Plan Z

As Told by
Mike Solomonov
Images by
Kriston Jae Bethel

Few restaurants in recent memory have had the impact of Mike Solomonov’s Zahav. His freestyle approach to celebrating his Israeli roots through food sparked a craze for Mediterranean-style dining, helped him found a singular restaurant empire, and earned him the top honor at the James Beard Awards.

Here Solomonov looks back on where he’s been, where he’s going, and discovers the secret ingredient: letting go of everything he thought it was supposed to look like.

𝙿𝙰𝚁𝚃 𝟷 Only in Philly

I ended up in Philly by pure accident. After culinary school in Florida, I was driving up to New York, confident in my next steps. I’d already applied to Daniel, to Le Cirque, those sorts of spots, because back then that was what you did if you wanted to be a professional chef. So my plan was to spend a few years like that in New York, followed by a stint in Europe, and then I’d return and open my own fine-dining restaurant where I’d emulate the old-world European model.

Then I landed in Philly.

It was supposed to be for a “few days.” I never left. Not only was the city cool, it was way easier on the wallet, a place where you could live like an adult. Something about the city, what you could call the Philly flex: it’s humble and welcoming and feels hardwired to overdeliver, qualities that make for really exceptional food and dining. There was already so much great immigrant-driven cuisine, along with something of a restaurant renaissance and a really tight-knit community. I was lucky to fall in with Marc Vetri, cooking for him, becoming close friends with him.

My original plan went out the window—and not for the last time.

𝙿𝙰𝚁𝚃 𝟸 Growing Pains

I was such a different person than I am today. When I thought about being a chef, for example? I thought about winning a bunch of awards, having a European rating system attached to my restaurants, banging pots and swearing in different languages like some kind of cartoon.

Opening my own restaurant, I quickly learned what a mistake that way of thinking can be. We all want to be artists, craftspeople, mindblowers, detonators of taste buds. But here’s the thing it took some maturing for me to learn: If you’re not looking to strengthen the bond between the guest and the team, if that’s not number one—well, it just doesn’t work.

𝙿𝙰𝚁𝚃 𝟹 Trial by Fire

When we opened Zahav, in May of 2008, I was chasing all that personal glory. The original concept was kind of two restaurants in one—one that was casual and another where I did an elaborate multi-course tasting menu that highlighted whatever wizardry I was eager to show off. It made exactly zero sense. At heart, I was doing the kind of Israeli food I grew up with and rediscovered at 18, while working at a bakery in Israel. Laffa bread, grilled meats, hummus—it’s elemental, meant to be shared, not fussed over.

But I was too fussy to see that. The restaurant was struggling to catch on—and I was seriously struggling in much bigger ways. That July I went into drug treatment, came out to the economy in free fall and the Phillies heading into the World Series. Great for the city. But absolutely horrible for a restaurant trying to coax people into a complex, bifurcated dining experience that no one understood.

Put bluntly: we were burning through money while the city just wanted to escape into the playoffs.

Sitting with Steve Cook—my business partner, close friend, and foundation to every success I’ve ever had—there was this rock-bottom moment of: Holy shit, we have to call our parents for money right now. This is who we have become. Swallowing what little pride was left, I did the thing no one ever wants to do. I called my dad at his home in Israel and asked to borrow $10,000 so we could make payroll and keep the lights on. It was a nightmare.

It was also, looking back, the moment we started to turn things around.

𝙿𝙰𝚁𝚃 𝟺 The Art of Listening

The next week was Restaurant Week, which the pretentious version of me used to write off. Newly humbled—or maybe just desperate—we participated and it changed everything. It forced us to listen to our guests and reformat our menu so our customers could understand how to eat in this restaurant. That meant no more flashy tasting menu, no more showing off, no more chasing accolades. It meant taking the advice Steve gave me back then, which was to be myself and not so attached to what I thought a chef was supposed to be. It meant simply introducing people to the type of food and way of dining I was always most passionate about at heart.

And what happened?

