One City in Pennsylvania is Poised to Crush the 21st Century …

Photo via Dave DiCello/visit pittsburgh

Photo via Dave DiCello/visit pittsburgh

I came to Pittsburgh to see the future.

On a blustery late-winter morning with a light whorl of snowflakes falling near the banks of the Allegheny River, Sarah, a friendly young PR person for Uber, opened the rear passenger door of a Volvo SUV that had so much electronic gear installed on the roof, it looked like it was wearing a crown. She gestured for me to take a seat. We were in the parking lot of Uber Advanced Technologies Group, a converted restaurant-equipment warehouse just north of downtown. I was about to have a very special Uber ride, and not just because it was free.

I buckled up, and the Volvo headed out on a few blocks of 33rd Street that run under a hulking railroad trestle — an unsubtle symbol of the city’s heralded industrial past. The car turned toward downtown and headed into the bustling Strip District. We went a few miles and then circled back on Smallman Street to the Uber warehouse, which is situated in a part of Pittsburgh that recently has become such a magnet for tech research that one think-tank maven described it to me as “where you really feel you’re in the 21st century.”

The ride took maybe 15 minutes and was uneventful except for a needless stop for a double-parked delivery truck outside one of the Strip’s many food stores and some hard braking when an impatient idiot passed us on the right. I can’t say much more about it because Uber wouldn’t let me in the door unless I signed an imposing confidentiality agreement, and Sarah reminded me several times, in her very friendly way, that the whole trip was “on background.” But I think I can reveal this: Though there was someone in the driver’s seat, for most of the trip the car drove itself. Read more »

Is Curalate Philly’s Most Successful Start Up?

Photograph by Gene Smirnov

Photograph by Gene Smirnov

In which Apu Gupta models a bra on his birthday

Consider the photo Apu Gupta snapped of himself one day last summer on his iPhone 6. It happened to be his 41st birthday, which made him a wizened elder in the marketing tech company called Curalate that he co-founded less than five years ago and has guided, as CEO, through quick revenue growth and expansion. Read more »

Rich Landau Wants You to Eat Your Vegetables

Kate Jacoby, co-owner, manager and pastry chef of Vedge and V Street, with her husband, Rich Landau, at Vedge. Photograph by Gene Smirnov

Kate Jacoby, co-owner, manager and pastry chef of Vedge and V Street, with her husband, Rich Landau, at Vedge. Photograph by Gene Smirnov

No tattoos. No cursing. No meat, no fish, no eggs, no dairy. No drama. This is a successful chef?

Rich Landau plops a pile of spongy, chalk-colored tofu into a big stainless steel bowl. “This is the most clichéd part of my job,” he says, leaning into the bowl with both hands and tearing the tofu limb from limb, or whatever it is you do to the curd of soybeans. Landau calls tofu “the evil icon of vegetarianism,” and it’s obvious he’s worked with it a few times — check that; a few hundred thousand times — before. Read more »

Jami Wintz McKeon: The Chairman

Jami McKeon hanging out with some previous leaders of Morgan Lewis. Photograph by Jonathan Barkat

Jami McKeon hanging out with some previous leaders of Morgan Lewis. Photograph by Jonathan Barkat

“This is a party trick.”

Jami McKeon passes her BlackBerry Bold across the polished hardwood conference table to show what she typed just a moment ago. She typed it without once looking at the device, while holding my gaze and saying, “I’m so fast typing on a BlackBerry that my husband calls it a party trick. Read more »

How Jefferson’s Stephen Klasko Intends to Fix Our Screwed-Up Health-Care System

The new president and CEO spent nearly $4 million to rename SEPTA’s Market East Station — the highest-profile move to date in his bid to make Jefferson into a paragon of medical entrepreneurialism. Photograph by Dustin Fenstermacher

The new president and CEO spent nearly $4 million to rename SEPTA’s Market East Station — the highest-profile move to date in his bid to make Jefferson into a paragon of medical entrepreneurialism. Photograph by Dustin Fenstermacher

It’s mid-morning on a scorching late-summer day, but comfortable in a climate-controlled subterranean corridor covered in tile the shade of a ripe avocado. Stephen K. Klasko, M.D., MBA, looks up at the ceiling under Market Street and seems to realize that in a not at all metaphoric way, his grasp might exceed his reach.

