The Mensch

The Mensch

If you’ve heard of Michael Solomonov, it’s because of a hummus recipe that makes choirs of angels weep. But there’s far more to this Israeli-American chef than tasty chickpea goo.

Michael Solomonov got clean the year he opened Zahav. He hadn’t told his business partner, Steven Cook, that he was more than just friends with both crack and heroin. Not telling him was a particularly shitty thing to do. “I was hiding this horrible drug addicition that could have ended us,” Solomonov tells me. “He found out a few hours before my ex-wife staged an intervention on me. He found out at 9am, and then at 11am he drove me to rehab. And then, for that first year, he would pick me up every single day from an AA meeting, drop his son off at daycare, and then drive me to work.”

It’d be banal to the point of being idiotic to say that it’s a miracle that Zahav’s as good as it is – last year it was named America’s best restaurant in the James Beard Awards. It’s a miracle he’s alive.

“I definitely would have died,” he says simply.

I get that. It’s sorta Byronic to say, I suppose, but it’s also straight-up true.
Solomonov and I only spoke for an hour, but clearly, he’s not prone to embellishment. That he would have died is just how it is. The realisation that he almost blew it may or may not be a learning experience for him, or someone else, and it sure makes a great story. But it’s also someone’s fucking life. Other people who have gone through the same thing don’t have a gripping story to tell because they’re either too much of a dropkick for me to write about, or they’re dead.

Writing about being head-sick is a quandary. It’s like looking at a car-crash – eg, were you looking because you’re concerned, or you’re curious? Did I lead with the addiction angle because it’s sensational? Or because it’s the most relevant angle to take? As much as we lunatics appreciate the ‘visibility’ created by the whole ‘chefs and mental health’ sub-genre, at some point you’ve gotta ask what happens after visibility.

“Everybody wants to write about how crazy chefs are. And then they go under or they sexually harass other people, or they get into car accidents and die. And then it’s not so fun,” says Solomonov. “I think the way that people are either sincerely or superficially exploring restaurant culture – well, for us, there are people who are literally killing themselves.”

And suicide is not romantic, despite its weird rep. Real families are shattered. Real businesses go down the gurgler and real staff lose their jobs. And real, brilliant, fragile people are lost to this world, forever.

“Everybody’s interested in food and cuisine and they want to get into the life of chefs and restaurant culture,” he says. “But this is reality. We’re not alone in this.”

The ‘we’ in that last sentence refers to the culture, but it also refers directly to Solomonov and me. You and I. We. It’s important for a reader to understand that Solomonov’s radical honesty is not part of his media bit. The story of his brother’s murder while patrolling the border between Israel and Lebanon is not a ‘narrative.’ It’s not a calculated revelation he secretly enjoys. It’s something deeply painful that this man shared directly, with me, and now I’m sharing with you. So forgive me if I insert myself into this story about a chef I quite admire, and obviously you’re interested in reading about, but I don’t know how to write about this responsibly without acknowledging its weight.

“Living with the guilt of having my younger brother, who did not deserve to die early, while I was a piece of shit drug addict, those are really hard things to reconcile,” he says.

But what’s fascinating about Solomonov is that reconciliation of those two disparate facts is exactly what he achieved. Though David remains dead and Solomonov will always be a piece of shit drug addict, he took what he had at hand and found a way to live.

The story goes, and he and I don’t talk about it because I’ve read it before, that after his brother’s memorial, the clouds metaphorically opened and Solomonov understood that there was something profound in ‘Israeli’ food. It’s not that the cuisine was somehow better than Greek or Yemeni or Polish or Lebanese or Egyptian – in fact, it is by definition an outgrowth all of those things. And it’s not that Solomonov felt a God-like tingling at the base of his neck and the Truth of Israeli Food was revealed unto him. It’s more that he wasn’t playing anymore. This food, this culture, is important to people. And there are consequences in the real world when you decide something’s important. So while he had always worn his Jewishness – and his connection to Israeli – like a suit you squeeze into on special occasions, Jewishness (and Israel) was something David had died defending. Literally died. Thus there must be something to it.