We made money at Zahav for the first time. Our break-even was $40,000 and that week we did $50,000. I remember thinking: We’re rich! But, restaurants being a perpetual rollercoaster, our hot water heater immediately went out and—boom—in comes a $12,000 bill. We couldn’t fix it right away—couldn’t shut down a restaurant just as it was starting to work—so for a while we had giant stock pots of boiling soapy water in the back where we washed all the plates by hand.

Not your cinematic story. Still, I learned to listen, simplified the concept, and we found our footing. Sixteen years later, very little at Zahav has changed since that week.

𝙿𝙰𝚁𝚃 𝟻 Mixing it up

It still feels borderline surreal that CookNSolo, the restaurant group Steve and I run, even exists. Never once have we sat down and said: This is what our next year, three years, five years should look like. We don’t look at a globe or a map of the U.S. and put pins in the markets we want to break into. After Zahav stabilized, a space came on the market that seemed right for us, so we opened Percy Street BBQ, which we’ve since sold. Like Zahav, it was also a big restaurant that did okay numbers, but still not enough to really exhale.

So, with three other partners, we all threw in on the idea that became Federal Donuts, our somewhat accidental linchpin. Donuts and fried chicken was the idea, because… well, find me a human being who doesn’t love donuts and fried chicken. It wasn’t exactly a joke—we were all emptying our bank accounts at the time—but it was also the kind of lark you can indulge in Philly. Collectively it was $35K all in—a manageable number—for this tiny, 600-squarefoot space at $650 a month. On day two, seeing the place slammed, I remember being like: This is the smartest thing we’ve ever done! It was a risk that has allowed us to keep taking risks.

Everything we’ve opened since has kind of been like that—a mix of instinct and opportunity, a juggle far more than a master plan, with Steve and I bouncing ideas off each other until one gets too sticky to ignore. Dizengoff, our hummus spot, came about because we felt like people were really understanding hummus, connecting with it, so I thought: let’s do a hummusiya like they have in Israel, these quick spots for breakfast and lunch. And it worked. Then we opened Golide—falafel, tehina shakes, accessible prices. Good margins, fast turnover, and a cushion that allowed us to venture back into something more high-end with Laser Wolf.

Recently, we sold 60 percent of Federal Donuts to New Spring Capital, and now we’ve got our first franchisee opening in Vegas. Didn’t plan on that, but it would be kind of foolish not to ponder these things: what’s scalable, what’s not. So, these days, I’m thinking Goldie would be the next natural step in that direction. It’s vegan, it’s plant based, it’s a lot of things that people are into, and it’s very delicious.

“We all want to be artists, craftspeople. But here’s the thing it took some maturing for me to learn: If you’re not looking to strengthen the bond between the guest and the team, if that’s not number one—well, it just doesn’t work.”

𝙿𝙰𝚁𝚃 𝟼 Weeds Spring Eternal

The transition from cook to chef, and then from chef to owner—for me it’s ongoing, still a struggle. There’s a part of me that just wants to just be banging pots in the kitchen and blasting music. Delegating, managing—that’s not really my strong suit. I’m still in the kitchen at Zahav three days a week, but now I’m far from being one of the better cooks in the kitchen. I’m the cranky old man who does the bread. Just the other night I got stuck in the weeds. Understanding that that’s always the job—going in and out of the weeds—is a key to preserving your sanity.

𝙿𝙰𝚁𝚃 𝟽 At the End of the Day

If in the beginning I had a thirst for awards, somewhere along the way I realized it’s all about something else—that the food we serve is a memory that we create. Call me cheesy, I don’t care. That’s what hospitality comes down to: creating memories for people.

Here’s a memory of mine, for instance: surfing all morning in Ocean City, New Jersey and then heading to Brown’s, an old-school boardwalk restaurant, for a honey donut. Salty hair, salt in my mouth, and then that piping hot donut. I’ve eaten some extravagant meals—white truffle this and sous vide that—but that donut is, for me, a top-five dining moment. No way Federal Donuts would exist without it.

Today, the goal of everything has become finding ways to recreate a version of that moment for our guests—regardless of price point, regardless of atmosphere. That’s the north star, and it’s a way better one to use as a compass than where I started out. There’s really no better accolade, in the end, than when you hit that nerve where you make someone nostalgic for right now.

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