Read more »

Ajay Raju Profile: The Big Raju

The Dilworth Paxson CEO in his $3.1 million Society Hill home. Photography by Chris Crisman

Dilworth Paxson CEO Ajay Raju in his $3.1 million Society Hill home. Photography by Chris Crisman

Might as well start with the hair.

“My life,” he says, “is driven by my obsession with my stupid hair.”

“My wife,” he says, “hates my hair. She wants me to have no gel.”

“When I discovered gel,” he says, “it was like Aha! Caveman discovers wheel.”

“My brother,” he reports, “says, ‘It’s a previously frozen raccoon that died on the road and was tarred over and then they put it on Ajay’s head.’”

“I’m the Indian Don King.”

Born near Bhopal, brought by his parents to Northeast Philly at the age of 14 speaking no English, Ajay Raju has transformed himself from a kid who felt insecure ordering at McDonald’s to a polished 44-year-old law partner who is quickly and deferentially seated at his preferred table (rear corner near the bar, where he can see everyone come and go) in the posh 1862 dining room at the Union League. He nonchalantly requests dishes not on the menu — tonight, grilled salmon and salad, since his weight is his other obsession. “I’m a peacock,” he’ll say, again and again.

“He has one quality that you definitely do not see in the legal class — pizzazz,” says one of Raju’s friends. “They buy their clothes at Joseph A. Bank. And obviously Ajay does not shop there.” In fact, Raju appears in advertisements for Boyds; his shoes, which can run up to $12,000 a pair, come from Tom Ford.

“We’ll see whether the personal flamboyance undoes him in this town,” this observer says. “At this point, it seems not. He’s going to be a player.”

It’s not as if he’s waiting on the bench now. On this late-winter night, Raju is little more than a month into his new job as CEO and co-chairman of Dilworth Paxson, one of Philadelphia’s most storied law firms. He moved there after nearly a decade at Reed Smith, a much larger firm with an international presence, where he managed the Philadelphia office and was acknowledged as a top rainmaker among 1,800 partners worldwide.

There are those who think Raju’s move to a smaller, more Philly-focused shop is really about having a home in a politically connected firm and dressing himself in the double-breasted, pin-striped aura of Richardson Dilworth, the legendary mayor and political reformer. He already sits on a dozen nonprofit boards around town, ranging from the Art Museum to the Zoo. He has his own political action committee — Center PAC — that has helped raise money for Tom Corbett and Bob Casey. Raju, possessed with what he calls “immigrant impatience,” has been raising money for politicians since he was a teenager. (As a young peacock, he disguised fund-raisers as fashion shows.) Raju calls Center PAC an “incubation platform” and plans eventually to help launch the political careers of civic-minded business types. People like him.

During talks about his move to Dilworth with its longtime partner Joe Jacovini, who stepped aside from running the firm for Raju to move in, the two men had a number of meetings right here in full view at the Union League. “They thought a merger was happening — this crowd,” Raju says, glancing across the table to the full and noisy bar area. “It’s almost like they analyze your stools to see what you ate this month. In New York, nobody would give a rat’s ass. Here, they watch everything.”

Of course, he’s a guy who doesn’t mind being watched. Peacocks don’t try to hide. While he may not be ready to run for mayor, he’s long been running for something. At this point, he has a self-appointed position; call it ch­eerleader-in-chief. Ajay Raju is making a deliberate effort to make sure people don’t just look — he wants them to look and listen.

It’s the reason he’s spending hours tonight dining with someone who can bring him no legal business, who offers no new connection in the guarded back corridors of power and influence. He’s here despite the objections of those around him.

