Chef Michael Solomonov dishes about how food connects us

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PROVIDENCE – More than 300 people listened to a conversation between renowned chef and restaurateur Michael Solomonov and Rabbi Sarah Mack on May 2 in the Victor and Gussie Baxt Social Hall at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center. 

Solomonov, the son of an American mother and Bulgarian father, grew up in Pittsburgh and Israel. He attended high school in the U.S., then completed three semesters at the University of Vermont. His parents live in Israel; his younger brother David was killed three days before his release from the Israeli Defense Forces.

In 2017, Solomonov won the coveted James Beard Award for outstanding American chef.

As he told his story of growing up in two nations, he traced the evolution of his love of Israel, its culture and food.

After dropping out of UVM, Solomonov returned to Israel and found work in a bakery.

“I learned to work tremendously hard in the bakery,” he said. “Every kind of person works in a bakery in Israel. Every kind of person buys baked goods. It felt like a town hall. I fell in love with cooking.”

This love of cooking took him to culinary school in Florida and then to Philadelphia, where he worked in several restaurants before opening the modern Israeli cuisine restaurant Zahav in 2008. He now has four restaurants in Philadelphia and one in New York City.

“The best Israeli meals are in the home. You see Israel through the food in people’s homes,” Solomonov told the crowd.

“People ask, ‘What is Israeli cuisine? Does Israel have a cuisine? It’s only 70 years old.’ But Israel is thousands of years old. Food [in Israel] comes from everywhere. There were no lemons in the Middle East till the Moors brought them.

“Through food we celebrate commonality, we celebrate richness of culture. You can share a meal with somebody and give them an experience they’ve never had.”

In fact, Solomonov suggested that food could work in place of traditional diplomacy.

As part of the program, guests were encouraged to send a text message to help fight food insecurity in Rhode Island’s Jewish community. Each text resulted in a donation to The Louis and Goldie Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry.

Solomonov’s appearance was part of the Rhode Island Jewish community’s celebration of Israel at 70. The evening was chaired by Amanda and Jeremy Isenberg, who introduced Solomonov. The event was made possible through the generosity of the Dr. James and Judge Marjorie Yasher Endowment Fund at the Jewish Federation Foundation. 

Earlier, Solomonov attended a donor event for the Women’s Alliance. Donna Frank and Lezli Pious chaired the pre-reception, held in The Nelson and Sapinsley Families Gymnasium at the JCC. This event was held to thank women who donate a minimum of $1,000 to the Jewish Alliance’s Annual Campaign. Attendees had the opportunity to try recipes from Solomonov’s cookbook “Zahav,” and hear his account of growing up in a JCC and his inspiration for some of the dishes that were served.  

FRAN OSTENDORF is the editor of The Jewish Voice.