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.

At Café SoHo, the leftover wings are wrapped to go. Solomonov is visibly fatigued. His day began early with his toddler son, named for his brother David, waking him. He’d jumped out of bed for the fruitless surfing expedition. On the way back from the Shore, he’d stopped at the original Federal Donuts (where some customers recognized him from TV and the fresh doughnuts were sublime), and after that came a visit to Percy Street Barbecue. Then business at the CookNSolo office behind Zahav, a quick visit with his wife and son at home, and then about seven hours of service.

In trailing Solomonov for a few days, I was struck both by his energy level and by the sheer accumulation of daily decisions he must make: whether to agree to whip up a dish on a daytime talk show, whether a real estate deal makes sense, whether a server can take an unscheduled night off, whether any given plate of food of the hundreds that flow by him at the Zahav kitchen counter looks good enough to be served.

“We’re a restaurant that’s suc­cessful—after five years,” he said. “It’s micro-
ma­nagement at every single level.”

That’s the reason he heads for the boxing ring three mornings each week. “Boxing helps the crickets and monkeys in your head,” Solomonov told me. “You see what my day is like every day at work. Boxing is everything but that. There’s no decisions. I’m used to people saying ‘Yes Chef’ this and ‘Yes Chef’ that. So it’s great to go to the gym and say ‘Yes Coach’ and fuckin’ shut my mouth. And be humbled.”

It was another chef, Osteria’s Jeff Michaud, who introduced Solomonov to boxing. I hesitate to report this, because it may be the last remaining chef-competition concept that hasn’t been produced for television and I don’t want to give anybody ideas; the two James Beard Award winners sometimes spar in the ring.

Lately, as they slouch toward empire, Cook and Solomonov have been reading Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table. Starting with the perennial Zagat Guide favorite Union Square Café, Meyer developed a series of Manhattan restaurants (Tom Colicchio’s Gramercy Tavern was an early example), each more famous than the last. His latest triumph is the internationally expanding Shake Shack chain.

Meyer believes the first priority for success in the hospitality industry is happy, invested employees. This is something that Solomonov strives for, in his own idiosyncratic way. Lately the boss has been taking Saturday-morning break-dancing lessons with a group of workers. Once, he rounded up a dozen of his employees and took them to Bucks County to jump out of an airplane together. “It was mandatory, and I like my job,” Zahav manager Okan Yazici told me. “So I did it.” He doesn’t think he’d do it again.

“I don’t know if it was mandatory, but preferred,” Solomonov said. I asked him if such extreme field trips were his version of Outward Bound, which uses physical challenges and hardship to build teamwork. “I just thought it would be good to jump out of airplanes together,” he said.

Overcoming fear, Solomonov told me, is an important part of life: “Right now I’m working on my fear of sharks.” To that end, he had a large shark tattooed on his torso. He’d heard it was something sailors used to do. It’s the latest in a tat collection that includes a string of elephants on his biceps (he can’t remember the inspiration); a rooster on the other arm, laced with a Hebrew prayer and his brother’s name; and another on his shoulder that reproduces his brother’s army insignia.

“Now, the likelihood of my getting eaten by a shark,” Solomonov said. “I’m more likely to get struck by lightning—twice.” He then listed any number of mundane daily activities, like driving a car (and sometimes, for him, a motorcycle), that are more dangerous, statistically speaking. Not to mention—though he mentioned it several times—years of alcohol and drug abuse and the dangerous situations that those can entail.

“There is just something crazy that happens in your psyche when you enter an airplane knowing that you’re going to open a window and jump out of it,” Solomonov said. “That is exciting. That is fun. And that is living, dude.”

Life is certain to change for Michael Solomonov. It’s just a question of how much and how quickly. “Michael is going to be a star,” says Roger Sherman, producer and director of the planned PBS documentary. “I will help make him a star a little quicker. But he doesn’t need me. His celebrity will be that he’s going to be one of the most respected chefs in America.”

The documentarian connected with Solomonov through Joan Nathan, a veteran cookbook author and an expert on Jewish and Israeli food. One afternoon, Nathan talked to me in an affectionate and almost motherly way about the young chef. And at one point she said gently, “Frankly, I think he’s doing so much these days.”

I asked Solomonov’s partner whether so much could be too much. “It’s something that I think about,” Cook said. “And we talk about it all the time. It’s hard to see where Mike is or where we are on a timeline. I feel that the next five years are going to be a lot more active than the past five years. And he’s going to have to figure out how he’s going to deal with that. It’s a big challenge to come.”

But for now, most nights, he’s there in the heat at Zahav. “At five o’clock, dude,” he told me, “the curtains go up, and it is show- time every fuckin’ night.”

As I stood in the midst of the frenetic Zahav kitchen midway through a Saturday-night service, Solomonov came behind me, crouched down, and opened an under-counter refrigerator. He started shoving food aside and cursing. “It’s gone, it’s gone,” he yelled.

“It’s in the back,” his grill chef told him.

Finally, Chef found what he needed—he pulled a can of Red Bull out of the cooler, cracked it open, and drank it quickly, staying out of sight behind the counter. Just then, the four people who had reserved the chef’s tasting counter were arriving. Ten careful courses lay before him, from the Negev olives to Fred Flintstone-sized rib-eye steaks and kiwi sorbet. And as the diners left the restaurant later, they would receive some marshmallows to take home, tucked into tiny bags with origami cranes. Earlier, I watched Solomonov fold the origami himself. How long can that last?

A receptionist leaned over the kitchen counter and looked to where Solomonov crouched with his energy drink. “They’re here, Chef,” she said. “Are you ready, Chef?”

Solomonov rose up like a boxer lifting himself off the corner stool to fight another round.

“Fuck yeah,” he said. “I’m ready.” 

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