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[Photographs: Liz Clayman] Classic beef stock takes ages to make—often the simmering stage alone lasts 12 hours. That’s made it an unlikely project for most home cooks. But thanks to the pressure cooker, beef stock can be made in a fraction of the time, without […]
I’ve always discouraged people from making beef stock at home. It takes an extraordinary amount of time—simmering alone can run for 12 hours—and yields a more robust stock than most recipes call for. Until recently, if I was going to load my freezer up with any kind of stock, it would’ve been with the far more versatile chicken-based variety. But all that’s changed, thanks to the pressure cooker.
To be fair, my reliance on chicken stock has almost never let me down. I even use it as the base for my (ahem, highly rated, cough) French onion soup recipe, a soup that traditionally calls for beef stock. But as versatile as a gelatin-rich homemade chicken stock can be, it still isn’t a perfect substitute for beef stock. A good beef stock has a deeper, meatier flavor, and an even more viscous texture, thanks to an abundance of gelatin extracted from connective tissues on the bones—all qualities that are key to making richer sauces and braises.
The challenge is that it takes a lot longer to get all that gelatin and flavor out of hefty beef bones than delicate chicken bones. That’s one of the reasons traditional beef stock recipes call for such extended cooking times.
The solution is the pressure cooker. There’s nothing new about the device, nor is there anything new about using a pressure cooker to make stock. What has changed in recent years is how deeply pressure cookers have penetrated the market. That’s in large part due to the Instant Pot, an electric multicooker that is, above all else, a pressure cooker. The Instant Pot craze means there are now enough homes with pressure cookers to make this an easy, accessible technique.
Here’s how it works: within the cooker’s sealed interior, pressure builds as the contents heat up. This change in pressure raises the boiling point of water in the cooker, rising from 212°F at sea level to upwards of 250°F. At those higher temperatures, the beef’s tough cartilage, tendons, and ligaments melt down much faster, releasing gelatin and flavor into the surrounding liquid at an accelerated rate.
Thanks to the pressure cooker, beef stock is no longer an overly cumbersome all-day project. It’s something anyone can do in just a few hours, making it a much more realistic option for soups, sauces, and braises. So while I’ll still lean on chicken stock most of the time—with limited freezer space, versatility still matters—now I’ll be working beef stock into the rotation, and hopefully you will, too.
Is Beef Stock the Same Thing as Beef Broth?
Some folks may be wondering whether beef stock and beef broth are the same thing. Since the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there isn’t an entirely clean answer, but technically speaking, there’s definitely a difference.
A beef stock tends to be made with more bones than meat; when made properly, it contains so much gelatin that it sets to an almost rubbery density. As it reduces over heat, its gelatin concentrates, giving it more and more body and viscosity. For these reasons, it’s most often used as a base for sauces, stews, soups, and braises. It’s also usually a brown stock, meaning the bones and aromatics have been roasted first for deeper flavor and color.
Beef broth, on the other hand, has more limited applications. A broth doesn’t need the same amount of gelatin, since it’s usually consumed as its name suggests—as a broth or soup base. A broth can be made with beef bones, but it’s more often made with the meat itself (or at least has a higher percentage of meat in it), which can produce great flavor, but a lot less of gelatin. That doesn’t matter too much when you’re spooning up a brothy bowl of soup, but it does make it a much poorer choice for sauces, since reducing it won’t lead to an appreciably more viscous sauce.
Finally, beef broth can be made from roasted or un-roasted beef and aromatic vegetables, creating either a lighter or darker result. (Bone broth, by the way, is just a trendy way of saying stock; there’s no meaningful difference between the two.)
How to Make Beef Stock in a Pressure Cooker
Step 1: Roast the Bones and Vegetables
The first thing you need are beef bones (substitute veal bones and you’ll make veal stock instead; you can also toss a few veal bones in just for fun since they deliver an even bigger gelatin payload). Just go to your butcher and see what they have. I found that five pounds of bones fits in most pressure cookers, but pressure cooker chambers do vary in size, so you may have to adjust accordingly. Ask the butcher to cut the bones if any seem like they’ll be too long to fit.
Look for bones that have connective tissue, such as joints, as well as bones that have any bits of meat still clinging to them, since those will yield the most gelatin (from the connective tissue) and flavor (from the meat). In my tests, I also tossed in one cross-cut beef shank, just to help boost the meaty flavor. Shank is more expensive than bones, but you can always eat it when it comes out of the cooker to avoid the waste.
