Michael Solomonov is back in the kitchen, manning the bread station at Zahav and taking everything day by day.
“There is no sense of normalcy right now,” he says.
For Solomonov, a normal day in these pandemic times, if that even exists now, consists of a walk in the park with his longtime business partner, Steve Cook, with whom he owns eight different restaurant concepts, all in Philadelphia. So is troubleshooting issues at the restaurants “on a micro level.” Spending time with his two children. Dealing with sleeplessness.
And then there’s coping with the pandemic, and realizing that each of us, in our own ways, is just trying to figure it all out. That there are good days and bad days and everything in between.
“We’ve got these mantras like, ‘I’m making banana bread’ or whatever the f— it is, and two weeks later, ‘I’m eating takeout food,’” he says. “I think everybody is going for the journey with us.”
On the phone, he tells me that, anticipating our interview, he bought himself a bag of Sour Patch Kids “just to chew on” as we talked about something that both scares and encourages him: the future.
It’s uncertain, but one thing Solomonov is definitely sure of, however, is the need to be kind to ourselves, especially right now.
“Having and giving yourself the time it takes to mope, to feel depressed, to accept that you don’t have all the answers and that you just do the best job that you can, given the circumstances — that’s kind of all you can do right now,” he says. “Trying to take care of your team as much as you possibly can, and giving people the space to be scared and to be able to voice their concerns, without getting defensive — these are things I need to be reminded of. Everyone is going through this all together.”
Solomonov is an award-winning chef, considered a pioneer of modern Israeli food. He’s also a recovering drug addict, something he’s talked openly about for the past six years.
“You can see what’s happening; people are falling apart,” he says, noting the sharp rise in anti-anxiety medication prescriptions and overdoses since the pandemic began. But having an open dialogue about his own struggles, as well as those of others, is helping.
He acknowledges the struggles that everyone is going through, whether they’re a server, chef, dishwasher, or owner. “I am proud of their resilience. It’s inspiring.”
During quarantine and even now, he’s found comfort in being able to spend more time with his sons, David and Lucas, including teaching Lucas how to read and how to ride a bike.
“My oldest son can make an incredible peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and he’s been making lunches for everybody, which has been so cute,” he said. “It’s the really important stuff. It’s been amazing.”
He’s also compiled a long list, mostly of restaurants, that he wants to visit with his kids post-COVID. The top of list? “There’s this pho place called Pho 75 that we go to once a week and I cannot wait to go back to Pho 75 and have breakfast, ” he says. His usual order is a small bowl of the number nine with brisket. “That is something I’m looking forward to the most.”
“Right now, and luckily, I am very grateful for this, we have customers and a community that are very supportive and are very excited to be here. Our team and our employees who we are bringing back — we’re doing it very cautiously — they are also very excited to be here. But what will the attitude be here in six months? Can we pay the rent next month? What’s the risk of leaving your house and going to work and being around other people? Those are questions we can’t really answer, but are continuing to ask ourselves.”
Solomonov says he’s tried to articulate what the restaurant industry or his own restaurants might look like after all of this, but he hasn’t been able to come up with the words.
“I think that we have to get through it,” he says, of the larger restaurant industry. And the industry will have to accept that, as he puts it, “change is here to stay.”
Solomonov isn’t sure how that will take shape, but the changes he’s already witnessed as a chef for the past 20 years point to a continuing evolution.
“I think the industry itself can be really archaic,” he says. “People are looking for something more sustainable” — whether that pertains to mental health access, pay structure, and quality of life, things that were never spoken of when he started working in kitchens.
Both the pandemic and the fight for racial equality sparked by George Floyd’s murder this May have impacted him personally, too.
“This isn’t a moment in history,” he says. “It’s maybe one of the most important moments in American history. If anything great comes out of this, there’s this recognition and momentum we’ve all been a part of and experienced.”
For restaurant owners, himself included, he sees this as an opportunity to improve.
“Today has to be better than it was yesterday,” Solomonov says. “You either go forward or you go backward; there’s no complacency with us. Of course, we’re going to be better off. Hopefully we can retain and not lose too much and make it through. And I think that when we do, I’m confident we’re going to be a better restaurant group for it. I think this will be a better version of any of our restaurants. I think Zahav will be the best it has ever been, if we can get through this.”
On August 12, Michael Solomonov is hosting a virtual interactive cooking demonstration, followed by a live Q&A. This Resy at Home Experience is exclusive to Resy users who add their American Express Cards to their Resy profile. Learn more about this experience, and others from award-winning chefs, here.