In difficult times, when traditional means of diplomacy and communication are ineffective, breaking bread together is still meaningful, said chef Michael Solomonov, a 2017 James Beard Award “Outstanding Chef” winner.
“Food doesn’t lie,” Solomonov said. “It can be conflict, but it’s mostly commonality.”
Solomonov spoke on Nov. 13 at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s annual keynote event. This year’s theme was culinary and Solomonov was one of four chefs who served up signature cuisine and spoke about their careers and Jewish heritage. Solomonov is the executive chef and co-owner of the popular Philadelphia restaurant Zahav, which features Israeli dishes and has a months-long wait for reservations.
Today’s restaurants are at the forefront of social issues such as gender equality, immigration and addiction, Solomonov said. Gone are the days when being a chef was all about cooking “cool food” and getting tattoos, he added, flashing the serpent inked on his own forearm.
Solomonov spent time during his childhood in both Israel and Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, where “there were so many ways to be Jewish.” It was a childhood in which he came to understand that hospitality and Jewish culture are undeniably linked, he said. Coffee at a friend’s house in Israel, for example, was often a lengthy and “magical” event, he said, joking that it could last seven hours and include “babkas coming out of the closet.”
That same sense of a warm welcome is what he hopes to create at Zahav.
“We have two and half hours to make people feel as special as we can,” he said, and in doing so, he hopes to represent Israel well.
The dishes he chose to prepare on this evening did well to represent Zahav: slow-roasted short ribs with fermented schug and roasted zucchini along with sides of beet tehina, pumpkin chirshi and Yemenite pickles. The dishes made a colorful rainbow on the plate.
More color: Food Network’s Molly Yeh made rainbow cookies with red bean, matcha and almond, a version that was sweeter than the usual recipe, but without a sugary aftertaste. Yeh, who now stars in “Girl Meets Farm,” spoke about growing up with a Jewish mother and a Chinese father — or a world with “all the best carbs.”
Now she lives in Minnesota, not far from the North Dakota border, in an area with not much of a Jewish population. That means she makes her own challah and matzah balls from scratch, challenging herself to “put my spin on this.”
Baltimore-raised Yehuda Sichel, executive chef and partner of Abe Fisher restaurant, also in Philadelphia, spoke about growing up eating traditional Jewish foods like latkes and kugel that are now on the menu at Abe Fisher.
The fourth chef was Pati Jinich, a Jew born in Mexico City, who spent much of her childhood balancing between her family’s heritage and the Day of the Dead culture of Catholic Mexico. Coming to the U.S. added a whole other dimension, but also allowed her to bridge her two worlds.
“When you threw me that other ball, ‘Now you are American, too,’ it kind of all made sense,” said Jinich, who hosts the PBS TV series “Pati’s Mexican Table,” for which she also has won a James Beard Award.
Marc Terrill, The Associated’s president, welcomed the more 600 diners by departing from his scripted remarks for the night and sharing how the federation has worked with law enforcement to ensure the safety of Jewish buildings in the aftermath of the last month’s murders at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
He spoke about supporting a trauma committee that had been dispatched to California to help wildfire victims. And he talked about the interfaith services held in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shooting, where Jewish leaders stood with Muslims, Christians, Catholics and others.
“They stood in unison. They understood it could have been any community,” Terrill said.
In the end, the goal of The Associated and the Jewish community in general is about “taking care of one another,” he said, adding, “We’re pretty lucky to live in this vibrant Jewish community.”
Steven Fader, chair of The Associated’s annual campaign, talked about the need to continue the federation’s good work — especially in light of the Pittsburgh shooting and a recently circulated prom photo of Wisconsin students making a Nazi salute. Echoing Terrill’s sentiments, Fader said, it was “a time to broaden the tent” and bring in more people to support and promote the work of The Associated.
Jessica Gregg is managing editor of Baltimore Style, a sister publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times.