It was more than a decade ago when Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov were sitting in their restaurant, discussing whether to call it quits. Times were tough, and making it in the food industry is a lot easier said than done.
Despite the difficulties, the two men decided to carry on with Zahav.
“It was a bad time, and we were bleeding money,” Solomonov said. “It felt like if Zahav didn’t work, our lives were going to end, which is motivation for you to obviously get better.”
And get better they did.
Cooking up modern Israeli cuisine, Zahav opened for business in 2008. And on May 6 this year, it was named Outstanding Restaurant at the 2019 James Beard Awards, the equivalent of winning Best Picture at the Oscars.
“To go from knowing that feeling, to be at the bottom, to knowing the feeling of being recognized as being one of the best is humbling,” Cook said. “It’s quite a long distance to travel.”
Solomonov was born in Israel and has become one of America’s leading chefs of Israeli cuisine. He heads the kitchen in Zahav, which means “gold” in Hebrew, and is a reference to Jerusalem, which has been a large influence on the restaurant’s interior. The food marries the flavors of Israel with dishes of eastern Pennsylvania. The venue is well known for its baked-to-order laffa flatbread, creamy hummus and sizzling skewers of meat grilled over hardwood charcoal.
The chef is no stranger to recognition. In 2011, he was awarded his first James Beard Award for Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic. He and Cook took home two more in 2016 for the cookbook Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, which was named Cookbook of the Year and Best International Cookbook. The next year Solomonov was named Outstanding Chef, and Zahav’s pastry chef, Camille Cogswell, won Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2018. Despite these wins, Solomonov said Outstanding Restaurant was still a surprise, but not a reason to take things easy. The idea is to grow as a restaurant and get a little bit better each day.
“We’re still kind of in disbelief, but we’re both very proud. It comes with a lot of pressure and responsibility, and we’ll still have to continue to overdeliver,” Solomonov said. “There’s a million things that have to get done in order to make this place better than what it was yesterday.”
Cook said they have to continue to be competitive as newer and more sophisticated restaurants enter the market.
“Awards are nice, they feel really really good, but at the end of the day the people who are coming in here tonight, they can’t eat the award,” Cook said. “So that’s the nature of restaurants; it’s that constant repetition of striving for excellence. And every night you’re starting from a blank canvas. We have to deliver. And now the expectations of people coming in here are even higher, so our jobs got harder this week as opposed to easier.”
Cook and Solomonov have created a small culinary empire in the form of CookNSolo Restaurant Partners, which operates 12 restaurants, including Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, The Rooster and Goldie. And that list is growing with three new Philly establishments on the way.
The first is K’Far, an all-day Israeli bakery and cafe serving baked treats with OX brand coffee. It’ll be located at 110 S. 19th St. and is set to open sometime this summer.
“The pastries that we make are not super traditional and not super European. They’re a combination of Balkan, Middle Eastern and European, which helps shape our guidelines to what an Israeli bakery is,” Solomonov said. “There won’t be croissants, but there will be rugelach and burekas.”
The second restaurant is called Merkaz, which will be a pita bread sandwich shop in Midtown Village.
And the last is a grill kabob house in Kensington named Laser Wolf.
Chef De Cuisine Andrew Henshaw has worked at Zahav for the past five years. Soon he’ll be Laser Wolf’s executive chef, which he said will open by the year’s end. The name is a reference to the character Lazar Wolf, the butcher from Fiddler on the Roof.
Henshaw was at the James Beard Awards ceremony in Chicago. He said the staff was unsure if they’d win, as this was the first time Zahav was eligible. To qualify, a restaurant must be in business for 10 or more consecutive years. After the announcement, the staff headed to Chinatown in Chicago to grab drinks and celebrate.
“It’s insane, it’s like surreal. We all knew there was a very good chance that we were going to get it, but we still thought maybe next year, maybe another time. But we did it,” Henshaw said. “I don’t even know if it’s completely sunken in yet, but it just feels like a little bit of validation for all the work and all the sacrifice that we do all the time, like we basically live here, so it was nice.”
Cook and Solomonov said they’re grateful to the residents of Philadelphia who have supported them throughout their careers. The reason they have continued to be in this industry, despite all the work and hardship, is because of a desire to serve others and make great food.
“People are used to seeing restaurants in New York or San Francisco get the top national honors. So it’s indicative of the food scene that Philly has here, which pound for pound is as good as anywhere else in the country,” said Cook. “The fact that the outstanding restaurant of the year is an Israeli restaurant says something. We’re honored to be that conduit for Philly through the promotion of Israeli cuisine. That’s part of the reason why we opened the restaurant in the first place.”