Exploring Israel, One Bite at a Time

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Michael Solomonov

Some movies leave you craving more, but viewers at the Gershman Y will be hungry for more than just falafel and schnitzel after this one.

The Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival will show the documentary, In Search of Israeli Cuisine, on March 28 at the Gershman Y, which kicks off its CineMonday series.

The film follows famed local restaurateur Michael Solomonov — known for his restaurants Zahav, Federal Donuts, Percy Street Barbecue, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher and his 2015 cookbook Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking — as he eats his way through Israel.

Director Robert Sherman was recommended by a friend to make Solomonov the designated tour guide for his documentary, based on the chef’s deep Israeli roots.

Solomonov and Sherman will be speaking after the film screening, which will be moderated by Sierra Tishgart, the senior editor of New York magazine’s Grub Street.

In the film, the two travel across the country for about three weeks tasting foods varying from fine dining to street carts, of which Solomonov said he even discovered cuisines new to him.

“It shows a different side of Israelis,” he described of the film. “Unfortunately, you can’t really say ‘Israel’ without it being political. It’s really interesting to see that through food as well.”

Solomonov, who was born in Israel and spent much of his childhood growing up in Pittsburgh and Israel, goes back to the Jewish State often to visit family, vacation and to explore the cuisine.

“I’m there all the time. I know a lot about food and I know a lot about Israel. But most of the stuff that we visited and participated in were things that I had never either done, been a part of or heard of,” he said with a note of surprise still in his voice.

“It was interesting to go only for this. I mean, this is my life’s dream: to be able to be a part of that, to be able to show people Israel and to just go in depth in all these tiny cuisines that make Israeli cuisine awesome.”

For instance, they met with a man in the desert who grows fruits and vegetables by trapping rainwater and floodwater, a place so barren it can rain at most six times a year — or not at all.

The farmer has a very small yield, understandably, but, Solomonov said, “it was the most incredible fruit I’ve ever had, hands down.”

He described the fruit as extra-concentrated, particularly the sweetness of the guava and the grapes, which tasted like honey to him.

Additionally, Solomonov was surprised how all-consuming making a documentary was.

He had never been a part of one before, and “three weeks is sometimes five shoots a day. It was very busy,” especially trying to coordinate schedules with unhurried people from the Middle East.

“Being in the kitchen all day long or being in the restaurant all day long is something that I’m accustomed to doing, so 12-hour days are minimal, that’s what we do all the time,” he added, but the constant stopping and going of the videography and having to keep up with creative, useful commentary was harder than he expected.

But overall, it was a great experience to expand upon his knowledge of Israeli and other Middle Eastern cuisines.

Israeli cooking is the combination of many different cultures, Solomonov explained, mainly from the post-Diaspora era.

Food comes from the people, and these people immigrated from all over, starting with a big wave in the 1800s from Russia, who united with the people who had been living there forever like Israelis, Palestinians and Druze, he said. His own grandparents immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria in 1948.

“All those things are sort of in one place, and then you’ve got this sort of melting pot or this mosaic or this tapestry happening,” he said. “And it also happens to be in the birthplace of agriculture.”

The agriculture does make a difference, he added, because there are so many microclimates across the country — what you’d find in the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem is far different from the Galilee in the north, for instance.

It also differs from religion and tradition; Solomonov said Moroccan Jewish food is different than Moroccan food, and the same goes for Yemenite food and other cultures.

“Because, from a trade standpoint, Israel is basically an island,” he continued, “everything is within 100 miles. The cucumbers don’t go from California to New York on a train for a week and a half. They’re put on a truck and are in the market later that day. That is the sort of culture where all those things are working in tandem.”

Solomonov hopes the film will make people hungry for food — and for Israel.

He was also recently nominated for Outstanding Chef and an international cookbook award for Zahav, which he co-wrote with Steven Cook, from the James Beard Foundation. He won Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2011.

“I think it’s really cool that we got nominated for the book,” he said. “My buddy, Alon Shaya, was nominated for Best New Restaurant for Shaya in New Orleans, which is another Israeli restaurant, so it’s just really neat that there’s Israeli food popping up in different categories. It’s amazing to be a part of it.

“My life’s mission is to celebrate Israeli food and Israeli people through food, so it’s cool to be able to do that.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0737

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