Michael Solomonov is really into origami. The Israeli-born, Pittsburgh-bred chef might be best known for his life-affirming hummus at restaurants like Zahav, but before he was helming kitchens and collecting James Beard Awards and Chef of the Year Eater Awards, a young Solomonov was teaching himself to fold paper flamingos (yes, he won an award for that, too).
It’s hard to imagine where he finds time for hobbies. After the 2008 debut of Zahav (one of the 38 most essential restaurants in America, according to Eater’s national critic), Solomonov and business partner Steven Cook went on to open Abe Fisher, multiple locations of Dizengoff, and, with Felicia D’Ambrosio, Tom Henneman, and Bob Logue, the hit Federal Donuts chain. The pair had a big year in 2017, adding Rooster Soup Co., which gives all its profits to Philadelphians in need through the Broad Street Ministry, and vegan falafel shop Goldie, which quickly gained a cult following for its tehina shakes and expanded.
It doesn’t stop: Solomonov and crew also released a Federal Donuts cookbook last year, and the chef’s second Israeli cookbook, Israeli Soul: Easy, Essential, Delicious, is due out next fall. Somewhere in all that activity, Solomonov picked up a 2017 James Beard Award for best chef in the country, to go with his three previous James Beard wins. At the end of the year Eater Philly named him Chef of the Year in the annual Eater Awards.
Beyond the raves and accolades, here are five things you probably didn’t know about Solomonov, straight from the star chef himself.
1. Solomonov started making origami when he was 6
When I was nine, I entered an origami competition and created this sick flamingo that was awarded. I love origami — I’ve been doing it ever since I was 6 years old. I was never really formally taught how to do it. I would just freestyle when I was bored.
2. Photography was his first calling
Growing up, I envisioned myself as a photographer, not a chef. I got really into photography when I was in eighth grade. In high school, there was this really competitive five-week art program called the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. Only five to 10 photographers in the state get selected to go, and I was one of them. It was big. I even originally went to college to major in photography. I rarely shoot now, though.
3. He has strong feelings about condiments
I’m scared to death of mayo. It’s just so gross.
4. He started out at the top
The first job I ever had was at a Subway sandwich shop in Pittsburgh.
5. His pizza-eating process was a little different
I was a pretty terrible eater as a kid. Very, very picky. I would take the cheese off pizza, wipe all the sauce off with napkins, put the cheese back on and eat it. Awesome, right? I stopped being so choosy when I was about 17 or 18 — right around when I became interested in cooking.
I can play the harmonica! Not well, but I’m okay at it.
Michael Solomonov is the Eater Philly Chef of the Year for 2017. Over the next several months, we’ll be publishing a feature story on each of the winners. Read the interview with Joey Baldino of Restaurant of the Year winner Palizzi Social Club here.