work, talk to me and make sure I was OK, get me, you know, whatever support I needed, and my wife would pick me up every single night and drive me home. And it was like I, you know, I needed that.
DAVIES: You needed the control. You were not to be left alone with time and resources to use.
SOLOMONOV: I couldn't do it. I really couldn't do it. You know, I'd go into autopilot if I did. And I think that - I didn't think it was going to be like that. I didn't think I would have to sort of give everything up and just get - you know, you need everyone's strong willpower. It's not about that. I mean, if you want to go head-to-head with, like, addiction, you're going to lose.
DAVIES: So you had the intervention. You went to rehab, and you've been clean and sober now for six years?
SOLOMONOV: October 28 will be seven years.
DAVIES: That's great.
DAVIES: I wanted to come back and connect this with the story of the restaurant.
DAVIES: I mean, do you think when you were using that you were a different kind of chef - I mean, apart from the exhaustion and stamina issues?
SOLOMONOV: Yeah, without a doubt. I mean, I don't think I was very considerate. I mean, I didn't respect, obviously, the business and, you know, the partnership that I had. And I think that it's such a selfish thing. I mean, it's hard to consider other people. It's hard to consider diners. It's hard to consider your employees. And, yeah, of course, totally different.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Michael Solomonov. He is a chef at Zahav, which is an innovative Israeli-oriented restaurant in Philadelphia with his partner, Steven Cook. He has a new cookbook called "Zahav: A World Of Israeli Cooking." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Michael Solomonov. He is a James Beard Award-winning chef who is the co-owner of Zahav, which is a restaurant in Philadelphia that takes an innovative approach to Israeli and Mediterranean food. He has a new cookbook called "Zahav: A World Of Israeli Cooking." In your restaurant, you don't strictly adhere to kosher rules, but you incorporate some of them. Which ones? Why?
SOLOMONOV: Well, we say that we're kosher-style. We don't serve milk and meat on a plate together, and we don't serve shrimp. We don't serve, like, shellfish or pork. And the reason we did that was it would help identify what Israeli food was. That was, like, a big thing. It's not - I eat treif. I mean, I love it. I don't - you know, it's delicious.
DAVIES: Treif is a term you might want to explain for some of our audience.
SOLOMONOV: Treif is - treif is non-kosher food. Think bacon, mostly, OK? But for us - and even though people in Israel eat treif, and people mix milk and meat and all that, it's just - culturally, it doesn't happen quite as often, right? So when you are serving, for example, steak, here in the states, you might put compound butter on it. Or you might baste - or, particularly, lamb, right? That's a big thing, lamb and yogurt, right, huge in the Middle East, huge in the Mediterranean. In Israel, tchina would be - or sesame paste - would be substituted for that. And we found that to be very relevant, you know? You can serve - like, milk and meat is delicious. In Israel, it's served much less, and I feel like it helps give a profile to the food. If we were roasting lamb legs and serving tzatziki with it, it's delicious; it's fine. You can definitely find it in some places in Israel. But why - then it's just Turkish, or it's Greek. And we really wanted to define Israeli food.
DAVIES: All right. The cookbook starts out with tchina.
SOLOMONOV: Yes, it does.
SOLOMONOV: Life begins - and on the first day, God created tchina, right. Well, tchina is sort of like the Israeli mother sauce, right? It's like the bitter, and it's the sweet. And it's the rich. So it's used for savory. It's used for sweet. It's eaten by itself. If you're me, you eat it out of a jar. It's used to make hummus. It's used to make desserts. It's, you know, everything.
DAVIES: Explain how you make it.
SOLOMONOV: What we do is we get a tchina paste or, like, a sesame puree. The seeds come from Ethiopia. They're processed in Nazareth in Israel, and then they're shipped here. And then what we do is take a mixture of lemon and garlic and a little bit of ice water and salt and cumin, and we make this sort of, like, aerated mother sauce - this, like, savory sauce that goes - that you can add to chickpeas to make hummus, or you can just, you know, simply put on a grilled meat as a sauce. It's fantastic.
DAVIES: That's tchina sauce.
DAVIES: Tchina itself is...
SOLOMONOV: It's pureed...
DAVIES: Simply sesame paste.
SOLOMONOV: It's sesame paste. It's just pure sesame butter that goes through a process that eliminates all the water so it stays nice and thick. It gets toasted, yeah.
