Michael Solomonov will be one of the guest celebrity chefs featured at “The Keynote: A Culinary Experience,” presented by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore on Nov. 13 at the McDonogh School in Owings Mills.
Solomonov is best known for his landmark Philadelphia restaurant Zahav, a modern Israeli restaurant credited with pioneering Israeli cuisine in the United States. After Zahav — which is Hebrew for gold and opened in 2008 — came other ventures, all based in the Philly area, including Abe Fisher, a small-plates restaurant “inspired by the American-Jewish experience,” and the cult favorite Federal Donuts, a purveyor of doughnuts and fried chicken.
But it’s Zahav, with its creamy, dreamy hummus, succulent grilled meats and wood-fired laffah bread, that put Solomonov on America’s culinary map and earned him his James Beard chef awards.
On a recent hectic weekday morning, Solomonov took out some time to talk on the phone about his life and career, as well as what he is looking forward to about his appearance at “The Keynote.” He’ll be sharing the dais with Pati Jinich, host of “Pati’s Mexican Table,” Molly Yeh, Food Network star of “Girl Meets Farm,” and Yehuda Sichel, the executive chef at Abe Fisher.
“I can definitely see a rebound happening with Baltimore,” said Solomonov, alluding to the city’s culinary scene and its overall health. “It has that underdog mentality like Pittsburgh. When I grew up, [Pittsburgh] was not a cool place. Now, it’s really exciting, and it rivals all of those bigger places like New York and Chicago.
“Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and still even Philadelphia, are approachable cities. The soul still exists there,” he said. “The bigger cities are beginning to show a deficiency of creativity because the obstacles to success are so high.”
Pittsburgh was not a culinary destination when the Israeli-born Solomonov, 40, was growing up there in the largely Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood. But he agreed with a reporter who lived in Pittsburgh at that time that Squirrel Hill did have its share of decent delis, excellent bagel joints and amazing pancake shops.
While other people speak about Solomonov as a pioneer in modern Jewish and American cuisine, he said he doesn’t really think about his role in the culinary scene.
“I’m too involved in the work to think about it. It’s very difficult to be objective,” he said. “When you’re elbows-deep in the day-to-day, you really try to appreciate the work. I try to think about what my own role is in life. It can start to be a hindrance when you start letting your ego inflate.”
Solomonov, who has been publicly forthcoming about his battles with addiction, was, like many chefs of his generation, deeply affected by the suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain last June.
“As somebody that’s dealt with addiction, recovery, heartbreak, grief and depression, it affected me very much,” he said. Solomonov said he was pleased to see the subject taken up by many of his colleagues. “In our industry, we need to address mental health and addiction as a community, and as a company, we need to approach mental health differently,” he said.
Solomonov said he has participated in many events like “The Keynote.” “They’re all different,” he said. “I am used to being a relatively public person, but it’s still always a challenge. A lot depends on the relationship we form with the crowd. And we’re in good hands with [food journalist and cookbook author] Joan Nathan, who will be an excellent moderator.”
If anyone asks Solomonov about hummus, though, he’ll be ready with an answer.
“It’s one of the hardest things to make consistently,” he said. “For us at Zahav, it took us being diligent. Any number of things can have an effect — the temperature of the chick peas, soaking time, where the chick peas came from, draining time, the sharpness of the blades of the Robot Coupe [food processor], the strength of its motor, the outdoor temperature.
“A good hummus is the sum of all parts.”
For information about “The Keynote,” visit associated.org/keynote.
Richard Gorelick is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Abe Fisher — 1616 Sansom St., Philadelphia
Dizengoff— 1625 Sansom St., Philadelphia
Federal Donuts — 3428 Sansom St., and several other locations across Philadelphia
Goldie — 1526 Sansom St., Philadelphia (also in a couple Philadelphia-area markets)
The Rooster — 1526 Sansom St., Philadelphia
Zahav — 237 St. James Place, Philadelphia