“I can honestly tell you that every friend and adviser tells me not to talk to you right now,” Raju tells me just before — diet be damned — ordering dessert, his third helping today of Union League brownies with peanut butter ice cream. (It’s a long story that involves having two lunches.) “‘You can gain nothing with a profile of you; nothing good comes out of it. It doesn’t get you anywhere.’

“But I think it’s the perfect time. I have this idea, and I want the message to get out there.”

Steel Magnolia


Furnaces and fireworks for the Fourth of July. Photography by Jonathan Davies

John Callahan, a 44-year-old natural salesman turned preternatural politician, looks down at the small plate of tuna crudo on the table. Fork poised, he considers the unlikelihood that he would be sampling such a dish in a swank new Italian restaurant on the main drag of the traditionally working-class ethnic enclave called the South Side in his hometown of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

“Who’da thunk it,” he says, with a rapid-fire wheezy chuckle. He spears an olive-oil-drenched nubbin of raw fish. “I often tell people: This is not your grandfather’s — hell, it’s not your father’s — town of Bethlehem.”

If he walked out the front door of Molinari Mangia, Callahan, who recently ended a decade as Bethlehem’s mayor, could peer toward the hulking 20-story blast furnaces that were once the hot heart of Bethlehem Steel, a premier industrial powerhouse of the last century. For much of that century, into the 1990s, those belching furnaces — “convoluted structures that look like smoke-stained dinosaurs snorting into the sky,” in the words of one writer — delivered a daily reassuring signal to the city of 75,000. As long as what locals called “The Steel” was working, so was Bethlehem.

But The Steel, reeling from foreign competition, plagued by myopic management and hamstrung by its unions, shut down the furnaces in 1995. The company spiraled into bankruptcy and finally dissolution. The city lost its namesake company, and a fifth of its taxable land devolved into an unused brownfield site, transformed almost overnight into a Rust Belt relic facing an existential crisis: What do you do with a huge plot (picture downtown Philly, Market to Spruce, river to river) of polluted land littered with industrial-era detritus?

More than 10 years after The Steel’s bankruptcy, the emerging answer gives John Callahan a story to tell. One day he showed up at daybreak at those big blast furnaces, which have been preserved and repurposed (complete with a glowing LED light treatment) as the city’s largest art installation. In the shadow of the furnaces now are two sleek modernist glass, steel and concrete cubes. One houses state-of-the-art studios for the Lehigh Valley’s public television station, WLVT; the other is a multi-level visual and performing arts center called ArtsQuest, with several chic performance spaces (one is an amalgam of Philly’s World Cafe Live and New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center) and a two-screen art-house cinema. On a landscaped plot of grass hard against the furnaces is a concert pavilion designed by Philly architecture firm WRT; it looks like an unfolding piece of origami. The whole area is called SteelStacks, and it’s just a short walk from Bethlehem’s real game changer: a nearly $1 billion casino, hotel, shopping mall and events complex that began operating five years ago as the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem.

“This one Sunday,” Callahan recalls, “we were having sunrise yoga under what they called an ‘earth harp.’” He lets out his characteristic chuckle. “The harp was these giant bands that came off the ArtsQuest building. Someone was playing it by jumping up and grabbing onto them.

“So I’m kicking off the show, doing a little welcoming speech. And I couldn’t help but imagine a rigger working up on those blast furnaces, looking down and saying, ‘What the fuck kind of nonsense is going on down there?’ How could that kind of person ever imagine a day when there’d be people doing sunrise yoga underneath an earth harp at an arts center called SteelStacks?

“Wow,” he says, “what a change!”

The Inimitable Michael Solomonov

Famous Philadelphia Chef Michael Solomonov photographed by Michael Persico for Philadelphia magazine.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.”

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Blanka Zizka: Philadelphia’s Drama Queen

The Wilma Theater Artistic Director Blank Zizka in Philadelphia.

As the train rumbled toward the border crossing, the young woman was terrified.

