The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Michael Solomonov is a James Beard Award–winning chef and founder of CookNSolo, the group behind some of Philadelphia’s (and the country’s) most sought out restaurants. When he’s not running a restaurant empire he finds time to cook with his two sons. At his home in Philadelphia, Michael made shakshuka and fresh pull-apart focaccia and stressed the importance of cooking simple, hearty food.
I got started cooking sort of by accident. I actually started baking and then transitioned to cooking, and then it was like, Okay, I'm going to be a chef. But it was only after failing out of school, which I think that’s what most chefs go through as well. That's how it happened.While I really started cooking when I started working in kitchens professionally in my twenties, cooking for my family was a learning experience. I think cooking for kids teaches you and actually prepares you to be a good cook. For home cooks, you need it to be user-friendly, you don't want to spend a lot of time inventorying tons of ingredients, and you want minimal shit to clean up, you know? Now I probably cook in my house for the kids, like, twice a week. Cooking at home is a joyful activity; it’s definitely a de-stressor. It promotes healthy eating, we get to bond, and we eat delicious food, of course. It's very important to my family.
Cooking at home is a joyful activity; it’s definitely a de-stressor.
Usually I'll cook steamed rice or something in one pan, or a lot of times I'll make something called plov. It's sort of like a Bolognese that you steam rice in. Again, it's a one-pot situation, and it's pretty wonderful and delicious. The kids like rice, so you can sneak in carrot juice or you can add a bunch of vegetables and sort of hide them. They like cooking and will help to varying degrees. One is 8 and one is 5, so it sort of changes as they get older. But right now the 5-year-old really likes to cook.If I could sum it up very generally, I think that Philly is unpretentious. I think that's become our organic style at the restaurants, too. Whether that's myself and who I am or the people I work with and surround myself with — or maybe it’s the influence Philly has had on the way we view hospitality — I'm not really sure, but that's kind of how it ended up naturally. We want to be understated, and I think that speaks to what Philly is. It's a really wonderful city that oftentimes lives in the shadows of bigger cities that are close to us.
I think that Philly is unpretentious.
If I had to pick some of my favorite spots in Philly, I’d say Mr Martino's is just a great restaurant. It's been around forever, and it's very old-school, and they have this baked ricotta with tarragon dressing that's amazing. And then I think Kalaya, which is a new Thai restaurant, is delicious. Oh, and Angelo's Pizzeria. It's just amazing. Really, really good.
Today I made shakshuka and then used laffa dough to bake a sort of pull-apart focaccia in The Dutchess. It took on so much olive oil; it was fucking amazing. You could also use pizza dough. I used our laffa dough because that's what we make all of our pita from. It's really, really simple.
I just kind of coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil — a lot of it — and then pinch off little balls of dough, roll them, and sort of layer them in the bottom of the pan. Then I sprinkle them with nigella seeds, which look like black sesame seeds. Let them rise like crazy. I probably let it rise for an hour or so and then just baked them at 375 degrees, and it was this delicious, really sick sort of focaccia dough.Separately, in Deep Cut, I coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil. I take peeled garlic, shishito peppers, and onions, and I lay them all out, but I like to keep them in kind of piles because what I want is for part of them to get charred and the other part to get steamed. I don't actually want them cooked evenly.
You want a little bit of depth. Start it in cold oil and bring up the heat until it blisters. And then, before the bottom layers burn, I yank it off the heat, add some tomato paste and a little bit of crushed tomato, and I just let it stew with salt and a little bit of dried chili, so it's a little bit spicy.
And I keep it covered and the tomato breaks down, the peppers break down, the water oozes out, and you create a base for the shakshuka. And then the bread comes out; we let it rest slightly. I probably never let it rest enough, though, because it's always, Need warm bread. And then crack the eggs in the shakshuka pan, using the shells of the egg to create little wells, and then dump the eggs in the wells. And then just cook on medium heat with the cover on for four minutes, and then that's it.
I really, really like simple food. Especially in the house, I just don't like to get crazy. I don't like to get too fancy. I want really, really hearty food, and I don't want to clean a lot of shit up either, you know?