As the final weekend of the 27th Edition of the Book Festival of the MJCCA winds down, chef restaurateurs Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook hit just the right spot. An Israeli feast featuring selected recipes from their newly published “Israeli Soul” cookbook was prepared by Sandra and Clive Bank of A Kosher Touch.
The “In the Mood for Israeli Street Food” presentation at noon Nov. 15 aptly kept all 205 of us “in the mood” with a bounteous, colorful buffet. On the menu was Turkish salad, string beans doused in hummus, individual pita stuffed falafel, sour pickles, traditional tahini, zucchini schnitzel, and cabbage-onion sumac salad (my favorite), followed by sufganiyot. (Chanukah-themed donut holes).
Solomonov and Cook were in conversation with Ligaya Figueras, senior editor of food and dining for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. A friendly repartee brought us into the world of food lovers in a partnership, writing the book after a 10-year hiatus from publishing. Cook, the more subdued and stronger writer, balances out Solomonov’s intensity, while both uncover what defines “Israeli” food.
An intricately tattooed Solomonov said, “We went on an eight-day food tour of Israel and ate five meals a day. … We used Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as home bases; but we wanted to put it all together going to “no name” food towns … to showcase Israel’s modern globalization.” He referred to Polish, Balkan, Ethiopian and various cultures becoming prouder of what they each do best.
Cook, who bolted from a six-year career on Wall Street to pursue his culinary passion, talked about cultures mirroring each other eating the same food, “What Muslims eat on Ramadan is similar to what Christians eat on Easter, and Jews have on Purim.” He also highlighted their pursuit of simple restaurants that have many generations of making just one or a few things extremely well, and not striving to be trendy or inventing something new. Both men laughed about a scowling Arab who handmade only one individualized (choice of nut or cheese) Zalatimo folded dough dessert at a time, as his family had done since King Herod. “This food is about pride and lineage … not just about the sandwich. There was no Instagram in the Diaspora.”
Solomonov got an audience giggle when he said he went to culinary school in West Palm Beach, Fla., as “a suburb of Tel Aviv.” Food is food, and friendship is, well, in this case, life-saving. Solomonov revealed his past battle with addiction and how Cook stuck by him, driving him to work and pushing exercise as a coping tool. He said, “Secrets can make you sick, dealing with the social taboos of addiction, and ultimately losing the shame to be able to ask for help.” Solomonov shared that his younger brother, David, lost his life fighting in the Israel Defense Forces in 2003.
After the recent Pittsburgh tragedy, Cook said he now attends the temporary synagogue facility that the Squirrel Hill congregants are using.
An upcoming neo-Nazi rally is scheduled a block away from one of their restaurants.
Ultimately, they are both proud of the Jewish statement their famous restaurants are making.
Solomonov, who also grew up in Pennsylvania, said, “My mother taught Holocaust seminars in Squirrel Hill and the message to never let your guard down.” He ended, “In the restaurant business, 10 years feels like 100. … Israeli food is tied to what makes Jews unique. … The Sabbath and kashruth, even stews, … Israelis like passion, soul and drama.”
Caterer Clive Bank noted how quickly the food was consumed. There was not much left, he said, but he exited wishing he had a “to go” box.
“Israeli Soul” is an exquisitely photographed and emotional cookbook. Solomonov has perfected and adapted every recipe for the home kitchen.
Now what about those snake tattoos?