Did the basic idea for the documentary germinate out of what you saw during that first trip or did it develop over time?
I went over there with an open mind and a little camera and shot things as we went around. I had no control over where we went and what we saw but Joan did a great job and we saw some incredible people, places, restaurants, home cooks, and wine and cheese makers. It was only over time that I realized, one, I wanted to make this film, and two, what kind of film I wanted to make. My process is…there’s so many bad food puns, but this is what I say with every film—this is a food film so it’s a little more weird—my process is an organic process that develops as I get more into any project. I don’t try to put myself on the project. I try to let the subject come reveal itself to me and almost tell me what it wants to be and that’s happening all throughout the process well into the editing. I’m changing. I’m very flexible. I think that’s what makes good films—being able to be flexible.
I started because my experience was an epiphany. I started by thinking I need to find somebody like me who had never been there before—that didn’t even have to be Jewish—that I could follow around and have an epiphany happen with them and we could, as an audience, witness this. Then, a mutual friend said, if you want the best Israeli cuisine in America, you’ve gotta go to Philadelphia and you’ve gotta go to Zahav. So my wife and I went to Zahav. That was in 2011. And so, we’ve all had a good hummus and the hummus came out and it was better. We’ve all had good salads and all these little Israeli salads came out and they were incredible. One dish after another was just, oh my God, this is the real thing—a master making this food! My wife, Dorothy Kalins, she created Saveur Magazine. So anything I know about food comes through her and we’re both looking at each other saying, this is remarkable, this is amazing. And then Mike came and sat down with us and talked for ten or fifteen minutes. When he got up and left, I looked over at Dorothy and said, that’s my guy. And I realized because he’s born in Israel and grew up in the United States, he’s real American and has spent lots and lots of time in Israel. Someone who understands all of these cultures, which was a very big surprise for me. I really needed somebody who had the global perspective of Israel, its culinary scene, its traditions—much more so than just food. Mike, I thought, was the guy to do it. As we got to know each other, I saw that he has almost no ego. That he’s incredibly funny. I just had this sense that he could be the chef/guide of the film. I don’t use hosts in my film. As you saw, Mike doesn’t say, now we’re going to go into this restaurant and this guy’s gonna blah, blah, blah…I find hosts really take the energy out of a film. What I didn’t know was how good Mike would be with people. How self-deprecating [he would be]. Most hot chefs, it’s all about them. They want to show you how smart they are. Not Michael Solomonov. He cares about everybody he talks to. He wants to know what you think. He knows most of the answers to the questions he’s asking, but he knows that that’s what we need to start a discussion. It was not a given that he would be great on camera. This film is as much a success because Mike was so fabulous with everybody as well as because of the people we found and the cultures we discovered and discussed.
How many times did you go back to get a better understanding of the culinary scene?
I’ve only been to Israel four times. So there was that first trip, which was the press trip. I did not go back till 2013 when I already knew that I was making this film and a lot about what we were doing and where we were going to go. I had a producer who is American-Israeli who came to me on a completely different project and then this came along. Karen Shakerdge is her name. She speaks fluent Hebrew. We were doing research for a very long time and then in the spring of 2013, I went with my wife to do a final scout. We knew we were gonna film that fall. In ten days, we covered all of Israel in what you’d have to be a very adventurous tourist to do in a month. We were having two and three lunches every day, meeting people. I really took advantage of Dorothy’s knowledge as a magazine editor, knowing how to scout things, which I know how to do as well, but the two of us together were a great team. Trip number three was the main shoot in the fall: October, November. Karen and I went for a week where we filmed what I call experts, the people in the film who are the sit-down interviews. Gil Hovav, Ruthie Rousso. Erez Komarovsky—I don’t think he made it into the experts [sit-down interview] part of it. Janna Gur, Ronit Vered. Just sit-down interviews I could do myself with a camera and Karen. That was a week. Then my whole crew came. We had a second camera. We had a fabulous culinary tour guide, sound guy, media manager. We had three weeks then on a bus with Mike and we went all over Israel and shot the film. I went back one more time. That was last August , at the end of editing when we knew things were missing.
How did you identify experts? What was the research process like and did you draw upon any of your wife’s experience as a magazine editor?
My wife didn’t help at all because she didn’t really know Israel and she didn’t want me to go because of the perception of violence and the perception that there’s not a lot going on there and that the food scene is not very interesting. It was only after that scout when she saw footage that she said, wow, this place seems really interesting. We researched the way you research any article or film. We read blog posts, newspaper articles, we looked for cookbooks. We searched for what the hot restaurants are and who was doing the best stuff. A number of those people who are experts, and are now very close, became consultants in their own right, Gil Hovav especially. We had a spreadsheet that was pages and pages long. We had to decide where to go. We couldn’t have too much in the north or too much in Tel Aviv. We had to spread it out. We couldn’t duplicate the places we were going to. They had to be high-end and street food. We had to have some home cooks. It’s a dance.
The food scene is pretty supportive in Philly. What kind of sense did you get of how interconnected the people are in, say Tel Aviv, or the Israeli food scene as a whole?
I think it’s a very close-knit food scene. It’s a very close-knit country. Everybody, it’s us against the world. It’s a very close-knit scene. The chefs are very open with each other, but we found most of the people on our own. We didn’t find them through a whole lot of networking. Yes, there was some. We would read things (both by and about chefs) these people had written and we’d go, wow, this person really has a great sense of things here. And then Karen would call. We had a difficult time with home cooks, so we used our networking. I would post on Facebook: I’m looking for a great home cook in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Hedai Offaim—who talks about how his ancestors came here and they wanted to make their own destiny—he and his brother are goat farmers and they make incredible goat cheese. While that goat cheese scene didn’t make it into the 97-minute theatrical and festival version [which will be shown this Monday at The Gershman Y], it, along with other scenes, will go into a big PBS version that will be two hours long.
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