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.

This morning, Chef just wants some big waves.

It’s early on a Saturday, barely eight hours since he walked out of Zahav last night after overseeing the delivery of 227 meals, manning the bread station for much of the six-hour service, and personally preparing four 10-course dinners for folks willing to pay $90 for the chef’s tasting menu. Solomonov has strapped his surfboard (it otherwise hangs over the living room sofa of his Old City loft) to the roof of his new Subaru sedan. His wet suit is in the trunk, and on this bright and cool spring morning he is barreling down the A.C. Expressway toward the ocean.

When I first asked about spending time with him, the chef told me, “I don’t know what you’re going to see. My life is really fuckin’ boring. All I do is work.” Then he came back with an offer of an array of athletic activities: surfing, running (he was scheduled to do the 10-mile Broad Street Run the next day) and boxing. In a different season, snowboarding would be on the agenda.

“Mike is so high-energy,” says one friend, who helped teach him to surf. “It makes my head spin. And he’s got that next-level kind of drive.”

We were about halfway to Atlantic City, talking about our mutual disdain for the culture of “gaming,” when Solomonov said, “I’ve got one of the most compulsive and addictive personalities I know, but gambling has never been a problem.” A little while later, after a shoreline survey of the paltry wave action convinced him that putting on his wet suit would be a waste of time, we were walking the Boardwalk, trying to find some coffee. Solomonov said he wanted to tell me something off the record.

He then told a story of spiraling into alcohol and drug abuse and how people close to him pushed him into detox and rehab. He now has several years of recovery and sobriety behind him. Solomonov later agreed to talk publicly about his addiction, but only in general terms. “At some point in my life, I’ll be very upfront about it if I can find a way to make it helpful,” he told me. “Because of my responsibility to other people in recovery, I need to figure out how I’m going to be more specific and more detailed. But I’m not ready to do that right now.” In a world of graphic addiction memoirs written by teenagers, Solomonov’s reticence is refreshing.

Though Solomonov believes in the genetic basis of addiction, any amateur psychologist could point to triggers, life events that can lead a person toward addiction. In the chef’s life, one such event stands out.

On the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur in 2003, when Solomonov was a 25-year-old up-and-coming chef working on the line in Marc Vetri’s kitchen (Vetri had only one restaurant at the time), he was driving a family car from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. The car was for his younger brother, David, who was about to be released from his obligatory duty in the Israeli army and planned to move back to the States and continue his education.

Just weeks before this, the brothers had spent time together in Israel, where the family had repatriated when Michael was 15 and David 12. Michael soon returned to the U.S. to finish high school and start college, but David stayed and assimilated in Israel. “We hadn’t really seen much of each other—maybe once a year,” Solomonov remembers. “So we hung out for three weeks together. Going to the beach. Talking about food. Talking about life. It was awesome. We were just sort of friends.”

As Solomonov drove the car east across the state for his brother, his phone rang, somewhere around the town of Lebanon. It was an aunt calling to tell him that David was dead, shot by snipers as he patrolled an apple orchard on Israel’s border with the nation of Lebanon. David Solomonov was three days from being discharged and had volunteered for duty that night to give a more observant member of his battalion leave for the high holiday.

“David’s death changed my perspective about a lot of things,” Solomonov says. “Emotionally, I was utterly fucked up.” After a trip to Israel for his brother’s funeral, he returned to the Vetri kitchen.

“I had more responsibility at Vetri,” he says. “But that next year was really difficult. I broke up with my girlfriend. I lived in the office at the restaurant for a few months. I was just going through it a little bit. I wasn’t very good at accepting what happened to my brother or what was happening to myself. I definitely drank too much and went off on a couple different tangents, which is obviously a mistake that doesn’t help you deal with anything.”

At one point, Solomonov got the idea of moving back to Israel and joining the army himself. “We sort of talked him out of that,” says Marc Vetri. “I was just like, ‘What are you gonna do? It’ll all be for nothing. Your brother was going to leave all that and come over here.’ We put the kibosh on that idea.”

But it was in Israel that Solomonov had discovered his vocation in the kitchen. When, years earlier, he’d dropped out of the University of Vermont (he once told a writer he’d majored in smoking pot and snowboarding; it was actually studio art), Solomonov slunk back to his birthplace, landing a job in a bakery and later becoming a short-order cook in a cafe.

“It was so different from what I was doing prior,” he says. “It was legitimate work, and it was fuckin’ hard—like, super-hard. I was sort of like an immigrant, and I was treated like an immigrant. I’d work harder than I ever had to work before and nobody gave a shit. Something about it was very honest, and I guess I liked that.

“I was 19, and everybody thought I was going to be perpetually unemployed or a drug dealer or something like that. I started thinking about culinary school.” After three years studying at the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach and working in some South Florida restaurants, Solomonov landed in Philadelphia and quickly moved through two kitchens in the then-flourishing Neil Stein empire—at Avenue B and Striped Bass. He credits Terence Feury, who fired him from Striped Bass and then hired him back, with teaching him work ethic and technique. Then he shifted to the q­uieter kitchen of Vetri, who, he says, taught him to slow down and really pay attention. But Vetri had a policy at the time of pushing his sous-chefs out of the cozy Spruce Street restaurant after two years, so they’d go off and see if they could fly on their own.

In the late summer of 2005, Solomonov met Steve Cook, who was trying to replace himself as chef at the popular West Philadelphia BYO Marigold Kitchen. Cook’s wife knew Solomonov from their childhood in Pittsburgh. Despite the two men’s nearly diametrically different personalities, there was a certain kinship.

“Maybe we just had a good feel for each other at the beginning,” Cook says. “But probably not. There was a need, and he was there and was hungry and had a vision for what he wanted to do.”

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