Michael Solomonov admits that as a kid he was "a terrible eater. I was like, 'I don't like tomatoes.'… I would eat … toast with sugar on it [all the time]."
The one thing he would never turn down were his grandmother's bourekas, savory puff pastries usually filled with cheese and olives. "She was Bulgarian, and they moved to Israel in '48, right after the War of Independence. She cooked these Balkan things that were foreign to everyone here in the United States, even Jews," he said.
Whenever she made a batch, Solomonov, his father and his brother "would eat bourekas and fall asleep -- kind of like face down on the plate."
Solomonov is the executive chef and co-owner of Zahav, an Israeli restaurant in the Old City area of Philadelphia. Zahav was rated Best New Restaurant in Philadelphia Magazine's "Best of Philly 2008," and this year The James Beard Foundation named Solomonov Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Zahav, the Hebrew word for gold, uses traditional cooking methods, appropriate for a cuisine that goes back millennia. Breads are baked in an authentic Arabic taboon, or wood-burning oven, and skewered meat and fish are cooked over live coals.
The restaurant's menu reflects the broad spectrum of cultures that have influenced Israel -- Morocco, Turkey, Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt -- but especially the Balkan and Sephardic heritage in Solomonov's family.
"There is not a lot of people doing what we are doing, which is this all-encompassing Israeli food," Solomonov said. "We are not doing falafel. We are not doing shawarma. We are doing Balkan, Moroccan, Yemenite -- which in my mind is what Israeli food is all about."
Solomonov's life has been spent going back and forth between two cultures. He was born in G'nei Yehudah, south of Tel Aviv, to an Israeli father and an American mother. His family moved to Pittsburgh when he was 2. When he was 15 he returned with his family to Israel, entering an agricultural boarding school in the northern part of the country.
His family stayed, but he went back to America and spent "a semester or two" at University of Vermont. "I dropped out, went back to Israel and fell in love with cooking there."
Because Solomonov was "an art major who spoke terrible Hebrew," the only job he could get was cooking at a bakery. He began making his grandmother's bourekas, then became a short-order cook at a café.
One night, during the 2 a.m. rush of all-night revelers, Solomonov's fellow cook cut his thumb severely. Without a word the cook cauterized the spurting wound with a cast-iron skillet, and they cooked for another four hours. That was the night Solomonov told himself he would be a chef.
Solomonov attended Florida Culinary Institute, then moved to Philadelphia. He worked under established chefs Terence Feury, Patrick Feury and Marc Vetri. During this stage, Solomonov's career "had nothing to do with Israeli cooking," he said. "I was cooking Italian food for Marc Vetri and French food for Terence Feury."
On Yom Kippur in 2003, Solomonov's older brother, an officer in the Israeli army, was shot and killed by snipers. Solomonov returned to Israel for an extended period, deepening his connection to its culture and language – and cuisine. In 2005, back in Philadelphia, he became executive chef at Marigold Kitchen. It was an American restaurant, but he started to add Israeli touches. With Steve Cook, the owner of Marigold Kitchen, Solomonov opened Zahav in 2008.
Now the two partners also run Xochitl, a rustic Mexican restaurant, and Percy Street Barbecue. They will open Federal Donuts, a donuts-and-fried-chicken restaurant, this summer. (The last was inspired by one of his favorite dishes, Korean fried chicken.)
Despite "the pressure, the hours, the stress," Solomonov loves that Zahav allows him to "re-identify" with his culture daily. Much of his family lives in Israel, and he travels there frequently, returning with fresh ideas for the menu.
As for "re-identifying" with his American side, Solomonov's guilty pleasure is junk food. "Oh, man, I have so many favorite junk foods. Fast Break candy bars by Reese's are phenomenal… Take 5 bars, which have pretzel and caramel in them, are great. And Sour Patch Kids."