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Q&A: Michael Solomonov Brings Falafel to ‘Iron Chef’

This past Sunday, Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” featured Israeli-born chef Michael Solomonov, of Philadelphia’s Zahav Restaurant. Solomonov battled Iron Chef Jose Garces in a head to head culinary competition. The pressure was on for both chefs who had just 60 minutes to create a world-class meal featuring passion fruit, the secret competition ingredient, which was revealed only moments before cooking began.

Solomonov, staying true to his personal and culinary roots, fried up fresh chickpea falafel with passion fruit and amba and served tuna carpaccio stuffed with tabboule. He wowed the judges with his passion fruit infused malabi custard for dessert. Iron Chef veteran Garces, impressed the judges with a “tour of the Islands,” cooking dishes from Cuba and Majorca including an opah ceviche with passion fruit sorbet. In the end, as with so many Iron Chef episodes, the challenger — Solomonov — was defeated.

Following the battle, Jew and the Carrot caught up with Solomonov to discuss his influences and what it’s really like to cook on ‘Iron Chef’.

Daniel Infeld: A lot of fans of the show would love to be in the challenger’s shoes. What was it like?

Michael Solomonov: It’s a huge honor. I remember watching the Japanese “Iron Chef” when I was getting into cooking, and it was just the coolest late night television. I’ve been nominated twice for the James Beard awards and we got [on] Esquire magazine’s top 20 new restaurants… but really, the most exposure you could possibly get would be on ‘Iron Chef’. Its great to be supported and an honor to bring Israeli gastronomy to a commercial audience.

What were your expectations going in, did you know anything in advance or not?

The show is for real, you have exactly 60 minutes to get stuff done, which is a little bit difficult. It’s a challenge to be in a different kitchen.

What did you want to showcase in your food during the battle? Were there any particular influences on your menu choices?

It was really important to me to represent Israel positively, as an Israeli born chef. I got a real kick out of hearing Alton Brown try to pronounce Hebrew spices. Our spice guy Lior [Lev Sercarz] provided us with all the spices that we used, and our olive oil was from his parent’s olive grove in the Galil. It was a pretty personal moment to be able to use his olive oil from Israel.

You used some unconventional techniques, like smashing avocados with the back of your cutting board to flatten them into a sheet, which you served under the falafel. Is this something that you do on a regular basis?

No, but its great stress relief. You know you have to make some things up on the fly and I wanted to get those frozen so I could cut them out, which ended up not working out that well, but the dish ended up working. I’ve never smashed an avocado like that, and actually I’ve never combined passion fruit and amba, but from this day on I probably will. The avocado sheets were really neat and pretty uniform from the cutting board, so I would definitely recommend it if you want to impress your friends or let out a little anger.

In a bold move, you chose to use fresh chickpeas instead of canned for your homemade falafel. Why?

The fresh chickpeas were awesome but they took way too much time and they were freaking me out. At the same time, it was cool, nobody is doing fresh falafel like that. The falafel was a really stellar dish, and I would be more than happy to serve it at Zahav.

I like a certain amount of balance, and what we’re doing at Zahav is bringing all of this rustic provincial stuff, and tweaking it a little and adding a bit of my personal style to it. So balance is a pretty important thing, because everybody’s impression of Israeli food is usually pretty bad here in the states, the food is just not the same as it is over there. What we’re trying to do is keep things balanced and delicious, and passion fruit is delicious, but it’s a pretty intense flavor, so it was important to me, as a chef, to use the passion fruit effectively.

Many Iron Chef competitors use lots of pork products. Was it an intentional choice on your part to not use pork?

Zahav is not a kosher restaurant, but I don’t serve pork or shellfish, and we’re trying to keep it real, so I wouldn’t do that. We’ve developed a certain style at Zahav, and the flavors and intention is completely authentic. Adding a little bacon to the eggplant soup may have been an effective way to make it more powerful, but we used this beautiful heritage lamb from Virginia, which was really good and pork is irrelevant to what we do.

For clips from the show check out Eater.

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