Once you’re ready to start cooking, oil the bones and put them on a rimmed baking sheet or in a roasting pan, then roast them, turning them once or twice, until they start to turn golden-brown.
Then add aromatic vegetables—in this case, a mixture of onion, celery, and carrot—which should also be lightly coated in oil, and continue roasting it all together until the bones and vegetables are nicely browned. Be careful not to let anything scorch, since a burnt flavor can taint the entire batch of stock.
Step 2: Transfer to Pressure Cooker and Deglaze Roasting Pan
Transfer all the bones and vegetables to the pressure cooker, then pour off any accumulated fat from the roasting pan. Use hot water to deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bits, and add that to the cooker (it’s flavor you don’t want to lose).
Step 3: Add Additional Aromatics, Fill With Water, and Cook
Now you can fill the cooker with water (don’t go over the cooker’s max-fill line, even if it means some solids are not submerged). Add some more aromatics, like thyme and parsley, and a tablespoon or two of tomato paste, which helps deepen the brown stock’s flavor and color.
Cover the cooker, and bring it to high pressure. In my tests, I tried cooking the stock for both an hour and a half, and two and a half hours (I decided not to go longer than that in order to keep the overall cooking time within reasonable limits for most home cooks). When I compared the results, the two-and-a-half-hour cooking time was far superior, yielding a beefier, more gelatinous, more robust stock.
Step 4: Depressurize and Strain
When the cooking time has elapsed, simply depressurize the cooker. You can use the quick-release valve on the cooker to depressurize it faster, but there are a couple disadvantages to this: First, it will cause the stock to boil very rapidly in the cooker, which can cloud its appearance—not necessarily the end of the world, but it will have some visual effect on sauces. Second, and perhaps more importantly, there have been reports of the contents of a pressure cooker explosively boiling when the quick-release valve has been used to depressurize it—after the lid has been removed. The risk is reportedly worse when there’s a large layer of fat on top, which is a likely scenario when you’re making beef stock. The risk with rapid depressurization is that the temperature of the contents may not equalize quickly enough, with some pocket of super-heated steam trapped below the fat layer; that can lead to trouble when the trapped steam breaks through the surface.
For these reasons, I’d recommend allowing the cooker to depressurize naturally. Once it has, you can go ahead and strain out the solids. Most of the solids can be discarded, but if you’ve used a beef shank, don’t forget to rescue it from the pile!
Step 5: Remove Fat
All that’s left is to skim off the fat. You can do this using a ladle when the stock is still hot, but the most effective method is to chill the stock first, and then remove the congealed fat that’s risen to the surface.
Assuming you’ve done the latter, simply reheat the stock to return it to a liquid state, and portion it into storage containers to refrigerate or freeze. If you’re planning to freeze it, you can also portion it into to zipper lock bags, for even more efficient storage and faster defrosting. It’d be great in my French onion soup and beef bourguignon recipes, along with lots of other beef braises and stews. Sure, you can still use chicken stock for those, but beef will be even…beefier.
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When we booked multiple James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov and his business partner Steven Cook on Special Sauce to talk about their new book Israeli Soul: Easy, Essential, Delicious and their restaurants (Zahav, Dizengoff, Federal Doughnuts, among others), I thought they’d talk a lot about a typical chef-restaurateur partnership and contemporary Israeli food.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I heard instead was an incredibly moving story of a friendship made stronger by struggle. Zahav was no overnight sensation, Cook is no ordinary restaurateur, and Solomonov is not your everyday rock star chef.
For example, here is Solomonov speaking about the nature of his relationship with Cook: “It is a true partnership and we are equally on the hook for things when they go wrong. We’ve learned how to grow together and how to remove ego…and at this point we’ve done this long enough where if we don’t like something we’re comfortable talking about it. Like it’s safe. We encourage it. With our team and certainly with our managers. The last thing that we want are for people to just agree with us.”
Zahav’s success was by no means assured at the outset. Israeli food was not exactly trendy in Philadelphia, or anywhere else for that matter. The first year was fraught with peril, but the peril ended up inspiring Solomonov and Cook to experiment with the cuisine and be less hemmed in by tradition. As Solomonov says, “We had no salaries and we were going to close the business and we were squeaking along to really make payroll, to stay open. It forced us to be really diligent and to think about our priorities. And actually, in a way, it freed us too. That was when Zahav, the food or the way that we cook now, sort of came to fruition.” Or, as Cook puts it, “There’s nothing like the desperation of impending failure to sharpen your focus.”