DAVIES: And you said if you ever see a jar of tchina with more than one ingredient, drop it and run.
SOLOMONOV: That's it. Yeah, throw it out. Or don't throw it out, but just go away from it.
DAVIES: You say you haven't seen many culinary problems that tchina couldn't solve. What are some (laughter) of the ways you use it?
SOLOMONOV: Well, you can use it to enrich sauces, which I find to be very good. I think that a little bit of tchina to glaze vegetables is fantastic. I mean, we're used to - coming from a sort of French or Italian background, you know, you use dairy to help bind, to help enrich, to help emulsify, and - which is great. I mean, I love it. I think it's really good, just not for Israeli food. It's, you know, it's - the tchina is what does that. So we do sort of a riff on, you know, like the green bean casserole that you make for Thanksgiving that has got, like, the soup mix that you, like, dump in, like, cream of mushroom soup or whatever. We saute cremini mushrooms, and we lightly blanch haricot vert. And then we dress them with tchina to give it a richness, to give it, like, implied dairy but when, in fact, it's just the sesame butter. So it's a bit healthy, and it's definitely a little bit more interesting. And you don't have to, like, open a can of soup.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Right.
SOLOMONOV: Not that there's anything wrong with that, but still.
DAVIES: Hummus is a big part of the book. And you said that you're - let me get this right - that it was the hardest thing for you to figure out. Why?
SOLOMONOV: Well, it's still sort of the most challenging thing. There's no tricks, and there's no bells and whistles to hummus. It's, like, got to be just made right. There's very few ingredients. And, you know, the way that people are super possessive and provincial and weird about things like burgers or pizza or barbecue, hummus is one of those things that people, if you don't get right, they just freak out. And our, you know - I work at the - well, you saw where I work. I work at the pass where the bread station is. And I'm totally visible to the dining room. And there are times where, if we don't get something right that is so personal to somebody, they will literally come over to the pass and tell me that I'm doing it wrong.
DAVIES: A customer will do this?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And that's cool. I mean, it's - at the time, I don't think it's that cool (laughter). But it's - you know, people take food very seriously. And it's very dear to their heart. And for a lot of people, they haven't been back home in a long time. And this is our way to take them back home, to transport them momentarily.
DAVIES: You know, humus is something that 20 years ago, nobody in America ate very much. Now you can find it in all these tubs in supermarkets. What's - you don't think highly of that particular product.
SOLOMONOV: I - you know what? It's funny. Everyone's like, you must have great hummus at your house. And I'm like, the truth is (laughter) I don't cook a lot in my house, and I work a bunch. So my wife - I don't make fun of her when she buys store-bought hummus. I don't. I don't judge. And I may eat it sometimes with, like, peeled carrot sticks at night, maybe. You know, I just feel like there's a huge difference between the store-bought stuff and the stuff that we make.
DAVIES: You write that hummus should never be refrigerated. That's not to say served refrigerated. It should never be refrigerated.
SOLOMONOV: I don't - we don't - we make our hummus, and we serve it. I think that temperature's a really big thing. And I think that a lot of people are used to, like, cold dips. But the truth is all the nuances and the richness that you get and the robustness from the chickpeas and the butteriness (ph) of the tchina, all that is sort of pronounced when it's at room temperature.
DAVIES: That's why it's so good (laughter).
SOLOMONOV: I think so.
GROSS: We're listening to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies interviewing chef Michael Solomonov, co-owner of Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, which features modern Israeli cuisine. He co-wrote the new book, "Zahav: A World OF Israeli Cooking." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And on our website, you'll find Solomonov's recipes for tchina sauce and hummus. That's at freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov, who co-owns the restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia, which features modern Israeli cuisine. Solomonov co-wrote the new book, "Zahav: A World Of Israeli Cooking."
DAVIES: You grill a lot at Zahav.
DAVIES: How is it distinct from grilling at other places?
SOLOMONOV: Well, we use charcoal only. And we - most of the protein that we cook is on little shipudim, or, like, little skewers that they suspend right over the charcoal. We don't - we use a grill grate for things like fish or things like eggplant that you can't really skewer. The rest of it, though, it's almost like extreme hot smoking.
DAVIES: And why do you do it that way? What's distinctive about the flavor?
