His love for Israeli food and his faith in a higher power helped this James Beard Award recipient reclaim his life.
Posted in , Nov 26, 2018
I was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, driving an old family car from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia for my younger brother, David, to use when he moved back to the States. Soon, very soon. He was serving in the Israeli military and had only three days left to go. I was born in Israel, and we’d both grown up in Pittsburgh—with an Israeli father. I was thrilled to think of David coming to live with me in Philly.
Outside Lancaster, I got the call. “Call me back immediately,” my aunt said. “As soon as you get home.” I didn’t want to wait that long. I pulled over. “It’s David,” she said. “He’s dead.”
It was Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday also known as the Day of Atonement. David had been shot by three snipers near the Lebanese border. He wasn’t even supposed to be on duty that day, but he’d agreed to sub in for another Israeli soldier, who wanted to go to synagogue. He was positioned behind a boulder in an apple orchard. A trap was set for him, to draw him out of cover. He was only 21 years old.
I got back in the car, desperate to get home. I’d have to make a few calls, book a flight to Israel for the funeral. But there was something else, something even more urgent. As soon as I was in the door of my place, I opened a not-so-secret drawer, got out my rock and stem and did what I needed to do first: Get high on crack cocaine, bury the pain before it buried me.
No one else in my family had any addiction issues. I never saw my mom or my dad drunk or high. But even as a youngster, I was never totally comfortable in my skin. I had a sort of sadness. Maybe it was depression, maybe not. It’s hard to articulate when you’re a kid. From the moment I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol as a teenager, I felt like I had finally found something that made me feel normal. Like everybody else. I could fit in.
When I was 15, my parents decided that we’d move back to Israel—my dad’s home, yet it didn’t feel like mine. I couldn’t wait to return to the States. I came back for college at the University of Vermont. There my drug use spiraled out of control.
Drugs were how I defined who I was. They gave me a network of friends, a way to commiserate on every setback and celebrate every milestone. Without drugs or alcohol, I felt alone and miserable. Why put up with that? After my third semester, I overdosed and landed in the hospital. Not that I thought I was an addict. I’d just partied too hard. I needed to dial it back. Still, it was humiliating. I had to tell my parents, drop out of school and go home.
Back in Israel, I got a job in a bakery. It was just something to do, a way to earn money. And yet in that kitchen, I stumbled upon my career. I discovered how much I loved cooking, savoring the smells and tastes of the place where I was born. The warm mix of pepper, cumin seeds and coriander in Baharat, the lemony tang of sumac, the peppery punch of the condiment called schug. At home I experimented with dishes like fried cauliflower and lamb basturma (the ancient ancestor of pastrami). Just the taste of hummus with lemon, garlic and chickpeas and tahini from the purest sesame seeds made me fall in love with the food of my native land.
I also grew closer to my younger brother, David. As he was finishing up high school and preparing for mandatory military service (something I was able to opt out of), I was enrolling in culinary school in the States. I was learning all those necessary skills, such as how to julienne, brunoise and make (and break) hollandaise sauce—and also drinking way too much—while David entered the Israel Defense Forces infantry unit. With my newly minted culinary degree, I got a job at Vetri, one of the finest Italian restaurants in Philly. There were tons of challenges—just keeping the chocolate polenta from collapsing was enough—but I was moving forward. And getting high all the time.
The summer of 2003, I had three weeks off and returned to Israel. David was on leave from the military, and we spent precious time together, going to the beach, hanging out and eating. I shopped for produce and spices in the open-air markets and sorted through fish caught in the local waters. I found myself looking at the country through the lens of a chef. There were so many ethnic influences, so many different styles of cooking. But the best part was reconnecting with my brother.
It was the last time I’d see him alive.
All through the funeral in Israel, I felt responsible, guilty. As though I could have done something to stop those snipers’ bullets. Addiction will do that to you. It will help you blame yourself for everything. I sat shiva for seven days, mourning with friends and family, remembering David. As soon as I returned to Philadelphia, the floodgates of addiction opened up. I’d lost my brother, after all. I was suffering terribly. I needed consolation, comfort. People had to sympathize.