Solomonov and Cook were incredibly candid about Solomonov’s well-publicized struggles with substance abuse; Solomonov describes how Cook found out, three months after Zahav opened, that he was keeping secret his crack and heroin addiction. Solomonov says, “Steve, as a friend and business partner and brother, was the first to be supportive and to say, literally, you know, you have a problem and we want you to get help.”
The Solomonov-Cook episodes of Special Sauce are so full of life, love, pain, and redemption, they should not be missed. Be sure to tune in next week for the next installment.
You Could Be on Special Sauce
Want to chat with me and our unbelievably talented recipe developers? We’re accepting questions for Special Sauce call-in episodes now. Do you have a recurring argument with your spouse over the best way to maintain a cast iron skillet? Have you been working on your mac and cheese recipe for the past five years, but can’t quite get it right? Does your brother-in-law make the worst lasagna, and you want to figure out how to give him tips? We want to get to know you and solve all your food-related problems. Send us the whole story at [email protected].
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Steven Cook: Us speculating why Israeli food is going to be next thing, it was like just so we can get a bunch of money to open. I mean a lot of times the business plan is just window dressing on a gut feeling.
EL: This week and next we’re going to take deep dives into the lives of two people who have left an indelible imprimatur on both the Philadelphia food scene and the American food culture. James Beard-award-winning executive chef/owner Michael Solomonov and his longtime restauranteur partner Steven Cook. Together they own Zahav, Dizengoff, Federal Donuts, Abe Fisher, Goldie, and the Rooster Soup Company in Philadelphia and unusually they write cookbooks together which is kind of weird, right? Very few chef/restaurant tour teams write cookbooks together.
SC: We’ve never done it any other way. It seems normal.
Michael Solomonov: We do everything together.
EL: They’ve written three to be exact, including their newest one, Israeli Soul. Welcome to Special Sauce.
SC: Thank you.
MS: Thanks for having us Ed.
EL: It’s great for you guys to be here. There is so much I want to get into. We’re going to dive right in. First of all, Michael, tell us how your partnership with Steven started.
MS: So we met because Steve’s fiance at the time, and now his wife, and I grew up together. Her name is Sheera and she and I grew up together in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. I was born in Israel but grew up in Pittsburgh and my mom was a teacher in a Solomon Chapter School there and Sheera was her student. We grew up kind of together and I was leaving Vetri Restaurant in 2000 and…
MS: Right. October is when is started with you but we met I guess on the summer and I get a call from Sheera I guess saying, will you meet my husband or my fiance or maybe you texted me but you would call Vetri separately, independently, right?
SC: Yeah. I have spoken to Mark because I had a restaurant where I was the chef and looking to replace myself in the kitchen.
EL: It’s nothing like that. It’s the best feeling in the world, isn’t it? You could fire yourself.
MS: Steve wanted to fire himself but you had called Mark and Mark had sort of mentioned it to me but I don’t think you’d call.
SC: I didn’t call you. We were the two Jewish line cooks in Philadelphia.
MS: There were no others.
SC: We have been hearing about each other.
EL: You are the only two Jewish line cooks in Philadelphia, I like that.
SC: We live next door to each other without ever meeting.
MS: Yeah, we live by the Arby’s in the area.
EL: That’s funny.
MS: We park next to each other and we never met. I heard that there was a nice Jewish, blonde Jewish kid that also cooked and his dad was a rabbi or something and he’d probably heard about me and then Sheera reached out to me and said, will you, I think have a cup of coffee or something. I was like okay, and then Mark had mentioned it. We met and then, I think that it was all it took was that I knew Sheera’s family and it was like Jewish and then I got the job. I mean I was working at Vetri.
EL: I mean you had some skills.
MS: I was excited because I staged one night and I just was like, you know it was really refined food and for the time and it was a perfect little there was like three cooks or something including the chef and Steve’s sauce work was like really tight. I worked at Vetri for three years, our sauce work was like pasta, water, butter, parmesan cheese.
SC: Which is awesome.
MS: But I remember this it was like hanger steak with artichokes, and then it was this sort of like beef red wine, horseradish kind of Jew and then this like buttermilk, blue cheese, like butter and it was just so, it was very, it was just tight and then there was, it was like this like pork loin with this like five spice and it was, there was kind of like a tiny circulate too and I wasn’t, sous vide was just starting to get really exciting.
