Michael Solomonov is co-founder, with Steve Cook, of CookNSolo, a 300-employee Philadelphia company comprising 11 restaurants. He has won four James Beard awards, including Outstanding Chef in 2017 for the Israeli restaurant Zahav. With the introduction of Federal Donuts, now in five locations around the city, CookNSolo ignited the national trend of coffee-doughnuts-fried chicken restaurants. Solomonov's success required both exercising his culinary imagination and vanquishing his personal demons. --As told to Leigh Buchanan
My mother's father was a pediatrician: the Jewish doctor in this little town in Ohio. They traveled to Israel a lot. That's where she met my father, who had moved to Israel from Bulgaria in 1948. After I was born, they came back to the United States. My father took over a jewelry store that was a family business on my mother's side.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, where my brother David was born. When I was 15 we moved back to Israel. David assimilated; I returned to the United States and weaseled my way into the University of Vermont. I spent all my parents' hard-earned money on three semesters of kind of being an art major but really just smoking weed and snowboarding. I dropped out and moved back to Israel.
I walked up and down the street in Kfar-Saba, our hometown, asking shopkeepers if they had work. I got a job at a bakery. I felt like I was part of society because every kind of person works in the bakery, and everybody in Israel eats baked goods all the time. The act of making food for someone else--of hospitality in any form--is the opposite of what I was doing before, which was being selfish and self-centered and just taking.
I got a job in a café, where I learned short-order cooking. Then I went to culinary school in Florida. I wanted to move to New York. On the way, I stopped in Philly with my girlfriend at the time, whose stepbrother lived there. This was 2001, and the restaurant renaissance was happening. I thought it was amazing and decided to stay. I worked at the Striped Bass, and then an Italian restaurant called Vetri, both of which were at the top of Philadelphia magazine's list of 50 best restaurants.
At Vetri we took a break in August, and my mother bought me a plane ticket to Israel. My brother had enlisted in the military and became a sniper in the Golani Brigade of the Israeli Defense Forces. He had a little vacation right before being released from military service, so we got to bond for a couple of weeks. We traveled the country and shopped for food.
On Yom Kippur, I was driving back from Pittsburgh and I got a call from my aunt telling me that David was killed by Hezbollah snipers a few days before his release. I went back for his funeral. There were all the kids I had met at the beach and the clubs and discotheques. Now they were in uniform--burying him.
A few months later, I flew back to Israel to cook for my brother's army unit. Vetri's owner, Mark Vetri, said, "I am going to come with you and cook." He was like, "Let's roast a suckling pig." I said, "We can't do that for the Israeli Defense Forces." We were surrounded by these Israeli kids who are covered in mud with M16s slung over their shoulders that have five minutes to eat this meal we've prepared so they can go out and defend the border. It was a really important thing for Mark to see. And watching him process it was like a light bulb for me. My life's work was not to cook Italian food.
I had always heard about Steve Cook, because he was the other Jewish line cook in Philadelphia. He had opened a restaurant on the University of Pennsylvania campus called Marigold Kitchen, but got burned out on being the chef. He hired me. I was sous-viding and making these refined sauces. It was a huge contrast to how I would eat in Israel, where it would be all lafa and kebabs and sharing and ripping bread apart. That was the eating that I loved and craved. It tells a story of Israel and diaspora and conflict and commonality. It is elemental cooking, and just so good. I came back from one of the trips and said, "Steve, we should open an Israeli restaurant."
We opened Zahav on May 5, 2008. Arguably the worst year to open a restaurant. The Phillies won the World Series, which is great if you own a bar with a f*cking television. We begged money from all our friends and family. We had like 17 investors, and collateralized our homes.
In July I went into rehab. I have always been addicted. When I came back from David's funeral, it went full force. While we were starting Zahav, it got so bad that I had started to do heroin to offset the crack. There was a great 12-step meeting here in Center City. I couldn't drive myself and I couldn't carry money myself, so Steve would pick me up there every morning and drive me to work. My wife would pick me up every night and take me home and random drug test me. Sometimes I would pass. Sometimes I would fail. Eventually recovery stuck.
At first we sucked. So many of our ideas and ideals were misguided. The way we presented our food was alienating. Cucumber and tomato salad in February in Pennsylvania doesn't taste right. At one point Steve was like, "Mike, you need to stop with this traditional stuff. It doesn't resonate. You need to be a chef." He was right. I can't make bourekas--stuffed phyllo dough pastries--as good as my grandmother can. But I can take these different traditions and create a visceral experience that takes you to a time before you were born. To medieval Spain to Bulgaria to the Ottomans to Israel in 1948. Pulling all these things together to tell a story.
Philadelphia magazine named us the No. 1 restaurant in April of that year. That got everybody back into the restaurant. Then came the James Beard nominations and awards.
In 2011 we had Zahav, which was kind of making money, and a barbecue place that was not making money at all. We got to know Bob Logue and Tom Henneman, who owned a coffee shop and wanted to open a coffee and doughnut shop. We were eating a sh*tload of Korean fried chicken. We were like, let's do coffee and doughnuts and chicken! Felicia D'Ambrosio came on to do the marketing and social media. The five of us put in $7,500 each and rented a space for $700 on Federal Street in the Pennsport neighborhood. That was Federal Donuts. The first day we sold out of doughnuts in an hour and had a line out the door for chicken. It cranked.
We loved this idea of just doing one or two things, but doing them as well as we could. In Israel there are hummusias--places that only make hummus. We gave that a shot and opened Dizengoff in 2014. So we were making pita by hand. And if you have chickpeas--that is a falafel sandwich. So we opened Goldie.
For Federal Donuts we wanted to buy whole chickens that would allow us to serve a higher quality without changing the price point. We were left with all these chicken backs. We knew we could make great soup from them. So, we said, let's take the soup and make it the backbone--no pun intended--of a Jewish deli or luncheonette. And we will donate 100 percent of the profit to Broad Street Ministry, a social-service organization for people in need. That was the Rooster. The first week, Steve wrote them a check for $500, and with that we were feeding like 250 people.
Expansion outside Philadelphia has been difficult. We opened a Dizengoff and Federal Donuts in Miami, and a Dizengoff in New York, but we closed them last year. There was a lot of stuff happening outside of our control, and it was hard to convey the sense of place and community and mission we're built on. There wasn't the magic we need. But this year we are opening three new restaurants--I can't say what they are--in Philadelphia. When we do that, we'll be employing about 400 people.
A lot of people say that what I do is about my brother. They're not wrong. But it's not that simple. I wanted to be part of the narrative of Israel, for the sake of my brother, and promoting a country that I love and feel is often misrepresented. Food is the way I can do that. It's how I tell the story.