The Inimitable Michael Solomonov

With surprise hits like Zahav and Federal Donuts, Philly’s most iconoclastic chef seems poised for the big time. But Michael Solomonov’s future challenges are no match for the ones he’s already faced.

Though he’s suffered his share of burns on the way to this point, it’s all happening lately for Michael Solomonov. He’s been named best chef in the region by the James Beard Foundation. His unique Israeli-inspired restaurant has four bells from the Inquirer and raves from this magazine, and has been the object of adulation in the national press, ranging from the New York Times to Bon Appétit. “We’ve gotten praise from the Israeli press,” the chef reports proudly. “Which is very cool.” Marc Vetri, who gave Solomonov one of his early cooking jobs, calls Zahav “one of the most interesting restaurants in America right now.”

Right now may be the perfect time for a restaurateur like Solomonov. The foodie phenomenon is reaching its postmodern phase, and the hive mind of serious diners seems to swing wildly in its passions between the extremes of rococo molecular gastronomy on one hand and street food savored off a truck on the other. With his ability to embrace high and low and still make dining fun and delicious, his energetic and idiosyncratic enthusiasm for both ends of the spectrum, Solomonov may have whipped up his own secret sauce for success.

Of course, right now also happens to be smack in the middle of the age of the rock-star chef/entrepreneur, and Solomonov has already walked gingerly into that wave of heat. With his business partner, Steve Cook, a onetime investment banker who transformed himself into a respected chef and then quickly went back to the business end of the restaurant business, Solomonov has interests in Percy Street Barbecue and Federal Donuts. The latter is the counterintuitive (or perhaps completely and brilliantly intuitive) combo coffee shop/designer doughnut house/fried chicken shack that’s become as much a cult as a franchise, demonstrating the new willingness of serious food hounds to stand in line for what was once considered little more than junk.

FedNuts, as devotees like to call it, now has three locations and counting, including the frequently mobbed counter in the stands behind left field at Citizens Bank Park. Though there have been discussions about opening a Zahav in New York, CookNSolo, as the partners call their company, sees FedNuts as its best opportunity to debut a show out of town.

There was more attention last year when the pair engineered the much-buzzed-about opening of a high-end kosher restaurant on the Main Line, Citron and Rose. Because of the complicated rules of kashrut, as Jewish dietary laws are known, Solomonov chose to only sign on as a consultant. Citron and Rose opened to strong reviews, but Cook and Solomonov walked away from the restaurant within a few months, when owner David Magerman decided to broaden the appeal and try, in effect, to make the restaurant into his own suburban Jewish community center.

“There was no slapping or punching or anything like that” in the breakup, Solomonov insists. “We wanted from the get-go to have the best kosher restaurant in the country. The level we do things at is high. To broaden things is okay, but we don’t need to be doing that. There’s plenty of people who can do that.”

Just days after announcing the split, both Cook and Solomonov were talking about “revisiting” the concept of high-end Ashkenazi Jewish food on their own. Meanwhile, they were hinting that an Israeli street-food joint that wouldn’t compete with Zahav is a distinct possibility. Are they, as Food and Wine recently suggested, poised to helm the next Philadelphia restaurant empire?

If a Cook and Solo empire emerges, it will be different from what we’ve seen before. Jose Garces built a kind of Incan Empire, his restaurants all rooted in some sort of south-of-the-border cuisine. Marc Vetri rules over a Roman Empire, with an expanding range of foods that are all recognizably inspired by Italy. While those two chefs have created new restaurants in the context of their original successes, Solomonov and Cook are operating in that postmodern mode. Theirs is the context of no context. They even once made a go at Mexican. (It didn’t work.)

“The concepts we’ve chosen are more an expression of our personalities than some sort of calculated empire-building strategy,” Cook told me one afternoon, sitting in a new private dining room at the recently expanded Zahav. Then he laughed. “But we’ll take the empire. We’d like to have an empire. But the only way it makes sense is to do what we like to do first and maybe the money will follow.”

If empire is in the offing, Solomonov will be its figurehead. Cook, who is uncomfortable in the public eye, describes his p­artner as “chief marketing officer” for the brand. In that role, the voluble Israeli-born, Pi­ttsburgh-bred total-high-energy dude has started to have his ticket punched on the celebrity-chef ride.

There he is on the Travel Channel, greeting Anthony Bourdain and his cameras as they arrive for dinner at Zahav, and hanging out afterward (still on camera) with Tony at the Pen & Pencil Club, where he challenges the TV star to a game of rock-paper-scissors—the loser having to down a shot of the brackish water from the club’s crockpot of free hot dogs. Bourdain loses.

Isn’t that Mike Solo, as he’s commonly known, cooking pungent chicken shashlik with Al Roker on the Today show? And there he is again, whipping up some of his newly famous FedNuts fried chicken for actress Nia Vardalos (of Big Fat Greek Wedding fame) on VH1’s Big Morning Buzz Live. After watching him apply spices, the actress tells the chef, on live TV, “Now I know exactly what kind of lover you would be.”

In terms of more dignified media, Solomonov has signed up to star in a PBS documentary about the foods of Israel, which should start filming this fall. He’s taking meetings in New York in preparation for shopping around a cookbook concept. He has presented his cooking theories at a smarty-pants TedX conference.

In the way successful chefs are these days, he’s being pulled in a dozen different di­rections. Still, for now, on most nights, Solomonov plants himself behind the
hammered-copper kitchen counter at Zahav and shovels dough into the blast furnace.

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