Interview With The Chef/Guide And The Director of Food Documentary, In Search Of Israeli Cuisine

Jason Bartlett

Jason Bartlett

Can you discuss, if you see it this way, the evolution of your approach to presenting Israeli cuisine in Philadelphia? With what you’ve been doing at Zahav and your other restaurants, watching the documentary made me think of the dilemma anyone would have in presenting an ‘authentic’ cuisine. First, you could be going for photographic exactness, as with a painter doing still life. Then eventually, it loosens up and you throw in more of your interpretation.
Yeah, I think that’s a great analogy because I think it was incredibly difficult for us when we opened. We didn’t know how to present it. We did do things quite literally, but they didn’t work. Nobody really appreciated that anyways. So it was a combination of us not feeling fulfilled by being the sort of like conduit or expressing Israeli food versus just reproducing what we ate in Israel. So it was us not feeling fulfilled and our customers not totally loving it.

So a little shackled in terms of representing it, but then things got looser and it became more about Mike’s interpretation.
I think that it’s also, we had to, it had to crystalize through our relationship to Israel and our ability to apply Israeli food when you’re in Eastern Pennsylvania. We had to become confident. We had to listen to ourselves. We had to figure out a way we were going to approach food. And not just taking Israeli dishes and put a spin on them, but take ingredients that we use here and say what about this is going to translate.

That leads nicely to my next question. With so much of the film stressing local sourcing, did you find yourself at first, in the name of authenticity, importing excessively before transitioning to using more local products?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We imported Israeli tomatoes for almost the first year. We, you know [laughs], imported as much—even perishable stuff—as we could from the Middle East and it got a little bit weird. Tomatoes—regardless of where they come from and how good they are—eating a tomato salad or chopped cucumber salad in February in Philadelphia when it’s like 7 degrees outside…it doesn’t taste right.

You life, of course, is front and center in the documentary.

You allude to cooking Israeli food and diving into the culture as being healing for you following the death of your brother. The documentary itself has a message of healing, a hope for it, as a subtext. Can you comment on that and how the film has helped you on your personal journey of healing?
I think that the film is fulfilling because it’s sort of my life’s mission to do that. To be given that opportunity to do that sort of was a dream. It’s really…I don’t know. It’s amazing to be given the opportunity to do things that you never thought possible. And obviously to be able to talk about my brother and represent him and represent positively the things that he sacrificed himself for is important to convey.

In that sense, the film goes beyond a love letter to Israeli cuisine and Israel itself. Given the strong of mission that underscores it, it’s also a beautiful dedication to your brother.
Yeah, yeah.

And it subtly makes the compelling argument that there’s no better path to diplomacy than by recognizing the cooking of someone’s grandmother, of literally and figuratively sitting down at their table to recognize their traditions, to give everyone—Palestinians, Jews, Arabs from across the Middle East—a warm embrace.
Yes, 100%. You can’t argue with those things, you know?

Solomonov with Meir Adoni at his Mizlala restaurant. Courtesy of Florentine Films.

Solomonov with Meir Adoni at his Mizlala restaurant. Courtesy of Florentine Films.

In the beginning, you name the provenance of all the ban chan like side dishes at a Yeminite grill.
The restaurant is this place called Busi. It’s a shipudiya, so it’s a grill restaurant where everything is basically cooked over charcoal. Those plates are dishes or salads, like little salatim.

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