It was a June day in the midst of the Cold War. She was carrying with her a secret, one she dared not share with any of her family or friends. She had left Czechoslovakia before, mostly for Poland, to explore her fascination with theater, which the authorities in that Soviet satellite found less threatening than did the leaders of her own. She’d gone into the woods near Wroclaw to train with famous avant-garde Polish director Jerzy Grotowski.

Blanka Vanickova was 21 years old, tall and lithe and pretty, with brown hair and a radiant smile.

She seemed destined to be on the stage. She’d studied dance since she was a child and had a dancer’s stature and grace, but also a comedienne’s timing. She’d even—and this would make her laugh in later years—studied mime.

It was at a mime workshop that she’d met the young man who sat beside her on the train. Jiri Zizka was handsome and charismatic. He was also brooding and aloof; inside, there were demons lurking. He was very talented, and she was attracted to talent. For the past few years, they’d spent nearly every day together in Prague. Two days before this trip, she’d found out she was pregnant with his child.

As the train neared Germany, Blanka worried that the Czech border guards would search her belongings. She’d packed lightly, because her story for the officials was that she was only leaving for a two-week vacation. Years later, she would come to realize how sharply her life became divided in two by this night. She and Jiri were not coming back. That was their secret.

She’d taken two family heirlooms, a gold pocket watch and a gold Art Nouveau necklace, to sell if they needed money to scrape by. Now, fearing the discovery of those two pieces might give away their plan, Blanka hurried to the bathroom and stashed them behind a toilet, then went back to Jiri’s side to wait and hope they would make the crossing to the other side.

“I still have those pieces,” Blanka Zizka tells me. “I never wear them. Gold is not really my thing.”

I suggest to her that if someone were writing the screenplay of her life, it might well open with that scene in 1976 of hiding the jewelry on the night train into West Germany. She gives me a direct and serious look, pausing a moment to make the latest in a vast accumulation of artistic decisions over more than three decades as a theater director.

“Yes, that might be good,” she says, sounding less than convinced. It’s late afternoon, and we’re sitting alone in two of the 296 seats of the neon-draped Wilma Theater, which Blanka and Jiri Zizka grew from a ragtag start as a feminist experimental troupe into one of Philly’s most respected cultural institutions. Starting in 1979 with a $600 production of Animal Farm in what was probably an illegal loft, the émigré couple transformed the Wilma, with minimal artistic compromise, into a $3 mi­llion-a-year company headquartered
on this symbolically important piece of real estate—the first new theater built in Philadelphia in decades, and an early linchpin in what was then a fledgling Avenue of the Arts project.

Along with a handful of other theater companies (Arden, Walnut Street, Philadelphia Theatre Company), Wilma is a flagship leading a growing armada of local professional theaters. (There were 51 at last count.) “They’re sprouting like mushrooms,” Zizka says.

“For a lot of actors in town,” says one relative newcomer, “the Wilma is a coveted place to work.” Edgy and fearless from the start, the Zizkas’ Wilma has had influence in the theater world beyond Philadelphia and has produced works from a long list of premier contemporary playwrights, ranging from Tom Stoppard and Doug Wright to Romulus Linney and Amy Freed. “You get a good feeling going into the Wilma,” Stoppard told me. “Working there, or even just being there—it just seems to be a very shipshape operation.”

“I arrived from a country where politicians considered theater so important, dangerous and subversive that it had to be censored, controlled, and perhaps suppressed altogether,” Blanka Zizka said recently while accepting one of the top awards in the world of regional theaters, named for regional pioneer Zelda Fichandler. These days, she’s more concerned that Pennsylvania politicians will ignore her theater come budget time, and about changing audience behavior that threatens her business model: the prepaid annual subscription. Though the Wilma is firmly established, she says, “I always feel on the edge of a cliff financially.”

She is 58 now. She still radiates that dancer’s poise. Recently, Zizka emerged as sole artistic director of the Wilma, after enduring some backstage drama with Jiri that played like Kiss Me, Kate rewritten by Eugene O’Neill. She is moving into an uncertain future by going back to some of the inspiration that led her to make the risky journey from her homeland in the first place, and trying to refashion the way her actors approach their craft.

