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.

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.