A trip to the casino is always a gamble so event organizers stacked the deck. In an effort to kick off its 2020 campaign and raise $14 million, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh hosted a conversation with acclaimed chefs Michael Solomonov and Kevin Sousa at Rivers Casino on Nov. 13.
The evening affair provided time to mingle and enjoy hors d’oeuvres and drinks, however, for the hundreds in attendance the main dish was clearly the chance to hear Solomonov, a former Pittsburgher and multiple James Beard Award-winner, field questions from Sousa, a Pittsburgh native and James Beard Award semifinalist.
Sousa, though unseasoned, relished the role of examiner.
“I’ve never interviewed anyone onstage in front of a couple hundred people,” he said. Solomonov “made it easy on me, so it was a piece of cake.”
For more than 30 minutes, Sousa’s queries enabled Solomonov to delve into personal connections to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community and its place within the latter’s meteoric rise from Squirrel Hill kid to culinary master.
It was a rocky and uncertain climb, explained Solomonov, the current chef and co-owner of several renowned Philadelphia restaurants.
Since leaving the Steel City for Israel with his family at 15, his parents got divorced, his younger brother David was killed in military action on Yom Kippur, mere days before his release from the IDF, his mother Evelyn died, and he struggled with addiction.
Returning to Pittsburgh offered a chance to reflect, he explained.
“I feel like I’m such a child of this community. It’s so nice to be able to not be taking from it and instead be generous or contributing to something positive,” said Solomonov, who with co-author Steven Cook wrote the books “Federal Donuts,” “Israeli Soul” and “Zahav.”
“I feel like I haven’t been to Squirrel Hill since the shooting at Tree of Life, so I feel like there is a grieving, cathartic process that I am going through right now,” added Solomonov. “Sort of the success of my upbringing, really, I attribute to this community, and it’s just nice to be back and to be part of it.”
Solomonov’s personality and work ethic make him “one of the most inspiring chefs I’ve ever met,” said Sousa. “I mean, his stories will bring you to tears. He’s giving it so much just in an interview — imagine what he’s doing in the kitchen and with his staff and with his family.”
Eventgoers recalled Solomonov’s days as a young boy who ate Nutella sandwiches and had a passion for origami.
“It was really good seeing him after all these years,” said Chani Shusterman, who was taught by Solomonov’s mother at Yeshiva Schools.
“I catered an event with him a couple of years ago. He’s definitely talented, but he’s also a real mensch,” said Judah Cowen, of Elegant Edge Catering.
Meryl Aisnman, chair of Federation’s board, called Solomonov’s story “compelling,” and said he demonstrated real strength and conviction.
Along with the conversation between chefs and the opportunity for attendees to reconnect, the evening was a “celebration of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community,” said Robin Gordon, an honorary event chair.
The specialness of the Steel City and its Jewish community is something that’s “been such a part of my life,” said Barbara Burstin, who with her husband, David Burstin, received the 2020 PNC Community Builders Award.
“I’ve lived in this town for seven years. I grew up and went to a Jewish school in Florida, but this is the first time I’ve ever lived in a truly Jewish community,” echoed Matt Feinman, one of several event chairs.
“When you leave Squirrel Hill, not every city has 10 synagogues or a Forbes and Murray,” said Solomonov.
This community is “absolutely incredible,” said Sousa. “It’s emotional because after the year that Pittsburgh had, to see five, six hundred people out supporting on a Wednesday night, it’s unbelievable. I couldn’t be happier and more proud to be a part of it and continue to be a part of it, and I’m not Jewish.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.