The film In Search of Israeli Cuisine, featuring Chef Michael Solomonov, is being screened from March 31 to April 6 at the Ritz 5 in Philadelphia. In light of this special screening, we offer the following review of the film, written by Philadelphia Jewish Voice contributor Hannah Lee. This review was originally posted on Lee’s blog, A Cultural Mix, in March 2016, and also includes an overview of the post-film discussion.
There were 700 people at the Gershman Y for the Philadelphia premiere of “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” with the James Beard-winning chef Michael Solomonov as the film’s guide. The film captures the political culture of Israel during its major culinary revolution. It takes viewers on a culinary adventure to over 100 locations throughout Israel, visiting top chefs, great home cooks, amazing wine and cheese makers, street food vendors, farmers and more.
The film’s director, Roger Sherman, has an impressive resume, with an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award and two Academy Award nominations to his credit, among other honors. His film The Restaurateur — a portrait of renowned restaurant owner Danny Meyer — won the 2013 James Beard Award for Best Documentary, Broadcast Journalism.
“In Search of Israeli Cuisine” is a gorgeous film that took three years to produce and another two years of fund-raising. Even Solomonov, a frequent visitor to his birth country, Israel, was surprised by the fabulous food and chefs that he met during the filming. At the post-film Q&A, Sherman and Solomonov were asked what were their biggest misconceptions about Israeli cuisine. Sherman said he had assumed that all Israelis kept kosher, when the reality is that secular, non-observant, non-kosher Jews are in the majority in Israel. Solomonov said that he had originally thought all Israeli food was Middle Eastern, and then learned that there were many other culinary influences.
His own greatest culinary influence was his beloved late grandmother, a Bulgarian Jew who spoke Ladino. After Solomonov’s grandmother died, he could no longer serve bourekas in his restaurant Zahav because he was raw from grief and couldn’t tolerate any potential criticism of the food. When asked whether he could separate the personal from the professional, Solomonov flatly said, “No.”
As for the political ramifications of food, Solomonov said that we all approach a country through its food. Sherman quoted the chefs he’d met and filmed who told him, “You cannot sit at my table and be my enemy.”
Asked why he stays in Philadelphia, Solomonov said it’s where he met his wife, and it’s where he met his business partner, Steven Cook, who is also the co-author of his 2015 book, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. In other words, Philadelphia is home.
However, he and Cook will soon open another location of their popular hummusiya, Dizengoff, in Chelsea Market in New York City. Like the original on Sansom Street in Philadelphia, the restaurant will offer set meals of hummus, fresh-baked pita, salads and pickles during the day. But unlike the original, Dizengoff NYC will offer dinner. Also new to New York are shakshuka served daily for breakfast, rotating vegetable salatim, inspired by the half-dozen that start a meal at Zahav, and Israeli wines by the glass.
Solomonov keeps a heavy travel schedule promoting his book and the film, but he stills cooks four to five times a night in his restaurants. It’s what he enjoys most — compared to speaking before an audience of 700. The film is slated to be shown in 55 film festivals over the next year.
Food tours of the people and places mentioned in the film have been scheduled. They are organized by Florentine Films in conjunction with Avihai Tsabari’s Via Sabra, with guest appearances by Solomonov.
Since the writing of this review, Dizengoff NYC opened in May 2016. In addition, “In Search of Israeli Cusine” has been screened, or is scheduled to be screened, in over 100 theaters and film festivals.