With Israel closed, a chef fills cravings through its food

Award-winning Philadelphia restauranteur Michael Solomonov is hosting ‘Bringing Israel Home,’ a free digital series with Israeli guests and home-cooked dishes

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Chef Michael Solomonov during a recent visit to Israel. (Courtesy Michael Solomonov)
Chef Michael Solomonov during a recent visit to Israel. (Courtesy Michael Solomonov)

Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov misses his Israel. A lot.

Solomonov, a five-time James Beard Foundation award winner and co-owner with longtime partner Steve Cook of Philadelphia’s CookNSolo restaurants, usually visits Israel twice a year. It’s where he was born, and where his brother is buried.

With few planes coming in (Israel totally banned all incoming flights this week), and a strict quarantine requirement for all visitors, a trip to Israel is not quite feasible. So Solomonov is doing the next best thing.

Enter “Bringing Israel Home,” a new 16-episode Vimeo digital series where Solomonov visits virtually with Israeli guests, friends and colleagues.

The second half of each hour-long show features Solomonov live in his home kitchen, cooking a mix of new and signature dishes.

“That’s what the whole catalyst of this show was, this constant yearning,” said Solomonov, speaking from his Philadelphia home. “Israel feels so far away this year, especially on Pesach and during the holidays, and I needed this connectivity, this way to keep it in our minds.”

Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov on a trip in Israel, a twice-yearly event that he’s been missing greatly during the 2020/21 pandemic (Courtesy Michael Solomonov)

Cooking, creating and turning up the flame on Israeli food has become Solomonov’s way of connecting to the country and to the memory of his brother, who was killed by a sniper near the Lebanese border in 2003, while serving as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.

Israeli cooking is Solomonov’s calling card, from the food at Zahav, his trailblazing Israeli restaurant where he is chef, to the kubaneh toasts at K’far, the CookNSolo Israeli bakery and cafe, to the cauliflower shawarma at CooknSolo’s Merkaz pita sandwich shop, to the spicy Yemenite wings at Laser Wolf, CookNSolo’s Israeli grill joint.

This year, though, the restaurants have been mostly limited to takeout and outdoor dining during the pandemic. It’s been a strained year for many reasons, not least of which is the strain of owning eight different restaurants with Cook.

While COVID-19 has allowed Solomonov the opportunity to cook at home for the first time — “the food’s pretty good,” he allowed — and the chance to make foods that his kids will hopefully eat — chicken schnitzel, anyone? — he also needed to do something that would advocate for Israel and Israeli food.

In “Bringing Israel Home,” Solomonov hosts a wide range of Israeli food lovers via Zoom, from food journalist Ronit Vered and Yemen Blues lead singer Ravid Kahalani to his good friend, tour guide Avihai Tsabari and some 18-year-old students from the Young Judea Year Program.

Future guests include actor Sasson Gabay, cookbook author Adeena Sussman, chef and food writer Ruthie Russo, baker Uri Scheft of Lehamim and Acre chef Osama Dalal.

Solomonov said he didn’t really think about who would be on the show, but wanted to best represent the Israel that he loves.

“We called friends and people that we think are cool and have something to say,” he said. “They help explain the landscape.”

There’s a distinctively homegrown feel to the show, which has clips of viewers’ photos of themselves in Israel, and includes Solomonov listening to his guests and taking live questions from viewers.

“I wanted it to be [casual] and normal, and I think the best food you find is in people’s homes,” said Solomonov. “I want to talk about things that are diasporic or indigenous but approachable too.”

The highlight is getting to watch Solomonov cook in his home kitchen, where he prepares dishes such as fish schnitzel with kataifi, preserved lemon and capers, sabich or chicken thighs with kumquats and green olives (the perfect dish for any Friday night Shabbat dinner, noted Solomonov).

There’s also knaffeh with saffron syrup and hand-stretched phyllo bourekas with spinach and kashkaval, thanks to several weeks Solomonov spent learning how to stretch phyllo dough by hand.

“It was cool, even if I sort of suck at it,” admitted Solomonov, who said he was making it once a day at one point while locked down at home.

All the recipes are available to viewers in advance of each show, in collaboration with Jewish Food Society, and can be viewed on the JFS site. Several Jewish organizations provide support for the show.

If watching Solomonov cook isn’t enough, viewers can enter a contest to win a private Zoom cooking class with the Israel-loving chef.

The show, which can be viewed for free, airs weekly on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. EST through April 28.

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