MS: It was like slice plums with like, it was like pulled pork shoulder with like plum sauce. It was fun and tight and beautiful and it was a very small kitchen.
EL: You felt like symphatico with what Steve was cooking.
MS: I thought that the food was great and I thought that like the kitchen was perfect and it seems gentle and off and small enough where and I was excited to be a chef. I thought that I could cook.
EL: Being a line cook for so long.
MS: Well, line cook or sous chef are working for people, I think I was ready to like make my own food and Steven made it very clear that he wasn’t looking to like manage any of the food, anything like that and I think at the time we were like I don’t know what I am going to do but like the kitchen is yours.
SC: Yeah, I didn’t come to the restaurant for a couple of months. It was a hard year for me. I had left my second career. I left a career in finance to cook.
EL: Smart move man. Boring. Boring. What would you say, it was just too much money.
SC: I like the hours but the money was too much. I had fallen in love with cooking and I decided to make my career and then finally I had my own restaurant and after a year I was just burned, I’d burned myself out and didn’t, I was feeling a little bit desperate because I was like this is the second career that I’ve been through and it hasn’t really taken and so I didn’t come to the restaurant for awhile which fortunately Michael was like responsible.
EL: He was thrilled because the boss didn’t show up.
MS: It was sort of like I never, it wasn’t like that though. I mean I think Steve made it really clear that he didn’t want and I know he probably could anticipate what my fear would be or what anybody’s fear would be is that it’s like come and do the menu but I mean like.
EL: Michael will manage.
MS: We don’t do that with anybody that works for us now at all. There is no restaurants where we’re like do whatever you want. See you in a couple of months. I think that but I also think that you needed to figure out what you wanted to do and what your role was and it came along with like answering phones, cleaning the place, doing all the construction, looking at the book. I hadn’t look at a PNL or even balanced anything for the year that you were been open.
SC: Right. We didn’t have books for the year that we were open because.
EL: Wait. How do you move from the world of finance which I mean I have an MBA, I have to say, not proudly, but and I’m allergic to numbers and it was one of the problems with Serious Eats, right? Actually writing a Serious Eats memoir now, it was due to the publisher a couple of weeks ago, but don’t get into it.
SC: I’m not a numbers or words guy.
EL: I’m a word person but it’s fascinating to me that you were a finance guy who didn’t have books. I think you, it’s too bad I didn’t know about you. I would have hired you at Serious Eats.
SC: Perfect. I would have loved that. I don’t know, I mean I was too busy running the restaurant to look at invoices. I assumed wrongly that if, what I found being a cook is the restaurant feels incredibly busy and then you get to the end of service and were like, how many covers we did, we did 25 covers and were like, okay. It just seem like it was so busy. I just assumed because I was so busy that we were doing okay. Then only when I got into when I started to take a closer look when I had time and came back to the restaurant and Michael was running it, I realized that we needed to have some controls and we were, that restaurant I think has launched a lot of careers but it was never a money maker.
EL: Yeah. Interesting. I don’t think we have explored enough on Special Sauce the exact nature of the chef/restaurateur relationship and you’re more than a restaurateur because you obviously had spent time in the kitchen which must really help in terms gluing you together.
MS: Well we sort of say this and it is true and continues like more we grow, the larger we become, the more our jobs or what our roles should be sort of integrate and I’ve learned a lot. Steven has been a mentor to me and obviously I didn’t have any sort of formal training in the finance or I mean I can’t even really built the spreadsheet but I.
SC: Neither can I.
MS: Right, that’s good. It’s good that we could really do that shit.
MS: Excuse me but I find that and I run things like I am the chef and I cook every single meal in everyone of our restaurants and Steven is like independently wealthy and like, you know I don’t know what they think that you do or some people think you are like in front of the house or whatever but it’s not. That’s not just the way that it works and it is a true partnership and we are equally on the look for things when they go wrong and I think that we just, I don’t know, we’ve learned how to grow together and how to remove ego and sort of one where we were like bleeding, we bleed together and at this point we’ve done this long enough where if we don’t like something we’re comfortable talking about it. Like it’s safe. We encourage it. I mean we saw the problem with it. With our team and certainly with our managers. The last thing that we want are for people to just like agree with us.
EL: Yeah. Give us an example of the way you two work together to solve problems or not.
