The annual James Beard Awards, regarded as the Oscars of the restaurant world, are Monday, May 1, and Zahav is the dominant Philadelphia finalist this year.
Chefs Steven Cook and Michael Solomonov opened the modern-Israeli restaurants at Society Hill Towers in 2008. Solomonov, whom the Beard voters named best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region in 2011, is a finalist for best chef in America, and this could be his year: He and Cook won the Beard's cookbook award last year, and their restaurant empire - which includes Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, Goldie, Federal Donuts, and Rooster Soup Co. - is enjoying solid national attention.
So, for that matter, is Stephen Starr, a finalist again for restaurateur of the year; his New York City hit yearling Le Coucou may give him the critical credibility he craves.
Also on the short list are Rich Landau of Vedge/V Street/Wiz Kid and Greg Vernick of Vernick Food & Drink, for best chef, Mid-Atlantic; and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery for wine, spirits, or beer professional.
In addition to Solomonov, two other, less-heralded Zahav-ians will sit nervously among their peers Monday at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago as the envelopes are opened.
Okan Yazici, the general manager and a partner, will represent Zahav's nomination for best service; Camille Cogswell, Zahav's pastry chef, is up for rising star chef.
Okan Yazici, 32, born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey, moved to Philadelphia 10 years ago to take business classes at Drexel University. He worked part time at several Turkish restaurants before joining Zahav a few months after it opened, in 2008, as a busboy. He became a U.S. citizen several years ago. He lives with his wife, Zahra, who works at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and their son.
What was Zahav like in the early days?
I remember some days that we would have 10, 13 covers on the books. And Michael and I - we were about to play backgammon at the hot pass, where the food comes out. But we knew that the food was good, and we believed in it. And we knew that people would come in the end. We just had the word-of-mouth to go around. ... In the meantime, I started serving and getting more comfortable with the English, with the language. Although you learn English in primary school, middle school, high school - back at home - you don't speak sarcasm. You don't speak slang. You don't speak the kitchen language at all. So a lot of terms and the pronunciations I had to learn, and I definitely had to learn sarcasm.
A server would come in and, "Hey, we are really busy today." I would look at the dining room, and there's only four people sitting down. It would be like, "What are you talking about? It's really slow." I needed a translator to translate the jokes on the top of English.
So that's what I was missing. I knew the wine. I knew the service. I knew what to do. I knew what had to be done. And then I improved my English. I became a server here, and there was a quite a fun experience. It was 2012, I believe, when [Inquirer critic] Craig LaBan raised our rating to four bells, from three. And it was amazing being one of the top restaurants in the city. We were under the spotlight.
What is Zahav's appeal?
We didn't have competition in the city as far as upscale Middle Eastern restaurants. They didn't really exist. Here and there, a bunch of Lebanese, Greek, Turkish restaurants all over the place. But nobody did was Zahav did, or nobody created a menu attracting different ethnicities, like taking small, traditional dishes from the region of North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.
We would get a Bulgarian person come in and then eat a dish, and it would remind them of their grandmother's cooking. And same as a Persian person. And same as a Turkish person. And a Palestinian and an Israeli. It kind of created a language between us and the guests. They brought more people. They brought their families, they brought their grandmothers.
What does it mean to be a Beard finalist?
It means a lot of that hard work is paying off, first of all, so that makes me really comfortable and relieved. As far as the restaurant, I don't really understand the ratings, how they rate, what they look for. The restaurant that won this award last year was Eleven Madison Park. They just made it to the best restaurant in the world.
We are different. We serve hummus and laffa. And we serve kababs over charcoals. And we listen to Jay Z and Michael Jackson and Beyonce in the dining room. And we charge a little over $45 for that, max, per person.
In the end, you look at other restaurants on the short list: $295 tasting menus. You sit down as a deuce, and your check is already about $600, $700, including tax and tip without sipping a glass of water. Their experience, you get to stay there four, five hours ... the time of your life, but I don't believe they are Zahav.
What is the secret to the service?
What I like about Zahav is that relationship we created with the guests. There was never a thought that I, as an immigrant, an outsider, as a Turkish Muslim working with Israelis or American Jews, or Catholics, Christians, would have a problem. ... We became a family.
When you are an immigrant, you always feel, no matter what happens, you are the second. You sit at a different table. You let other people talk first. You have that feeling, "OK, I'm not the priority here."
But at Zahav, it wasn't like that. I felt like I was home. This was my home. I almost gave my address as this place. It doesn't matter what I did here as a busboy, as a server, food runner, whatever position I worked at. It gave me wings. It made me really, really confident. And there were clearly problems with the service, with the things, with the small twists, with the food. Throughout the years, we improved that. The team, the employees that I tried to hire, that I tried to influence -- I always spoke that language. I always told them about what I felt here, how I felt here.
As an outsider coming here, I always introduced this place as, "Hey, this is my home, and you are with me now. You are part of my family."
Camille Cogswell, 26, who grew up in Asheville, N.C., and attended the Culinary Institute of America before working at top New York restaurants, joined Zahav in late 2015. She is in a relationship with Drew DiTomo, chef de cuisine at Amis.
You've always been a pastry chef - never on the savory side?
I've always been very interested in it, and I've always been curious and inquisitive about that side of things and wanted to at some point kind of cross over and learn some more and see, more develop a more rounded set of skills, but I have always been drawn to pastry.
I really love chemistry and especially in high school, that's what kind of drew me to pastry specifically. I took some high school culinary arts classes in my public high school. They were amazing, and got into it there and then decided when I had to choose a program when I went to school at CIA, I chose baking and pastry.
What is your title?
We don't have a chef de cuisine or anything like that. It's kind of like Mike [Solomonov], the big man, and then a team of sous chefs kind of collectively running things, although Andrew Henshaw is our most senior sous chef here. I kind of was a little self-conscious about a title of pastry chef when I didn't feel super ready for that because I've worked at places that, like The Nomad and Blue Hill at Stone Barns and places like that where the pastry chef is this all-knowing god who has so much experience.
I kind of called myself the sous chef when I started here, but I've kind of grown into a comfortable repertoire calling myself the pastry chef here because that's what I am.
Your professional background is American, not Middle Eastern. How do you interpret Zahav's desserts?
My mind automatically starts with my heritage, which is Southern. Nostalgia also plays a really big part in my head. I always want it to taste like something reminiscent for someone that evokes an emotion. I try to do research about Middle Eastern techniques and ingredients that I might be able to incorporate -- something like the konafi that normally has a cheese filling. Recently, we changed it to a pastry cream filling, which is flavored with sachleb, ground orchid root, and labneh yogurt. Somebody, a friend that was just eating here, told me that they thought with the flaky texture and the pastry cream, it tasted kind of like coconut cream pie, which made me really happy.
Any long-term goals?
How did you feel when you found out that you were nominated?
Incredulous and a little guilty. It was just so insane to me. I just had no clue I was even on that radar. There hasn't really been that much local buzz about me. ... I kind of went from zero to 100, and that's really exciting. I've kind of been trying to gain acceptance of that, but it's tough because I just see all these other people around me that inspire me, and I am like, 'Why am I the one that got this recognition when I want to give the recognition to all these other people?'