Michael Solomonov, the winner of the 2017 James Beard Award for outstanding American chef, should probably not, by his own reckoning, be alive. For many years, this celebrated cook and restauranteur was addicted to crack cocaine.
“I didn’t think I was a drug addict,” Solomonov told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a recent podcast episode of The Atlantic Interview. Even after he dropped out of college, a decision fueled by drugs, he said, “I thought I just did what every other kid did, and I took it a little bit too far.”
Solomonov’s breaking point came when his younger brother, David, was shot to death by Hezbollah snipers while he was patrolling Israel’s border with Lebanon. It was Yom Kippur, and three days before David’s release date from the Israeli army. He was 21.
For the next few years, Solomonov struggled with addiction. He was using crack cocaine and heroin. He was driving under the influence almost daily. But he was also a rising star in Philadelphia’s restaurant scene, and he was blazing a trail across America for haute Israeli cooking.
“I was a talented actor,” Solomonov said. “Most drug addicts that don’t end up dying ... live this double life.” For Solomonov, that double life meant opening a new Israeli restaurant, Zahav, in May 2008 while “using [David’s] death as an excuse” to smoke crack in his car. After an intervention by his then-wife and his business partner, Steven Cook, Solomonov went to rehab. By October 2008, as the big banks were starting to go under and people weren’t interested in spending money on “a restaurant being run by the chef who was 20 days clean,” Solomonov and Cook were ready to shut off the lights at Zahav. But then Esquire magazine named Zahav one of its best new restaurants of the year, and business boomed.