SC: The traditional restaurant partner paradigm is more back house, in front of the house. I would say that if you see me in the front of the house of one of our restaurants during service and then something has gone horribly wrong. But you know like Michael said I think we on the one hand we make all the decisions together and Michael’s got a like a great head for making business decisions and I try to put myself in his shoes now since we’ve been working together for so long. But I also think we share a set of, I think we share the same values.
SC: I mean we speak the same language because we come from the kitchen but I remember very distinctly it was during that period where I was just staying away from the restaurant and then I get a call from Mike one day and he was like, we had a general manager who is basically running the business of the restaurant and I remember Mike saying like, we don’t have enough cash to pay the dishwasher and he was like this isn’t right. I guess the general manager told the dishwasher like just wait a couple of days. Mike called me and he was like, this isn’t right and I felt like sort of like a little bit of ashamed and but also felt like, okay here is a guy that he is absolutely right.
SC: Here is a guy that like and that’s kind of when I, I mean that’s one of the moments I think when I knew like we have the same set of values and then opening Zahav I think was probably the biggest challenge that we have gone through. I mean we were for a long time I kept the check that Mike’s dad wrote us. It was a $10,000 check because we thought we were going to miss the next payroll. We fortunately never had to cash it but that was the most.
MS: We should have hang on to that check.
EL: When I read this book again recently to prepare for the interview, I realized that you went through what everyone goes through when they are starting a business, right, which is you are right on the precipice of going of going under at some point. And it’s a matter of do you furlough your own salary or do you close the business? Cause that happened with Serious Eats.
MS: We weren’t taking salaries at that point either. We had no salaries and we were going to close the business and we were squeaking along to really make payroll, to stay open. And it forced us to be really diligent and to think about our priorities. And actually, in a way, it freed us too. That was when Zahav, the food or the way that we cook now sort of came to fruition. Which was like, one day Steve saying “I don’t know why you’re making this so traditional, just kind of cook.”
MS: We have nothing to lose. We’re probably going to close, right?
MS: Just be a chef, you know?
SC: There’s nothing like the desperation of impending failure to sharpen your focus.
EL: It is amazing. I can tell you from the Serious Eats’ perspective that nothing focused me more when I realized “Okay I could lose my apartment if I can’t pay this loan.”
MS: And what did you do?
EL: What did I do? I squeaked along and often furloughed my salary. Risked many things including my treasured relationship with my fantastic wife. I think everyone has the same stories. It’s really, really hard. It’s hard to do anything. Whether it’s a small restaurant. You know I was doing this blog as a business. First of all, everyone was like- Jeffrey Steingarten said “Are you crazy? You’re not going to do your stories at the Times anymore?” And I was like “No. I’m going to do this.” This is the future and I’m just going to go for it. And then I’d raise money and I’m going to ask you guys how you raise money for Zahav. I bet it’s the same story.
EL: So I would go to people, literally friends and family. So who’s doing this now? Nobody. So how do you know it’s going to work? It’s going to be great. You know the most compelling argument I could make was “It’s going to be great.”
MS: It’s funny though. It’s funny when it is great. When it does work. And you haven’t gone under or worse. And you look back and you’re like “This was all, it was fodder to raise money.” And we thought that it made a compelling story but we had no idea the things that we projected, specifically with Zahav. Because I remember, Steve is like brilliant and extremely organized. And in terms of raising capital, he can do it. He knows how to do it. But I remember there were these anecdotal things.
MS: It was like Israel, the Middle East. It’s like not yet discovered. In the same breath it was like “Why one out of five restaurants close?” He was basically anticipating all of these things.
EL: Yeah micro and macro questions.
MS: Well, it was funny though. Because us speculating why Israeli food was going to be the next thing was just so we could get a bunch of money to open an Israeli restaurant.
EL: That was the same thing with me. Telling people that food blogs were going to be the next thing.
SC: A lot of times a business plan is just window dressing on a gut feeling that you have.
EL: Yes, for sure. And in the end people invest in other people. They don’t invest in a business plan.
SC: When I think about all the advantages that we have when we open a project today. The network of trusted professionals that we built. The ease of access to capital on a relative basis. What we don’t have is that fire that we had when you’re unproven. When nobody would give you a shot. That basically forces you to succeed at all costs. I miss that sometimes.
MS: The opening of Zahav definitely took ten years off of our lives.
EL: Did your Wharton background help or really prepare you in any way?
