It always starts with a donut. Don’t ask me why – I’m generally not a sweets person (give me something savory any day of the week). But yet this past Sunday, despite the grossness that was the weather, I marched on to get that breakfast treat.
Living in Ireland taught me that you can’t let a little rain stop you – if you did, you wouldn’t get anything done. So after finishing up yoga Sunday morning, despite the periodical downpour, I trekked to the Farmers Market in Headhouse to pick up flowers for Mother’s Day. And while my soaking pants would have indicated I should have gone straight home, my head told me that I needed to treat myself to a strawberry rhubarb donut. I earned it (plus I was already in stretchy pants so why not?).
Having a Federal Donuts 2 blocks from your house is dangerous – especially with that fried chicken sandwich on the menu. I can’t work out enough to eat that sandwich on the reg.
By now, Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook are nationally recognized names. Last week, Zahav was awarded the best restaurant in the country by the James Beard Foundation, which essentially means that it’ll take you 6+ months to enjoy their tasty Israeli cuisine.
A few weeks ago, Instagram caught on that I obsess over follow the Philly food scene and recommended (in its big brother way) that I check out a recording of the podcast, Philly Who?, which was interviewing the CookNSolo team for its 100th episode. I’m always on the lookout for a new podcast, especially if it concerns Philly, and so I decided to introduce myself to this podcast by starting with the episode featuring Becca Craig of Cake Life in Fishtown.
In February 2018, my birthday fell two days before the Eagles were playing in the Super Bowl. As any great Philadelphia fan knows, you don’t talk about how the game is going to go before it happens. You don’t put your ideas out into the universe in case it’s listening. There was something different about that year, though. You could just tell. And so when a friend of mine provided an Eagles themed cake for my birthday the night before the big game, I admired it with a grin from ear to ear (in case you haven’t been following along, the Eagles won the Super Bowl the next day which led to a glorious year of Philly sports pride).
The cake was one of the glorious products of Becca Craig (who also makes a mean pop tart). And what I didn’t know at the time, was that Becca is also responsible for making Beyoncé’s birthday cake during Made in America only a few months before making mine. Which means that Beyoncé and I have the same baker. You can start referring to me as Queen J.
After listening to Becca’s interview on Philly Who?, I immediately bought tickets for the Solomonov and Cook episode (it only slightly helped that attendees would also get to sample food from one of their upcoming restaurants K’far). Becca Craig and James Ito (who was recently styled by one of my fave Queer Eye guys, Tan France) also made a guest appearance at the end.
Given that the episode featuring CookNSolo hasn’t been released yet, I’m not going to give away the milk for free. But there were some gems that I noted during the conversation that provide insights to the duo’s impact on the Philly food scene, and how Philly shaped both of their careers.
When Solomonov was describing the culinary paths that lay ahead of him in other locations, he indicated that there was this emphasis on learning how to cook French food, Italian food, or other “classical” European cuisines. He recognized though, “that it doesn’t have to be like that [in Philly]”. Solomonov wanted to “tell the story of Israel – good and the bad – through a meal”, which is ultimately what led to the opening of Zahav in 2008. Cook indicated that they wanted to cook “food they grew up with that represents their heritage.”
The chefs were fortunate in the connections they made in the city, as they rattled off their inspirations of being among Susanna Foo, Jose Garces, and Marc Vetri – all cooks that remained true to themselves in their menus and styles of cooking.
CookNSolo began their careers at the start of the food revolution in Philly – and it is clear that they expanded the diversity in global cuisine offerings that this city never knew existed. Aside from the accolades of the James Beard Foundation, the team has been profiled recently by Craig LaBan after a 3-day trip to Israel. Honestly, the coverage they’ve been receiving in the last few weeks made me question writing about them again but honestly, their food and their impact on the city is that profound. Whether it’s introducing a new concept to Philadelphians or starting a non-profit restaurant whose proceeds go entirely to the Broad St Ministry, the Philadelphia food scene would look incredibly different had these two not opened Zahav over ten years ago.
Saturday morning, I walked home a different way from the Washington Square area than I normally do. The sun was shining and I knew that Sunday was not going to be nearly as enjoyable to walk outside (and I was clearly right) so I figured I should take advantage of it. Even though I had no where to be for several hours, I still made this decision to walk straight home without deviating. As I walked along the bricked pavements of Society Hill, I was telling my mom about how Federal Donuts was offering a donut-bouquet for Mother’s Day and we laughed as I asked if that was something she would ever be interested in (in case you’re wondering, she would be).
My mom told me about the CookNSolo expansion of several restaurants this summer. My mom – who lives in NE Philly and is not into food – knows about these two chefs, the type of cuisine they make, and that they are expanding. To me, that demonstrates their appeal to lifelong residents of the city.
And as we chatted and I approached Federal Donuts at 6th and South, I started to think about how I need to explore my city more – beyond the big names of international cuisine. It was at that moment that I walked right by Steve Cook (or his doppelganger with sunglasses on – but given the proximity to FedNuts I’m 99% certain it was Steve). I knew it was the universe’s way of telling me that you just never know what you’ll find in this city if you take a different path every now and again.