It’s hard not to be a fan of Philly-based chef Mike Solomonov, who puts heart into everything he does: There’s his game-changing modern Israeli cuisine (Zahav), his tribute to the Jewish diaspora (Abe Fisher), his damn good fried chicken and doughnuts (Federal Donuts), and his ode to the humble hummus joint (Dizengoff). His latest awesomeness, which opened on January 23, is Rooster Soup Co., a restaurant in Philly that gives every cent of its profits to the Broad Street Ministry, an organization that offers meals as well as services ranging from medical care to legal help to the city’s homeless people. The restaurant, which began as a Kickstarter idea in 2014, offers an upscale diner-themed menu by chef Erin O’Shea (meatloaf; biscuits and gravy) and, as the name of the restaurant implies, a range of soups (matzo ball with smoked schmaltz, for one) made out of chicken scraps from Federal Donuts.
On the heels of his latest project, Solomonov talked travel with AFAR—and it turns out his travel philosophy is as heartfelt as his cooking.
Let’s play spin the globe—name the one place you’ve always wanted to go.
Southeast Asia—either Thailand or Vietnam, or both. I love to surf, so along with all of the food I’d want to try, I’d hit the beaches of Vietnam. They look incredible.
What’s your spirit city? (Where do you want to return to over and over?)
The towns between Los Angeles and San Diego. You have the ocean on one side with amazing surf and the mountains behind you. This area is also home to some of the most impressive farmers’ markets. The produce is particularly good in the more unassuming areas—there you’ll find the freshest guava and sweetest apricots. Also: doughnut shops! This part of Southern California has many, many doughnut shops. And finally, Mexican food, which is one of my all time favorite cuisines—authentic Mexican joints are everywhere here. Do you have a travel ritual?
I often take an early morning flight and unfortunately always have the same nagging anxiety about sleeping through my alarm and missing my flight. So my travel ritual is getting a terrible night’s sleep before a morning flight. And once I’m through security and have downed a coffee, I can’t sleep on the plane and become dehydrated. It’s a really fun little ritual.
Do you maintain any routines from home while traveling or does it all go out the window?
Definitely exercise. It’s very important for me to always be active. Whether it’s going for a run, a bike ride, or a surf if I’m near the water, getting my heart rate going once a day gives me the energy I crave.
Sorry, you only get to eat one regional cuisine for the rest of your life. What is it?
Outside of my one true food love—Israeli cuisine—I could eat pho three times a day for the rest of my life and be very content.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone traveling abroad for the first time?
Resting before travel is key. I like to do as little sleeping as possible when I’m in a new place so I don’t miss a minute. Describe your travel personality in three words.
Patient . . . whimsical . . . energetic.
Are your trips very planned or very spontaneous?
What’s the one travel souvenir you’d save in a fire?
Dude, my tattoos!
What book/movie most inspired you to travel?
180º South. It’s a documentary film that follows Jeff Johnson on a cross-climate adventure from California to Patagonia, Chile. He recreates the trip that his heroes, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, took in the 60s—but this time, he travels by boat. Down the Mexican coast and one shipwreck later, he makes it to Chile and, in the end, attempts to climb the Corcovado volcano. There’s crazy surf and an even crazier adventure. It’s so inspiring.
Who’s your ideal travel partner?
My wife, Mary.
Which travel experience do you prefer: plugged in or unplugged?
Unplugged would be ideal, but that’s not the reality.
What’s a custom from another culture that you’d love to implement in your life back home?
I really love Shabbat dinners in Israel. It doesn’t have to be a religious experience. It’s about multiple generations of family, friends, and strangers coming together, lighting the candles and sharing a meal. It’s one of my favorite parts of life.
What’s the first thing you seek out in a new place?
A good coffee shop, because I don’t start a day without coffee.
What’s the one thing you indulge in on a trip that you don’t at home?
Naps! Love a good nap.
What’s your first travel memory?
I remember being three years old on an airplane, traveling to Arizona with my grandparents. My grandfather was a pediatrician, so we were going there for a medical conference. I recall almost drowning in a pool on that vacation as well.