On any given night, a customer who walks through the verdant, manicured grounds of I.M. Pei’s Society Hill Towers and into the restaurant called Zahav will likely see its young salt-and-pepper-haired chef and co-owner, Michael Solomonov, flipping a pie-sized floppy disk of bread dough onto a flat paddle and shoveling it, with a quick shrug, into a brick oven that’s been fired with compressed hardwood to a blazing 800 degrees.
The dough is an Iraqi flatbread called laffa, and not long after it hits the bricks, it puffs up so fast that the process looks like time-lapse photography. In the few minutes he has before the laffa is done cooking, Solomonov uses his central position to quarterback the kitchen staff.
“I need an amuse-bouche,” he might shout down the line of cooks, as he did on a recent night when I squeezed into the kitchen to watch him work. “Excuse me—I’m sorry,” the chef added, his tone somehow combining his general affability with zero tolerance for slacking, “but WHERE THE FUCK are the amuse coming from tonight?” When it comes to cursing, chefs are the new sailors.
Then Solomonov steps back into the blast zone of the open oven, slips the paddle under the dough that’s now charred and crunchy, and pulls it out for a quick sprinkle of olive oil and a dusting of the Middle Eastern spice mix called za’atar. He pushes it onto a plate to be served with hummus.
On a busy night, this happens several hundred times, and the whole process—the pounding rollout, the quick puff, the intense heat, the crucible quality of it all—provides some convenient metaphors for the life, up till now, of the 34-year-old hot-shot chef who still calls himself a “dirt-bag line cook” even though he stands on the verge of becoming a brand-name culinary star.