SOLOMONOV: Well, it's unique to Israel and the Middle East and a lot of Arabia. And I just think that it is amazing. I mean, I think it's - you know, being that close to the charcoal, extremely hot charcoal, is - I don't know. The flavor is just fantastic. And we cook kebabs which are, like, ground meat mixtures that are, like, heavily spiced and distinct to the region that we want to represent. The kofta - you know, if it's, like, Bulgarian, we, you know, do the black pepper and paprika. And if it's Romanian-style we use, like, tons of garlic. We make lamb merguez, which is North African, you know, with, like, harissa. And it's piquant. So there's an easy way to sort of - to get these, like, cultural nuances into the meat, right. And then, if it's shashlik, like, chunks of meat, we marinate them usually with a mixture of onion juice, which sounds - I know it sounds crazy. But onions have got all this sugar and acid, so it helps break down the meat. Plus, it caramelizes really, really nicely over the charcoal. And that gives it, itself, a distinctive flavor. So we do chicken shashlik, you know, which is, like, a chicken thigh. And we take amba, which is like a fermented mango pickle, and puree that with onion and garlic and just let the meat sort of soak in that for a while and then grill it. And it's just - you know, it's special.
DAVIES: It is special (laughter). And of course, grills in a lot of restaurants simply mean - what? - a propane burner over a grill.
SOLOMONOV: Right, it means, like, a grill grate. And there's nothing wrong with that. I just feel like for what we're trying to do, we need - you need the charcoal.
DAVIES: One of the interesting parts of the book is you write about cooking rice, which is something that everybody does all the time (laughter).
SOLOMONOV: Right (laughter).
DAVIES: And you write about a - I think you describe him as your half brother-in-law, Avi Mor (ph).
DAVIES: And how even though you'd been cooking professionally for years, his rice was a revelation.
SOLOMONOV: Yes, yeah.
SOLOMONOV: Well, he's Persian. And, you know, he cooks rice with tadig, so it's like a - this crust on the bottom of it that is developed. And I think it's - you know...
DAVIES: The crust - OK - it's some rice that's just burned enough at the bottom.
DAVIES: It's absolutely delicious.
SOLOMONOV: It's the best. It's what you give to the guests. It's like the best part. It tastes like popcorn a little bit, or almonds. It's so, so good. It's not impossible to make very well, but it's not very easy. What's interesting, though, is you get this perfect crust, and then you get these great grains of rice that are fluffy, still intact and still have got all this integrity. So you've got this sort of pluralistic (laughter) pot of rice that's happening, which is - you know, from where I come from, we use chemicals. We use sous vide. We, you know, confit. We do all these, like, fancy things. We do sauce-work. But I mean, nailing a pot of Persian rice is, like, very, very difficult. So I was struck by that. Also, maybe the older I get, the more I'm just like, I am uninterested in things that are incredibly complex. And the simple things are more impressive to me. And also make these memories. I mean, that's the - the real thing. You know, you cook all these, like, fancy things. You cook for these great chefs. You maybe go to Europe and maybe not. But what are the things that, like - what are the things that make me excited to cook? Or what are the memories that I've had that have sort of steered me to being a chef or, more importantly, being in hospitality, inviting people in to, you know, make them food and to serve them and to have them feel sort of special for that moment in my house or in my restaurant. And it's not the Michelin-rated meals that I've had before. It's the pots of rice. It's the savory pastries that my grandmother made that, you know, if I can close my eyes right now, I can still taste. That's what we want to convey in the restaurant. And that's what we want to convey with the book.
DAVIES: Is street food in Israel an inspiration to you?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, street food is absolutely an inspiration. I think it's almost what I crave the most when I go back there.
DAVIES: What are your favorites?
SOLOMONOV: Well, there's, like, the shawarma falafel, which is good. And you can kind of find that all over the place. And there's arguably better ones in different locations. I like traveling for that sort of thing. Sabich is really good. Do you know what that is?
SOLOMONOV: So it's fried eggplant. It's stuffed in pita with hard-boiled eggs and tahini and, like, the amba, the mango pickle- so, so good, delicious. And there's malawah, which is, like, a Yemenite flatbread that's kind of, like, this, like, layered, laminated, puffy kind of greasy bread that you, like, roll up and stuff with, like, tomatoes or fresh cheese. And there are just, like, kebob sandwiches that you get. In Jerusalem, there's actually Jerusalem grill or Jerusalem mix grill, which is, like, a bunch of organ meat, minced, put on, like, a plancha, also stuffed inside of a pita. So good.
