Ahead of the screening of the eye-opening documentary, In Search Of Israeli Cuisine, this Monday, March 28th at The Gershman Y as part of The Jewish Film Festival, I spoke with the film’s chef/guide, Michael Solomonov (chef & operating partner of Zahav, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, and Federal Donuts in Philadelphia) and director, writer, producer, Roger Sherman (The Restaurateur, Medal Of Honor, The Rhythm Of My Soul: Kentucky Roots Music, among others), who says, he “set out to make a portrait of the Israeli people, told through food.”
To build that portrait, Sherman pursues questions of culinary and cultural identity, while having the Israeli immigrant mosaic at the heart of the film.
Michael Solomonov, Chef/Guide
Brion Shreffler:When did filming take place?
Michael Solomonov: October/November 2013.
How much input did you have in regard to the people and places that were featured?
I gave them all of my suggestions and a lot of them were used. We had Shabbat at my family’s place. We went to some of the restaurants that I really felt we should go to. But there was a team of people. The co-producer Karen Shakerdge had done tons of work prior to that. It’s funny…we spent almost a month shooting. Up to five shoots a day or whatever. When we saw the film, there were days and days that didn’t make it. I think that the film represents maybe 1/10th [laughs] of what we actually shot so it’s hard to recollect what it was I told them to do, but it was mostly Roger and Karen the co-producer that came up with the itinerary.
In the documentary, you mention falling in love with cooking when you moved back to Israel the 2nd time. When was that?
It was like, second year of college, after I dropped out.
You were falling in love with cooking. How much was it you falling in love with the country?
I spent my junior year of high school there where I definitely fell in love with it. I wasn’t into food at the time. My relationship to it [cooking] changed [during the second trip]. I had also been sort of an adult for a little bit and I think that my outlook and appreciation for it was a little different.
When did you move to Philly?
I moved to Philly after culinary school. So when I was in Israel, I was like 19. I was there for one year. Then I moved to Florida and went to culinary school. Then moved to Philly when I was 21.
How many times have you been back to Israel and how much have you seen the country change?
After 2003, I go back at least once a year. The last couple times, it’s been more than once a year. I’ve seen the country change every single time I go. It’s always changing, the food scene especially. There’s so much cool stuff happening all of the time.
The film’s search for a culinary identity is a look at the national character itself, as there’s the people of the Diaspora returning to Israel to have their histories intermeshed with that of ongoing waves of non-Jewish immigration.
What I like about it is there’s sort of the new and the old happening all the time. There’s always the classic and the ethnic, the root of these cultures and where they came from, and then there’s this really progressive Western country that is also happening in tandem. With food, you get to really capture that theme, that sort of dualistic thing happening. When you go there—I was just walking friends around in Old City [Philadelphia] where I live and it was like, man look at how old this church is—it’s from the 1700s. I remember walking around, say Jerusalem, and thinking [laughs] this [structure] is thousands of years old. You see the most historic things. It’s the birthplace of monotheism. On the last chef’s trip we took, we went to The Church of The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in the morning and then we went to Masada—you know, the plateau? It’s a little town that’s in the desert. That was where the first synagogue was. In the same day, we went to the first church and the first synagogue. Ever. It’s like, that’s happening, and it’s also this ridiculously progressive, very accelerated environment. There’s the high-tech. It’s this huge start-up nation. There was a female prime minister in the late 60’s. There’s a lot of things happening that makes it so progressive and liberal, and at the same time, it’s sort of ancient. It’s fantastic.
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