December 11, 2018

‘Israeli Soul’ Food Comes to Los Angeles

Good food and great conversation are the ingredients for the perfect evening.

Last month, the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC) hosted master chef Michael Solomonov and restaurateur Steven Cook, who introduced Angelenos to their latest cookbook, “Israeli Soul.” 

More than 150 people attended the event at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel for an evening of kosher food — hors d’oeuvres by Hasiba Hummusiya and halva from Hebel & Co. — and Israeli wine on the patio, followed by a discussion with the authors, moderated by KCRW’s “Good Food” host Evan Kleiman and a book signing. 

“Israeli Soul: Easy. Essential. Delicious” is the follow-up to Solomonov and Cook’s James Beard Award-winning cookbook “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking.”

The executive chef of Zahav in Philadelphia, Solomonov is the 2017 James Beard Outstanding Chef in America and the 2016 Eater Chef of the Year. Born in G’nei Yehuda just south of Tel Aviv, Solomonov was raised in Pittsburgh, before returning to Israel at 18. With no Hebrew language skills, he started to work in a bakery, and his culinary career took off. 

Cook’s culinary career began 10 years ago, after he left his job as an investment banker in New York and returned to Philadelphia to pursue a career as a hospitality entrepreneur. In addition to Zahav, Cook and Solomonov own several Philadelphia eateries, including Federal Donuts, Abe Fisher, Dizengoff, The Rooster and Goldie restaurants. 

“The Zahav book told the story of our restaurant using my personal history, Israeli history and Jewish history,” Solomonov said. “With this book we just wanted to go to Israel and have [people] simply experience what eating in Israel is like.”

“Israeli Soul” is as much a travel guide as it is collection of recipes, Cook said. “We did an eight-day trip to 82 places and we’re excited to share some of the stories of the people we met.”

Cook added even though “Zahav” is now 10 years old “it only really scratches the surface of what Israeli food is all about. There are over 100 different cultures represented in the cuisine, and it’s always changing. The country is so young and you also have the food traditions that have been there for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, all kind of intermingling.”

Book launch guests enjoyed hors d’ooeuvres by Hasiba Hummusiya.

Two years ago, the SEC premiered Solomonov’s film, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” at its Sephardic Film Festival, “In screening the film, I discovered that [Solomonov] was part Sephardic, and we got in touch,” SEC President Neil Sheff said. The SEC promoted “Zahav,” and then was approached to host the new book launch.

“The SEC is definitely all about education,” he explained, “but we also have Sephardic anxiety about food. Everything about food is important to us.”

The value of food, culture and history was certainly appreciated by the attendees and hosts. 

“From generation to generation, [food is] part of your heritage, it’s who you are, your family,” said Sheff’s wife, Rachel Emquies Sheff, who runs the SEC Food Facebook group. “We try to post cultural stories, anything that has to do with tradition and the origins of where [a] recipe came from [and] what it means to people.”

“We did an eight-day trip to 82 places and we’re excited to share some of the stories of the people we met.” — Steven Cook

“Certain flavors and tastes bring people’s memories back to their childhood,” Neil Sheff added. “I can still remember certain flavors from my youth that I still don’t find today.

“Every once in a while, I’ll taste something and it reminds me of my youth growing up in South Central L.A., where all the Sephardics lived at the time in the Ladino community. Whether it was a Saturday afternoon visit with candied preserves or a holiday meal, it’s a way of keeping us connected to our past. What we don’t want to do is only have a Sephardic religion or Sephardic Judaism that’s food-based only. We’re not just about food, but definitely the food opens the door.”

Both Solomonov and Cook mentioned the shwarma recipe in the book as a standout.

“You don’t think of shwarma as something you can do in your house, because nobody has a vertical spit in their backyard,” Cook said. “We have a lamb shwarma that we spice, roll up and slow roast. And once you rest and chill it, you can slice off thin slices and crisp it up.”

“And we have a very easy recipe for mountain bread,” Solomonov added. “You can make a delicious shwarma sandwich in the home. The five-minute hummus is very, very good. There’s a lot of good recipes. It’s hard to pick just one.”

Michael Solomonov signs “Israeli Soul.”

When asked what he hoped people would take away from “Israeli Cuisine,” Solomonov said, “At a minimum, I just want them to really love the photos. I want them to try the food, eat the food and love the food, and then I want them to go to Israel and use the book as a travel guide.”