DAVIES: You know, one thing you can - that people know about the restaurant businesses is how intense it is when things are busy. And that's certainly something I observed when I was there. And it - you know, it made me think about your experience with addiction. And I think restaurant people, they, you know, do four or five hours or more that's just this really crazed, intense thing.
DAVIES: And I wonder if it makes people more inclined to, you know, use chemicals to come down or to stay up.
SOLOMONOV: Well, it's interesting that you say that. I mean, I think that it's possible. I think that, you know, the rush that you get from cooking or being in a - you know, a volatile sort of environment I think can sometimes replace maybe the substance - I don't know. I go home right (laughter) - I go home after work. You know, I walk home. I live two blocks away. I walk home. I listen to a song, and then I - on my walk home, with headphones - and put, like, a hoodie on. And then I, like, watch TV for, like, 45 minutes and drink chamomile tea. And then I go to sleep.
DAVIES: What do you watch on TV?
SOLOMONOV: I actually watch horror movies (laughter) like, a lot of... I don't know. So maybe that's an argument against - I don't know. So in any case, that's what I do now. I don't go out, really. I mean, sometimes we'll go out, and I'll, like, eat food. But I try not to eat that late at night. And I feel like it's very difficult to go home after you've sort of, you know, saved the world or whatever. You know, as line cooks you think that you're, like, you know - you're sort of destroying the comet that's going to explode.
SOLOMONOV: Right? Like, you think you're going to save the world.
DAVIES: Well, you're sending 200 people away happy. You know, I mean...
SOLOMONOV: Listen, it's a lot of work. And you don't do it for that long if you don't love it and you don't think it's important. And we're not necessarily saving the world, but there are, you know, 200 people every single night that we change, that we create the special environment for for a few hours. And that to me is, I guess, my life's work, right? So it's very, very hard to go from doing that to going directly to sleep, you know? It doesn't really work. So it's natural to go out, to maybe have a couple drinks and wind down. And, you know, if you've got an insane personality, it's natural to drink, like, many beers or party or do whatever. So I don't - I don't - it's not as easy as just, like, going home.
DAVIES: You have a really busy life. You've got all these businesses. You get in the kitchen as often as you can.
DAVIES: What's food like at your house? What do you and your family eat?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, god, I knew you were going to ask that. I - let's see. I - food - my wife is a fantastic cook. And we've got two, like, little kids. So I don't know. It's probably oftentimes eating, like, organic, like, chicken fingers over the sink, trying to get them to eat stuff. I - luckily, my kids have always liked - our oldest too has always enjoyed Asian noodle soup and pizza and, like, brisket. And that is a gift. It's a blessing, you know? But I don't know. Like, I made - the other night, I just, like, slow-roasted some meat and put it over, like, buttered noodles. And I got one of our kids to eat a little bit of it. And the rest, my wife and I ate over the sink. So...
DAVIES: God, I would think you'd be bringing home delicious bags from Zahav. No?
SOLOMONOV: No. No, we don't do that (laughter). Our oldest came in and ate hummus and spit it out on the plate, like, in the dining room. And I was like, dude, come on. Have some respect. This might be paying for your college one of these days, you know?
DAVIES: (Laughter). Were you a picky eater as a kid yourself?
SOLOMONOV: Oh, my god, I was the worst eater. The worst - yeah, I, like, ate nothing. I would take pizzas and, like, take the cheese off of them and wipe the sauce off and put the cheese back on. And yeah, it's hilarious to my family that I became a chef.
DAVIES: And when did it change? When did you get a real interest in food?
SOLOMONOV: Actually, when I started cooking I did. I started cooking in Israel when I was, like, 18 - 18 years old or... Yeah, I was 18.
DAVIES: At a bakery, right?
SOLOMONOV: At a bakery. And then I - as a short order cook at a cafe. And I really loved - I think I loved sort of creating and building and formulating things. I don't know. I was definitely inspired by that. And I enjoyed the comradery of the kitchen. And then I started to love to eat.
DAVIES: Well, Michael Solomonov, it's been fun. Thanks so much.
GROSS: Chef Michael Solomonov spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is WHYY's senior reporter. Solomonov is the co-author of the new book, "Zahav: A World Of Israeli Cooking." And he co-owns a restaurant in Philadelphia. After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review the new Los Lobos album. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.