Blanka Zizka arrived in this country filled with certainty that theater could subvert ideological agendas and summon shared fundamental human emotions. “For me,” she told her peers 30 years later, as she received her award, “the big question is, how do we return to creating art?”

Jersey’s Secret Service Band Has Got It Covered

New Jersey's Secret Service Band plays a gig at the Ocean Drive.

Years before a group of randy agents in their namesake organization made the word “Cartagena” synonymous with rollicking good times, the two-man New Jersey-based entity known as the Secret Service Band developed an operational philosophy that can be summed up in three phrases they’ve recited many times:

You gotta fight
For your right
To parrrrrr-tay

Though they’ve promulgated this philosophy all around the Philadelphia region and in places as far-flung as Florida and Las Vegas, the real spiritual home for their particular fun-based gestalt (which, of course, is German for “This is how we do it now”) is a low-ceilinged room containing a few well-stocked bars, just a stroll from the sands of Sea Isle City—a club called the Ocean Drive. Whether for convenience or to add more sinister implication, a lot of people call the place simply “the O.D.”

Here, since the mid-’80s, Dominic Albanese and Craig Phillips, two South Jersey natives now pushing 60, have labored, armed with nothing more threatening than a Reverend guitar and a Fender bass, toward one goal: to whip the Shore’s supple and sunburned youth (and often folks who are old enough to be their parents, and sometimes actually are their parents) into a delirium that would rival some of the better parties thrown by the Emperor Tiberius.

“It’s a riot,” says Dom, who does about half the singing and almost all the talking for the duo. “We’re old guys. We’re not God’s gift to music by any means. The audience mainly goes from 21-year-olds who can barely get into the bar up to 30. And it’s pandemonium.”

Ralph Pasceri, one of the O.D.’s owners, who started working at the club years ago as a teenager, says of Secret Service, “Nothing I’ve ever seen is quite like it. They’re the perfect storm.”

The constituent elements creating this formidable entertainment hurricane are unremarkable. Albanese, 56, is of medium height and fairly fit, with short graying hair, and wouldn’t look out of place flipping dough in a pizza parlor. Phillips is 58 and blond, taller, and carries both more bulk and some extra flesh in his midsection. His rightful place in the music world could easily seem to be a public-school classroom, and he does in fact teach kids how to play the violin and such. Except for a couple original songs like “The O.D. Stomp,” which owes a large debt to that old chestnut “The Alley Cat” and has morphed over the years into a routine that includes both crowd and bartender choreography, the pair exclusively play music written and recorded by other performers. They’re a cover band.

In the iconography of the Jersey Shore, the bar band stands somewhere between Lucy the Elephant and the Wildwood amusement piers. It’s a ritual as established and enduring as wolfing down a Boardwalk slice. The quintessential sound of summer isn’t just the squawk of seagulls, but that valiant and always slightly sad attempt by no-name performers to re-create the magic of stars from Sinatra to Springsteen. They may never quite capture fame, but they become an indelible soundtrack in our nostalgic reveries of youth.

“I don’t think Secret Service gets the true credit they deserve,” says their friend Big Daddy Graham, himself a grizzled vet of the Shore club circuit. “They’ve never had a hit record or appeared on Jimmy Fallon. They’re just a cover band to a lot of people. But there’s only a handful of great cover bands, and only a smaller handful out there that have had the career that Secret Service has.”

So what’s the secret? “They never throw it away,” Big Daddy says. “It might just be another Wednesday, or another ‘No Shower Happy Hour.’ When you’re in the car driving to those gigs, they blend into one another. And it’s so easy to just throw a night like that away. But to the people in the club, it’s their vacation. They’re not there every Wednesday. Dom and Craig understand that. They don’t throw a night away. Those guys don’t throw a set away. They don’t throw a song away.”

« Older Posts