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.

When he took over the Marigold kitchen, Solomonov began to embrace his native country’s polyglot cuisine. As time passed, “It became clear that that was the way I was going to attach myself to Israel,” he says, “and in some way, even, with Judaism, and certainly with my brother.”

Solomonov was 27 now, scarred by loss and headed for a confrontation with his obsessive and addictive nature. But he was about to find his métier. With the owner’s approval, he pivoted toward the Middle East. That’s when his star really began to rise.

“Remember the name Michael Solomonov,” Maria Gallagher wrote in this magazine in 2006. “You may not know him yet, but his work at Marigold is the best possible introduction, affirming him as one of Philadelphia’s most promising young culinary talents … with a technique that is already mature.”

He was maturing outside the kitchen, too. He married a business analyst named Mary Armistead, and moved into a South Philly rowhouse. In January 2008, he ceded the Marigold kitchen to Erin O’Shea and took the leap into ownership and a full embrace of his native country’s cuisine with the 3,000-square-foot place in Society Hill (it later doubled in size) named for the Hebrew word for gold.

Zahav is so successful right now that it’s easy to think it always was. But that’s not true. The critics liked the idea almost from the beginning, but patrons didn’t. As the saying goes, they stayed away in droves.

“We didn’t listen,” Solomonov says. “We wanted to be very casual and then have this high-end thing in a different room, which was me trying to show off. And it just didn’t work. At all.”

“We were getting all the accolades that you could get, but we were doing, like, 30 covers on a Tuesday. We had about a year of being scared to death that the bank was going to take our homes, or everyone was going to quit. I didn’t have a clear head about me when we were opening. And nobody likes to work for an asshole. Dude, I was not a good person to work for at all. And I was not a good person to work with. Poor Steve. Or my wife. I can’t imagine.”

Though he won’t be specific with the timeline, it seems obvious that this was the period when Solomonov decided to get sober. He and Cook reworked the Zahav concept, making the menu less didactic and the restaurant friendlier.

“We were humbled to the point where we just had to cook and give great service,” Solomonov says. “You can’t listen to all the positive things that are being written about you when you’re going to your parents and asking for 10 grand so you can make payroll. The press doesn’t fucking matter at that point.”

Nowadays, the press for Zahav is only more effusive, and the customers are waiting to get in. “We’re the busiest we’ve ever been,” Solomonov told me in mid-May. “I don’t know what that’s a product of, but I think it’s because we’re doing well every night, having good services back-to-back.”

 

Service is over, and the Zahav chefs are chowing down.

“Sooo good, dude,” says one.

“Dude, sooo good,” says another.

“These wings are ridiculous—crazy good, bro,” says Chef himself.

It’s heading toward two a.m., and Solomonov has finally shed his apron and enlisted two of his top young chefs for a pilgrimage to one of his favorite restaurants, a Korean fried chicken wings joint in Cheltenham called Café Soho. Two piles of crisp wings—garlic soy and spicy—are heaped on the table, along with a side dish of eel.

In the founding myth surrounding Federal Donuts, Solomonov is given credit for introducing the concept of twice-fried chicken into the product mix. He isn’t shy about revealing his inspiration. “At the time,” he says, “I was eating a shitload of wings at Café Soho.” The unlikely pairing of chicken with doughnuts never seemed unlikely to Solomonov.

I asked Marc Vetri what he thought of the FedNuts phenomenon. “I was skeptical at first,” he said. “Now, it’s like the Beatles.”

But will what seems a boy-band-esque foodie fad become a lasting venture? The kind of business that Steve Cook, somewhat jokingly, predicts will pay his children’s college tuition?

“To call it a fad minimizes everything that we put into it,” Solomonov says one day. “And to me, when you say fad—what’s going to go out of style? I don’t think coffee’s going out of style. Doughnuts definitely aren’t. And chicken together with that just seems to make sense.”

The next day, I waited in line for chicken and doughnuts at a Phillies game. The Federal Donuts in the stadium is actually run by institutional food giant Aramark, which has licensed the name. Although an original CookNSolo employee is present at every game, the product isn’t exactly the “world class”-level fare that New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells gushed about after his visit to the original FedNuts. All empires learn that expansion threatens control.

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