SC: It did. I mean I could speak the language that people needed to hear to feel comfortable. Parting with-
EL: That was the only thing I tell people I learned at Columbia Business School was I learned a language.
SC: That’s right.
EL: That’s it.
SC: I think it goes the same in the kitchen. Because if I didn’t have a kitchen background I couldn’t- We have 200 employees, half of them roughly back of the house. How could you manage people if you can’t speak their language? I think a lot of it is about language.
EL: And you did have the culinary background as well. So that must have helped. Not just a partnership, but in getting the restaurant off the ground.
SC: You would think.
EL: So first of all, we should tell people about Zahav, which was a contemporary, and still is, a contemporary Israeli- I would say an Israeli-American restaurant. The same way all restaurants are hyphenated these days. But certainly it was the first restaurant in this country where you were saying to customers “Pay attention to the food of Israel. And were so much more than falafel and whatever else you’ve experienced.” So talk a little about that because it must have been, I don’t care how much backgrounds Steven has in raising money. To convince people when Zahav opened that Israeli food was going to be the next big thing was not easy.
MS: It was not easy. I think that the idea of it just kept, it was from going back to Israel. And visiting my family. And experiencing what dining there was like. And then coming back to the States and tinkering with chicken skin wrapped around sweet breads. And taking things apart and dissecting and being molecular. And I was like this is not as exciting as what you get at any restaurant in Israel. And it doesn’t taste as good and it’s definitely not as healthy. There are a hundred different cultures represented in Israel gastronomically.
EL: I know it’s your books that made me realize what an immigrant cuisine Israeli cuisine is.
MS: Well it’s all happened in such a quick period of time.
EL: Exactly because it’s all from 1948 on, right?
MS: Well, I mean not exactly. Before that but not by much, in relative terms. It’s also still happening. There’s people that are moving. I think that only in food there’s a conversation happening between Israelis and Palestinians that doesn’t really happen on the surface. It’s happening. People are delving into these things and hopefully in the next couple years it’s a form of recognized diplomacy. It was something that we wanted to do. But the style of eating as well. All the natural fuel. All the sharing. All the vegetable-forward cooking. Those are things that Americans love. We all want to eat that way. Right?
MS: We all want to share.
MS: I want small plates. We knew tapas was killing it at the time. And that was the way that we could kind of sell it to people was small plates and bites. It did work. And I think at the end of the day, when you make fresh lafah and cook it in a wood burning oven and serve it with-
EL: You should explain what lafah is to everyone.
MS: Lafah’s like an Iraqi-style pita, similar to naan, actually. And it’s sort of stretchy but also crisp. And we soak ours with olive oil and za’atar. Za’atar’s like a herbaceous spice blend, but it’s got sumac and sesame. And if you take bread that is out of wood burning oven for less than ten seconds, or whatever. And then you tear a piece off and dip it into a hummus. There is nothing better than that. There is no amount of tinkering.
EL: Why is there no hummus on the table right now?
MS: There should be, right?
EL: You guys brought nothing.
MS: I know.
EL: I just want to say this to all the listeners out there. These guys brought zero.
MS: Zahav was like an hour and twenty minute train ride from here. Okay.
EL: But you did actually … Your hummus is one of those things where, it’s like “Oh that’s what hummus is supposed to taste like.” You know people, chefs don’t get to leave that imprimatur on a food. For me at least, when I had your hummus, for the first time in Philadelphia at the original Dizengoff. Or maybe at Zahav. I can’t remember but it was like “Oh that’s what hummus is supposed to taste like.”
MS: It’s very good hummus, you know?
EL: It’s excellent hummus.
MS: And that’s the first bite that people get when they come to the restaurant. They get like six or eight or like little salatim that cover eight different cultures. And then they get tons of little mezzes. And then they get meat that is cooked, or fish or vegetable cooked in the style of meat over charcoal. That is that kind of celebration of food and cultures and definition of Israeli cuisine is what we do. Israeli Soul, coming back to the book, that’s what we do. We want to transport people. We want them to live and breathe and taste these experiences that span, in some cases, thousands of years.
EL: Got it. So at what moment, cause there is a moment in every business, restaurant, website, blog, doesn’t matter, where it’s like “Is this going to go south? Or are we going to make it?” What was that moment for you guys?
MS: We live that moment every day.
SC: For Zahav in particular, I guess it would have been … what was it? January of 2009? Or was it September of 2008?
MS: When I asked my dad for money?