“I find myself closer to my Jewish roots – but I do that with food,” says Solomonov. “It’s given me an ability to see myself in this sorta oneness. That’s what cooking is as well – you’re connecting ourselves to past and to other people who are going through the same thing at the same time.”

I realise that I’ve been using the word ‘something’ over and over again, but I can’t come up with a more appropriate synonym. But Solomonov hits on exactly what that ‘something’ is: oneness. “I don’t say these prayers thinking that the fuckin clouds are gonna part or any of that stuff, but it works,” he says. “I don’t think I’m religious. But being open or not condescending toward spirituality has really been the most useful thing.”

The funny thing is that ‘spirituality’ here doesn’t mean that he stopped cooking and joined a kibbutz. In fact, he didn’t stop doing anything at all (except drugs): no, he did exactly what he did before, he cooked. Just better. With all of himself. “Not to make some drastic analogy, but my job is to serve people,” he explains. “True hospitality is about giving and giving and not expecting anything in return. I think that if you remove yourself from the equation, the more you give, the better you are at whatever your job is.”

The James Beard Award represents a recent high water mark, but it’s only the latest in a long line of achievements. Solomonov and Cook just opened their sixteenth restaurant, a shishkebob joint named Laser Wolf (no relation]) But, unlike other ‘celebrity’ chefs who’ve straddled the greasy pole and made the top, Solomonov continues to work. In the kitchen. Like a schlub.

“There are certain things that make me happy, and I have to continue doing them. Working at Zahav is one of those things,” he says. “If I don’t do it, and I go through periods of time where I have to travel a bunch, I just get fuckin miserable. I really do just like being there – not even as the chef or owner – I just like working there. Being part of the team.”

I’ve been around the block and THAT is unusual. I love it. Nearly every time I go out to take photos, I repeat a quote from a guerrilla filmmaker: “Turn up early and set up your own light.” It’s scandalous I can’t remember who said it, but the point is straightforward: never get high on your own supply. It’s all good and well to trust in your creative ability, but never allow yourself to think you’re above  the menial tasks of mortals.

“When there’s an article that’s gushing, it’s a wonderful thing, but I don’t wake up in the morning and believe that shit about myself,” says Solomonov. “Accomplishment, and press and awards, and bring Israeli food to the international audience, those are things that are important to me. But at the end of the day, eleven years ago, I was addicted to heroin. So I understand modesty and vulnerability. I also know what it’s like to have to fail, all the time.”

But Solomonov is not a failure. All reports seem to indicate he makes the most beautiful hummus in the world (it’s borderline illicit even if you’re just making it yourself). I don’t know if he’s happy or not, but he’s definitely wise. And furthermore, he’s making a difference.

I wouldn’t normally do this, but I’ll finish this article by burning a contact. There’s no legal obligation to leave something out of a story just because someone says “this is off the record,” but they tend never to speak to you again if you don’t. Anyway, I think he’ll forgive me, and it’s important to the story, so it’s going in: “This is sorta off the record, but my business partner and I cover the first three visits to a therapist’s office for the entire staff, and we hired a Spanish-speaking therapist to accomodate our employees. ” Solomonov tells me. “Mental health is something that we, as a society, are not really open to talking about. We’re sitting here talking about trust falls and holiday parties and activities to make people feel good, but what they need is somebody to talk to when things get bad.”

Visibility is great. Services are better. And moments of clarity are best. The reason Solomonov wanted to keep that fact as background was that he didn’t want his compassionate, sensible and undoubtedly expensive initiative to be seen as a marketing exercise. To Solomonov, mental health is not an ‘issue.’ It’s something that needs tangible care. When Solomonov comes out here for the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival next month, I’m sure there’ll be some conversation about the whole chefs going crazy thing. Hopefully we – and be we I mean you, and me, and chefs and staff and owners – can not only listen to his hard-won wisdom. We can act on it.