We often sing the praises of all that C-U has to offer, and for good reason: We have nice things here. But every so often we are presented with opportunities to engage with nice things from other places, most often in the form of concerts or lectures. There aren’t often many food events, even though celebrity chefs do also tour. Celebrity chefs do not typically make tour stops in C-U...that is, until next week.
Lucky for us, we have an opportunity to engage with chefs, authors, and James Beard Award winners Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov. They are the pair behind CookNSolo, a restaurant group responsible for six Philadelphia-based restaurants: Zahav, Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, The Rooster, and Goldie. For his cooking, Solomonov is a 2011 James Beard Award winner for “Best Chef: Mid Atlantic” and a 2017 winner for “Outstanding Chef.” Solomonov and Cook are 2016 winners for their cookbook Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking in the categories of “Best International Cookbook” and “Book of the Year,” and just this week have won the 2019 award for “Outstanding Restaurant.” Together they have authored three cookbooks: the aforementioned Zahav, as well as Federal Donuts: The (Partially) True Story, and Israeli Soul. The pair will be in Champaign on May 16th as special guests for a fundraiser at Sinai Temple.
The fundraiser is for Sinai Temple’s Yesod Le’Atid Foundation for the Future renovation campaign. The event includes a dinner made from recipes from the duo’s latest cookbook, Israeli Soul; guests will receive a copy of the cookbook, and there will be a question and answer session featuring Cook and Solomonov.
Tickets ($250/person) for this event are available in limited quantities, so please contact Sinai Temple in the next couple of days to reserve your seat. The menu for the dinner looks fantastic; scroll to the end of the article for the food lineup.
I had an opportunity to speak with Solomonov and Cook about their new cookbook and their visit to Champaign-Urbana, and you can read our conversation below.
Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little about your new cookbook, Israeli Soul?
Steven Cook: Zahav is our first cookbook — and it was really a look at Israeli cuisine through the restaurant that was almost 10 years old when the book came out — so it was really a story of the restaurant and a story of our journey with Israeli food here in Philadelphia in a very specific restaurant. And for Israeli Soul we wanted to actually take it to Israel and kind of look at the food in Israel, as opposed to from across the ocean. It’s more influenced by...the book was based on an 8-day trip that we took to Israel where we ate I think, like, 82 meals —
Michael Solomonov: 82 meals.
Cook: — and it was really based on that trip to Israel and sort of seeing the food over there as opposed to processing it through the restaurant.
Smile Politely: It’s clear from reading past interviews and looking through your cookbooks that finding a way to celebrate the complexity and dynamism of Israeli food culture, and by default, Israel, is important to you. How and why do you use your restaurants and cookbooks to build community around your food?
Solomonov: I don’t know what happens first. I think what we do is... we have this sort of intent to help market a country that we feel is often misunderstood or misrepresented. I think that people who are like-minded are interested in food, interested in Israeli history, their community, or gastronomy and then everything else sort of happens naturally. I don’t think that we go out saying we’re going to build a community. I think it’s just something that exists and I think that themes and ideas and explanations or storytelling are easy ways to do that.
Smile Politely: How have the successes of CookNSolo shaped and informed your experiences as chefs, entrepreneurs, and individuals?
Steve Cook: I mean it's been a journey, you know. I remember the first restaurant we opened together, Zahav: People told us later, “I can't believe you guys chose that location, what a terrible location.” But the reality was at that time we were signing a lease with whatever landlord was willing to return our phone calls. It wasn’t like people were beating down our door trying to get us to open a restaurant there.
And now, we sort of have the opposite problem which is we have a lot of opportunities, a limited amount of time and we have to choose very carefully what we want to spend our time doing. Everyday is new and we grow...some things get easier, and then some things get harder. The relative degree of success we’ve had has brought some advantages but it also brings new challenges everyday — managing 300 people that we work with. That’s a lot harder than it was when we had one restaurant and we were managing, you know, 10 people. As long as it’s still fun and challenging, we’re still in it. It has sort of evolved everyday.
Smile Politely: What are you most looking forward to in the near future?
Steven Cook: Besides retirement? [laughs] I don't know, we’ve got a bunch of new concepts that we’re working on for the second half of this year that we’re excited about. I mean it's just like every new rung on a ladder that we get to is exciting, and when you look back and think that we started this from nothing, it's pretty gratifying and helps offset some of the stress. If we wanted to make a lot of money, we probably would not have chosen this industry. We’re pretty lucky that we get to wake up everyday, cook food, and give people happy experiences.
Smile Politely: How did you come to collaborate with Sinai Temple here in Champaign?
Cook: My brother Alan is the rabbi there and his wife Jody is the education director. Alan has been talking to me for a while about trying to find time to come out to Champaign and do an event. The book came out last fall so we were on the road a lot. In general the publishing world doesn’t typically stop in Champaign for these things, so we had to get creative and figure out how to make it happen outside of our publisher-sponsored book tour.
It basically boils down to the fact that my brother lives in Champaign and has for a while and is raising his family there and really loves it there and really wanted to have us out.
Smile Politely: I know people are really excited to have you guys come out here. On that note, what excites you most about visiting Champaign-Urbana and the Sinai Temple community?
Solomonov: I think that just like any community we’re not part of, going and recognizing the similarities and being welcome. As Jews who grew up in the US I think there's a familiarity to every Jewish community. There’s sort of a smell, an essence that you sort of get from every Jewish Community Center that you go to, you know? I feel like whether it’s on the East Coast, California, or the Midwest, there’s sort of a warmth that you get. Going through these communities is awesome. It’s really nice to...I think there’s something a little bit nostalgic about it. It’s a little bit evocative of youth and there’s the universal warmth that we all appreciate.
Smile Politely: What do you hope attendees experience at this dinner?
Solomonov: Extreme joy. [laughs]
Cook: To follow up on what Mike was saying, I forget what the size of the Philadelphia Jewish community is, but [it's] one of the biggest in the country, and a lot of the cities we go to are NY or LA — very large Jewish communities. It’s not to say that those communities take it for granted that there is strength in their communities, but I think often when we go to the smaller Jewish communities that people there really don’t take it for granted — what it means to be Jewish in this country — and they really do appreciate. There’s almost a correlation between the smaller and more tight knit communities and the warmer the reception we get, which is really pretty awesome. We’re looking forward to being there.
Passed Hors d'oeuvres:
Fried Cauliflower, Cinnamon Stick Beef, Chicken Pastilla
Hummus, Beets with Tehina, Twice-Cooked Eggplant, Green Beans with Tomato and Amba, and Moroccan Carrots
Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Tuna with Beans and Harissa, Mushroom Schnitzel
Pomegranate Glazed Lamb Shank, Eggplant with Lentils, Carrot Saffron Pilaf
Chocolate Konafi with Coconut Jam
Top photo of Michael Solomonov (L) and Steven Cook (R) by Michael Persico; Sinai Temple photos courtesy of Rabbi Alan Cook