By Tova Norman
The closing night event at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival will give the audience a chance to experience Israel in a way unlike any other.
“In Search of Israeli Cuisine” takes viewers on a food tour of Israel with renowned chef Michael Solomonov, author of the cookbook “Zahav,” which shares the name of his nationally renowned flagship restaurant in Philadelphia.
In the documentary, Solomonov is the food guide on a three-week tour of Israel.
“The interesting thing is I think I know a good amount about Israel and a good amount about food in general,” said Solomonov, an award-winning Israeli chef who grew up in America but has traveled to Israel for most of his life. Still, “most of the places that we went were places that I’d never even heard of.”
Audience members visit some of the most renowned chefs, cooks and restaurants in Israel; shop at markets around the country; explore tomato farms, goat farms and wineries; and see cheese made in caves.
“It’s just really fascinating to me, the diversity,” Solomonov said.
Along their journey, the chef and his crew ended up in places they didn’t plan to go, such as a Druze village where they met four generations of people pressing olives into oil.
“It was just amazing, absolutely amazing,” Solomonov said.
Festival planners said this film will end the festival in a great way.
“For closing night, we always want to end on a high note, a celebratory tone,” said Kenny Blank, the executive director of the festival.
He said it’s a terrific documentary that explores the many food types, ethnicities and cultures that define Israeli cuisine. “The food is not only fascinating, but it makes you want to rush out and taste it.”
That’s why, instead of the usual dessert reception, closing night features a sampling of Israeli cuisine and recipes from the film prepared by the festival’s restaurant partners.
Judy Marx, co-chair of the festival’s film evaluation committee, agreed that festival planners always want to close on a celebratory note, and they thought “In Search of Israeli Cuisine,” along with the opportunity to meet Solomonov, would accomplish that goal.
She added that the film shows how far Israel has come.
The film is not just about food. It’s about the identity of the people and trying to answer the question of what makes something or someone Israeli.
“I think that’s actually the premise of the film,” Solomonov said. “It’s about the people that make up Israel, told through food.”
As you explore with Solomonov, you can’t help but wonder how he translates this trip into his own version of Israeli cuisine at Zahav.
“There’s a mind-set that you have with such rich diversity, such varying gastronomies, that make up this cuisine that you can sort of pull from,” he said. “And that’s the basis of what we do at the restaurant.”
A 2011 James Beard Award winner as the best chef in the Mid-Atlantic, Solomonov has been credited by food critics with defining Israeli cuisine in America at a time when Israeli cuisine is a growing culinary trend. It’s not a credit he’s willing to accept.
“I’m not that person,” he said. “I’m just the person cooking that food.”
That was a sentiment expressed by many of the Israelis Solomonov interviewed on his journey. In a country with such a short history, is anyone ready to claim to be the person who defines Israeli cuisine?
“Everybody says what Israeli food isn’t, but they’re all doing it almost in unison,” Solomonov said.
But he said there is an Israeli cuisine. “Israel is a country, and there is food cooked there.”
The cuisine is a conglomerate of the all of the cultures that make up the population of the tiny country.
“The food is a metaphor for the people,” he said.
And maybe a place to find some common ground.
“In general, food is less about contrast. It’s more about commonality,” he said. “Everybody agrees on good food. “
On Feb. 16, attendees of the closing night film — which has moved from the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Auditorium to its Symphony Hall, roughly doubling the audience capacity — will have the opportunity to decide when they search for Israeli cuisine along with Solomonov.
“Food travels, and food never stays the same, ever,” he said. “The history of food is that it’s always moving.”