Despite personal tragedy, Chef Michael Solomonov soars in his field and helps others

June 8, 2018

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United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Society of Professionals (SOP) held its annual spring event ‘An Evening at the Cavalier’ on Wednesday, April 25. Sponsored by Insco Insurance Group, more than 100 people convened at the new Cavalier Hotel Crystal Ballroom to meet the 2017 James Beard Outstanding Chef, Michael Solomonov.

In a conversation led by local business leader and philanthropist Art Sandler, Solomonov shared the pivotal life experiences which have shaped him and led to his business success.

Born in Israel and raised in Pittsburgh, Solomonov developed a passion for cooking. After dropping out of college, Solomonov traveled to Israel to visit his brother, David, who was serving in the Israel Defense Forces. In Israel, Solomonov learned to infuse exotic spices from North Africa and Yemen as he carefully crafted what would become part of a culinary evolution of Israeli cuisine. After returning to Pennsylvania, he continued experimenting with the spices and sauces he had found in Israel. During this time, in 2003, his brother, just three days shy of completing his military career, was tragically gunned down on Yom Kippur by Hezbollah snipers. Devastated, Solomonov knew his brother’s death was a turning point in his life.

While his life spiraled out of control with drugs, he threw himself into cooking, and five years later, without seeking help for his addiction, he opened his first restaurant, Zahav, with the support of his business partner Steven Cook. The two tried to keep the restaurant afloat during the recession, but had only a few devoted patrons. With borrowed money from his father, Solomonov was able to make the payroll for the 50 employees with 10 days to spare before Zahav would have to close its doors. What they needed was a miracle, and they got one.

Esquire magazine named Zahav one of the best new restaurants in the country and business took off. Meanwhile, Solomonov reflected on the people who had helped him through the hard times and knew he carried a responsibility to all who had saved him. This led to rehab, becoming sober, and never looking back.

With Zahav’s success, Solomonov expanded his creativity and humanitarianism. His recent cookbook, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, won two James Beard Awards. In addition, an acclaimed Netflix documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine, features Solomonov. Over the last few years, Solomonov and his team have opened eight new restaurants in Philadelphia, including Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, and the Rooster Soup Company. Profits from Rooster Soup go to feeding the homeless—a business model that has shaped Solomonov’s social entrepreneurship.

About the evening with Solomonov, Greg Zittrain, SOP co-chair, says, “I remember years ago speaking to Art Sandler about starting a Society of Professionals aimed at creating a community of Jewish professionals committed to supporting one another’s success and supporting the Jewish community. Art told me, ‘You should get together, support each other, and build lifelong friendships. Give back to your community.’” That is what SOP did that night and what it plans to do through future programming.

UJFT’s Society of Professionals hosts events throughout the year that bring together the professional community for networking, learning, and connecting to opportunities to give back and make the community and world a better place. To get involved or learn more, contact Dusty Heist-Levine at 757-965-6136 or dhlevine@ujft.org.

- Stacey Neuman
UJFT Society of Professionals co-chair

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