How a picky kid grew up to be an award-winning chef
April 2021 … Michael Solomonov, an award-winning chef and restaurateur in Philadelphia, was interviewed by reporters on the staff of the William Cramp Fit Flyer in Philadelphia, and a version of the Q and A will be in the spring edition. Additionally, Mr. Solomonov will be featured in our book, Leading Healthy Change in Our Communities 2021 — Doing the Undoable During a Pandemic, to be released in May.
Responses have been edited and condensed.
Q. What inspired you to cook?
A. I fell in love with cooking because I like to work and make things with my hands. I was a really picky eater when I was your age. I used to take the cheese off, wipe the sauce off, put the cheese back on and eat it. I was working at this cafe and the chef taught me how to make alfredo sauce — butter, and white wine, add a little bit of nutmeg, and cream and cheese, and you toss the pasta.
I was not a great student, and science was not my strong suit, but I loved the science of [cooking]. I loved taking all of these parts and making something special out of it. I loved the act of giving. There’s a person in every family whose food is comforting and makes you feel like you’re at home. That power is what I wanted — to do that for other people. I wanted to be able to give.
Q. Did you enjoy cooking as a child?
A. I did, actually. I liked making French toast with my grandmother, and I liked making pastries; it was fun. I was really into origami. Had a hard time concentrating in class. Working with my hands has helped me a lot and made me a little less crazy. Cooking was really useful.
Q. What made you decide to open a restaurant?
A. I’m from Israel, and I thought it would be really cool if I could make food from where I came from. It’s fun; restaurants are fun. Kind of wild and a little bit scary and high-pressure, but I really enjoy them.
Q. What foods do you eat and exercises do you do to stay healthy? Has this changed since the pandemic?
A. I like to eat a lot of vegetables and a lot of fruit. I think it’s hard, because I’m a chef and it’s my job to taste food. And I like to eat cookies, because I’m a human. I like to drink a lot of water, which is also really helpful. I love working out at a boxing gym. It’s been hard to work out at any gym during the pandemic. But I bought a jump rope for my house and a pull-up bar, so I do that. I run outside and I surf, too.
Exercise and a healthy diet is the key for me to be happy. If I’m not exercising a ton, I’m in a bad mood and people don’t want to be around me. Especially during quarantine, when people are stuck in the house with me, it’s like a public service for me to exercise.
Originally from Israel, Mr. Solomonov champions that country’s diverse culinary landscape. With partner Steve Cook, he is co-owner of CookNSolo Restaurants, which operates Zahav, Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, Goldie, K’Far, Merkaz, and Laser Wolf. He has co-authored three cookbooks, including Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, for which he won the 2016 James Beard Awards for Best International Cookbook and Book of the Year. He has won numerous awards, including the 2011 James Beard Award for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic, and the 2017 James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef. In 2019, his restaurant Zahav was awarded Outstanding Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.