SC: No when we had restaurant week for the first time.
MS: Oh that was in January 2009, yeah.
SC: So restaurant week. It was a fixed format. And there were other small plates restaurants but Zahav’s menu really didn’t fit. But we wanted to participate because we couldn’t afford not to have that traffic. I mean we had no traffic so anything was better than nothing. We opened with a menu, we write about it in the Zahav book, with a menu that had Hebrew words with no – transliterated into english letters – but with no explanations. And we were really confusing the hell out of our guests.
SC: Anyways, we said we have to do restaurant week. We’ve got to fit it into this value profile. How do we format the menu that’ll work? And it really forced us to sit there and think about, I think maybe for the first time from the guest’s perspective. And we actually ended up using that template. Restaurant week was like a breath of fresh air. The restaurant was busy, which felt good.
EL: It’s always nice to have people in the seats. Isn’t it?
MS: Well at that time too we were like not used to it and we needed it.
SC: And the guests were happy. The cooks were busy. For the first time the guests weren’t sort of paralyzed by how to deal with this menu. We were sort of showing them you choose, essentially, one from column A, one from column B, one from column C.
MS: Everybody started with salatim and hummus.
SC: And you start with this amazing introduction. Close your ears Mike. But if most people come in and they get the salatim and hummus, then like everything else after that is terrible. They’re still going to enjoy their experience at Zahav. Not that it is terrible.
EL: So restaurant week really- Most restaurateurs and chefs hate restaurant weeks. Because “Oh we have to adhere to the strict format. We can’t make any money. Or-“
EL: … For you though, restaurant week was kind of a light bulb revelation moment.
SC: It was sort of a life preserver for us. It gave us a roadmap of how we should, the guest experience where they didn’t have to make so many hard choices. We were sort of laying it out for them. I mean, I think you know, restaurant week- restaurants are always better, you know your food cost is always lower when you’re busy. You know, employees are always happier when they’re busy, even if they might say otherwise. And so, I would rather, I would, you know, restaurant week’s been, was very instrumental in getting Zahav, you know, having Zahav take flight.
EL: And did the business, the number of regular covers, increase substantially after that restaurant week?
MS: So, actually it took a little bit more time than that, but it allowed us to get comfortable to give the customers what they wanted and to get people back into the restaurant that like gave us a shot at the beginning. I remember though for that specifically, it was like freezing cold out and we looked, I guess it was, was it one week or two weeks?
SC: It was probably one week at that time.
MS: It was one week, and we like, made money for the first time ever, you know? And it was like, we’d made like six thousand bucks or something and then our hot water heater went out and it was like 12 thousand dollars to repair.
EL: Yeah, there’s that moment, there’s that moment in every-
MS: I know.
EL: … situation, it’s so weird.
MS: Well, and then we got I think a nomination for Mid-Atlantic or something like that.
EL: A Beard nomination.
MS: A Beard nomination in April and May, and then Philly Mag came in-
SC: Right, the Philadelphia Magazine started, the previous year it started their list of the 50 best restaurants in Philly.
MS: Oh, I guess I got the nomination the year, it was the year later right?
SC: Yeah. And so we, and Zahav was number one and that was-
MS: That was-
EL: That was huge.
SC: … opened the floodgates.
EL: Got it. So, you know, you’ve had all this tremendous success and yet, Michael, I want to turn to you and your history for just a few minutes. You know, I mean you are very honest in Zahav book about the adversity and even tragedy that you deal with. And you know, you talk about in the book about what happened with your brother, and you know, you acknowledge problem with some substance abuse, like, how did those experiences come together that sort of enabled you to deal with all this.
MS: Well I mean, what help- it’s hard to say. I mean, there’s a lot there. There is grief and when I lost my brother, he was 21 and serving in an infantry unit in Israel and it was like three days before his release, and it was on Yom Kippur and it was like, obviously tragic and traumatic.
EL: And you’d had this rapprochement with him after being estranged for a few years.
MS: Right. We’d spent a lot of time together the month before. And I was working at Vetri at the time and it was awful and it was one of the worst things that could have really happened. And, but that sort of made me understand I guess, well, I felt a lot more Israeli at that point. And I’d gone through a couple years where I’d like lived in Israel and then moved back. And once we’d move back to Israel when I was much younger, when I was 15, there was something about it that never, I could never really shake. You know? Because it was really part of who I was and was such an important year and it really shaped a lot of the way that I, you know, lot of things that were important to me.