From the outside, it looked as if things were going great. I left Vetri and went to work at Marigold with my new business partner, Steven Cook [pictured on the right above, with Michael at Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania]. I was a celebrated chef. We were getting great reviews. We talked about opening a new place featuring Israeli foods. I met and fell in love with a bright, capable woman named Mary, and the two of us got married. All the while, I was doing my best—or my worst, depending on how you look at it—at hiding my addiction.
Whenever there was a question—I mean, you can sneak out at night to score some crack for only so long without people noticing—I always had an excuse. The death of my brother. Shot down by snipers on one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. I did feel guilty about using David as an excuse to get high, but what do you do if you’re a drug addict and you have paralyzing guilt and shame? You use more. Self-pity just makes it easier.
I started snorting heroin. My rationalization? If I took heroin, I would use less crack—denial is amazingly powerful. Soon I was hooked on both. I just couldn’t hide it anymore. Steve and Mary sat me down and did an intervention. They forced me to look at myself, the lies I was telling, the mess I was making of my life, how it affected other people, what I was doing to my body. I couldn’t be a husband like this, couldn’t be a business partner. I was on a road to ruin, my very life hanging in the balance. They took me to rehab, where I detoxed for the first time since college and got serious about getting clean.
Coming back to work, I was fragile. I didn’t trust myself. I was glad to be back in the kitchen, cooking, but I didn’t want to drive by myself anywhere. Who knew where I might end up? I would go to a 12-step meeting first thing in the morning. Then Steve would pick me up with his three-year-old in the car and drop off the kid at day care. I’d look at him and think, If I relapse, if I mess up in any way, it’s going to affect the future of this child. Steve and I were deep into our plans for launching our Israeli restaurant, Zahav. Opening a restaurant is a risky thing, and Steve was counting on me.
After work, Mary would pick me up and drive me home. I got a 12-step sponsor. I went to outpatient rehab for a year. I went to meetings every day. I went to therapy. I had to be honest with every person I knew—my parents, my in-laws, my wife. No lies, no manipulation. No claiming that David’s death was a reason to get high. There was no escape. I had to be a grown-up for the first time in my life. Most of all, I had to be honest with God. I had to turn over to my higher power everything, good and bad.
Zahav opened that spring of 2008. A terrible time to start a new restaurant. World financial markets were in free fall. Nobody was going out to dinner. That first year, we had to make painful staffing cuts. Steve and I stopped taking paychecks. At one point, we were a month away from turning out the lights. Here I was, clean and sober, and life was harder than ever. So was temptation.
But the work itself was healing. I loved being right in the middle of the action at the bread station with my kitchen crew. We had a mission, showing the world that Israeli food was more than hummus and falafel. There aren’t really Israeli restaurants in Israel, as strange as that sounds. There are Bulgarian restaurants and Arabic restaurants, Georgian restaurants and Yemenite restaurants. What connects them is the shared experience of all these old cultures in a new country. This is food that’s meant to be cooked and passed down from generation to generation, or as we say in Hebrew, l’dor v’dor.
In the end, Zahav proved to be more successful than either Steve or I could have ever imagined. On Israeli Independence Day 2017, I was given the James Beard Award for Best Chef, a little like getting the Best Actor Award at the Oscars. I only wished I could share the good news with my brother.
In rehab and in 12-step meetings, I saw how people struggled to put a new life together. One thing that was very important was good food. Good food and proper nutrition, something I knew a lot about. I started serving as a volunteer chef at the Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia, where we give the hungry and homeless a three-course meal. Guests are waited on, as at one of our own restaurants, and I often recognize people from meetings I’ve been to. Helping them is a way of helping myself. Steve and I feel so strongly about it that all the profits from one of our newer restaurants, The Rooster, go to supporting the ministry.The pain of losing David hasn’t gone away. What’s different is how I deal with it. Not with drugs but by giving, caring for my loved ones, volunteering at Broad Street and staying clean.
Find recipes and step-by-step how-tos of the food chef Michael Solomonov and his business partner Steven Cook love in their new book, Israeli Soul: Easy, Essential, Delicious.