Here is an excerpt from Craig LaBan's online chat:
Craig LaBan: Today's guest on our chat is Michael Solomonov, the chef and co-owner of Zahav who last week won the James Beard Foundation award for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic. Who were the two or three biggest chef influences on your career? I'd like to hear about your time at Vetri, of course. But also your experience at Striped Bass with Terence Feury.
He's chatting from a computer deep in Cook+Solo Restaurants HQ. (The "Cook," by the way, is Steven Cook, Solo's partner in Zahav, Percy Street BBQ, and Xochitl, and his former boss at Marigold Kitchen.)
Michael Solomonov: I spent three years with Marc [Vetri] and learned about simplifying ingredients and literally making incredible dishes with three components on a plate. Marc (and Jeff Michaud) taught me pastries and baking and general operations - not Excel spreadsheets or any of that - but how to live and work and create on a daily basis. Terence taught me how to cook, how to work, and personal standards. He is an incredible cook and learning refinement from him was crucial to my success. I still ask them both for advice on a regular basis.
C.L.: I understand Terence is obsessive about the details of herb prep. ...
M.S.: Yeah, Terence used to make us pick mint in the walk-in [fridge], stack the leaves in bunches of 10 in 10 rows, and then chiffonade them thinly to be used for garnish. I once made the mistake of chopping parsley (60 cents a pound) on the hot line, and ended up with all my mise en place upside down, in a trash can. Pretty uncomfortable service after that. I learned standards and deep respect for product after that "lesson."
Reader: How do you think the James Beard Award will affect your life/work? Is it affecting it already?
M.S.: Well, I think that our guests' expectations and our personal goals are always growing and changing. We have to keep developing the experience, as we have been for the last three years, and the award and recognition will be a catalyst for that.
C.L.: In past decades, Israel never had a great reputation as a gastronomic center (quite the opposite, in fact). What was it about your own experiences there that made you think this cuisine could be so inspirational?
M.S.: Well, I have been eating delicious Israeli food my entire life, but it just hasn't been represented well, till now. When one considers all of the influences that make Israeli cuisine (Yemen, Morocco, Bulgaria, Romania, Lebanon, Turkey), there is no reason that most people should only think of schnitzel, falafel, and hummus (also quite delicious).
C.L.: Also, what are the three key ingredients you couldn't do without at Zahav to preserve a sense of authenticity?
M.S.: Lemon, olive oil, and parsley. My cooks are all going to laugh (to themselves) when they read this. ...
C.L.: Ah, so simple . . . Terence Feury-redux?
Reader: I'm looking forward to the Hazon (kosher) event that you'll be "cheffing" this Sunday. One reason is that your restaurant, Zahav, is not kosher! I want to be able to eat your food too! Was your nuclear family ever kosher?
M.S.: I grew up in a kosher-esque household so we didn't eat pork or shellfish in the house. We did, however, turn into bacon zombies the moment we stepped out of the house. Seriously, if kashruting [keeping kosher] in our restaurant wasn't such a "balagan" [chaos or fiasco] in the States, we might have considered it more. My mission is to expose and celebrate Israeli food, in its entirety. We would seriously limit our reach if we were kosher. We don't serve shellfish or pork or mix dairy and meat on any plate, so we call it "kosher style."
C.L.: Who are some of the young talents - or chefs who are not talked about enough - most of us diners haven't heard of yet that you think will be making an impression on the public soon?
M.S.: Well, I can't wait for Joey Baldino (another Vetri alum) to open his BYOB in Collingswood. He is the real thing and I can't wait to try his food. I have never had a mediocre dish at Meme and I hear that Nick Elmi from Le Bec is hitting home runs with his food. John Taus, at the Corner, is also doing some real good stuff. Matt Zagorski should be opening up his place shortly, in Fairmount, I think. It's going to be great.
Michael Klein: Let's look at your next project, Federal Donuts.
C.L.: Ah yes, Federal Donuts - a South Philly take-out for fried chicken and doughnuts and Stumptown Coffee? What a crazy, wonderful idea - I can't imagine where that came from. The Simpsons?