MS: And then, after David died it was just like, well, you know, I can’t ignore this thing now. And it wasn’t like I was like, I’m gonna open an Israeli restaurant to honor my brother, but that’s, in some way, that kinda happened and at least with my relationship to the country, it happened. When I took Marc Vetri, who I was working for at the time, to Israel, to cook like a tribute dinner to him for his, the rest of his unit. And Mark came back from that trip like, affected by it, and I felt like maybe that was sort of the light bulb. Like, well, I can’t bring people to Israel, I mean, I can, but not the frequency in which I would like. And it started really after Steve hired me, it was like, I’ll cook food and like Israeli stuff came on the menu and people recognized it as being Israeli. And they could make the association from my background to why there was like Yemeni soup spice on like braised monkfish tails.
MS: And I was like, all right, well people get it. You know, there’s your correlation. And that’s just kinda what happened, I mean, my relationship to Israel obviously wouldn’t be what it is without burying my younger brother-
EL: Wow. And Steven did you feel, when you guys connected, did you feel his vulnerability and his pain?
SC: I was certainly aware of David’s story. I think I remember Boris calling me-
SC: … the day that it happened, which is a friend we had in common.
MS: One Sheera must have known through everybody too.
SC: Right. But, I mean, by the time we actually met and started working together, it didn’t, I mean, maybe I was just being naïve or sort of oblivious, but it didn’t feel like it was a- I mean, it was certainly a part of who Mike was but it didn’t, it wasn’t- maybe not until sort of the hub, did it become, play a bigger role in the relationship and the business. Because you know, Marigold was an existing restaurant, and the sort of Israeli influences that Mike brought to the menu were, came upon you know, were brought upon gradually.
EL: Yeah. It seems like you almost, and maybe it’s in part from David dying that, you guys seem like brothers. And, not that Steven has replaced him, but it seems like you needed a connection to somebody like that.
MS: Well, I mean I definitely, I agree with you. You know, I do. I mean I refer to Steve as, obviously, my best friend but also a brother and I think that what also happened, I mean, you know, I’ve also been very open about drug addiction. I mean, things got-
EL: Pretty dark.
MS: … progressive, afterwards. But I don’t want to confuse, like if anybody’s listening to this that is struggling with addiction, it wasn’t like David’s death made me like start doing like crack and heroin-
MS: … you know, the addiction part of it was always kinda there waiting.
MS: I mean, people go through tragedy all the time, it doesn’t make them necessarily turn into drug addicts. So, you know, in a way the addiction kind of needed that to happen and it did. And Steve, as a friend and business partner and brother, was the first to be supportive and to say, literally, you know, you have a problem and we want you to get help. And this was after, this is when Zahav was like, four months old or something like that.
MS: Three months old, well, we’d invested everything we’d had in each other, and he found out that his business partner of two years was hiding like a crack and heroin addiction.
EL: That’s an extraordinary story.
MS: I needed, I mean I couldn’t really, I leaned on Steve. And leaned is a very light way of putting it. I mean, he literally drove me, would pick me up in the morning from a 12 step meeting and drive me to work every day for like a year.
MS: I couldn’t be by myself and my wife at the time would pick me up every single night and drive me home. You know? And I could not, I couldn’t do any, I literally couldn’t do anything by myself. And while that was happening, the restaurant was like tanking you know?
MS: So, yeah, of course I mean that is, you know, you talk about resilience. I mean it was like, I don’t view it as like being strong at all. It’s literally about like understanding your weakness and vulnerability and saying, I need help.
MS: Like, asking for help or being honest about how incredibly messed up you are, is a very difficult thing.
MS: And going to people that you’ve lied to and cheated and manipulated and like, asking for forgiveness is a difficult- that you know, that sort of like shame, it’s unfortunately correlated right back to your desire to wanna pick up, so-
MS: … having to be honest and be like, I messed up and I am this like piece of dirt that you know, I pretended to not be, it’s a very difficult thing to do that. Look at somebody that you’ve relied on, that you’ve manipulated and then, in the same sort of breath, ask them for something again. You know?
EL: Wow. Pretty intense.
EL: Guys, the clock says we have to wrap up this week’s podcast. Next week we’ll get to the new book, Israeli Soul, and the Rooster Soup Company. So, thanks, up until now.
MS: Thanks, yeah.
EL: And so long Serious Eaters, we’ll see you next time.
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