“Grounded” is not one of the adjectives currently being tossed around in media discussions about celebrity chefs. Yet that’s how Philadelphia restaurateurs Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov came across December 13 when they appeared at Sixth and I synagogue to promote their new book, Federal Donuts: The (Partially) True Spectacular Story.
Released this fall, the Federal Donuts cookbook is a folksy, gee-wiz retrospective about an impulsive idea that worked: to create an accessible place serving only doughnuts, coffee, and fried chicken.
Atlantic magazine editor Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Cook and Solomonov about their critically acclaimed restaurants (Zahav, Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, Abe Fisher, Goldie, and Rooster Soup Company), the roots of their business partnership, their identities as high-profile Philadelphians, and the new book. The recipes reveal the juicy secrets of Korean fried chicken à la Federal Donuts, whose co-owners include Tom Henneman, Bob Logue, and Felicia D’Ambrosio.
Partners for more than a decade, Cook and Solomonov have interwoven their restaurants, personalities, and social consciousness into the urban fabric of 21st-century Philadelphia. Some of their restaurants have limited appeal on account of cuisine and/or price, but Federal Donuts hits almost everyone’s sweet spot.
“It’s really hard to find people who don’t like doughnuts, chicken, or coffee,” Cook tells Eater. “If you look at our line during Friday morning rush hour, you see an amazing cross-section of the city. More so than our recipes, that’s the secret sauce — the people who work there and come there.”
It’s these fellow Philadelphians who keep Cook and Solomonov grounded. “There’s nothing like walking down Sansom Street, where we have four places, and saying hi to people we know and our employees,” Cook said at the book talk.
Solomonov is happiest when he’s making bread at Zahav, the pioneering Israeli restaurant the pair opened in 2008. “If I could work the Zahav bread station five nights a week, I would,” said James Beard Foundation Award-winning Solomonov. “I have to schedule myself to do it and get depressed if I don’t.”
From this vantage point, Solomonov watches the entire dining room. He remembers individual guests, such as the woman who commented during the question-and-answer period. Solomonov accurately recalled that she dined at the Zahav bar.
Solomonov said he most enjoys viewing the Zahav weekend reservations. “I love seeing all the New York and D.C. area codes,” he said, expressing “underdog” pride that his city and restaurants have become a destination. Eater has observed the same phenomenon of New Yorkers traveling to Philadelphia just for Federal Donuts.
Asked to advise an aspiring doughnut shop owner, Solomonov said, “Don’t quit your day job. It’s a lot harder than one would expect. Make sure you love what you’re doing.”
Given their long history and widely affordable prices, doughnuts are not going out of style, said Solomonov. He and his team have seen how doughnuts can forge common ground amidst demographic diversity.
“Food comes from everywhere and is owned by nobody,” said Solomonov, whose doughnut flavors draw from his Israeli roots. “It comes down to our human commonality.”