Sofia Solomon didn't invent cheese, of course, but she is credited with helping to introduce many Chicagoans to the delights of artisan cheeses, notably those made by this region's cheesemakers.
So successful has Solomon's quest been that it's hard to remember there was a time, as the Tribune's Good Eating section noted 12 years ago in honoring her impact on Chicago's food scene, when "food sophisticates lumped the words 'Midwest' and 'cheese' together like so much Velveeta."
Solomon's strong support of small, high-quality American cheese producers has resulted in a delicious legacy: a cheese named after her. Judy Schad, of Greenville, Ind.-based Capriole, who is considered one of the nation's best cheesemakers, introduced a soft ripened, ash-marbled goat cheese named Sofia. (You can find this cheese at a number of the city's top restaurants and supermarkets.)
Today, Solomon owns two businesses. There's her luxury foods import and distribution company, Tekla Inc. (named for her late mother), which she set up in 1977 with her late husband, E. Leonard Solomon, a Chicago wine legend. She continues to operate his company, Leonard Solomon's Wines & Spirits, out of the loftlike offices they shared at 1456 N. Dayton St.
Born in Germany of Ukrainian parentage, Solomon arrived in Chicago in the late 1950s. She prefers to maintain a low profile. You won't find her on Facebook or Twitter, and there's only the most basic information on LinkedIn, the business networking website. But she remains a force in Chicago food circles.
"Sofia is a quiet resource; you don't see much of her. But she's very much out there," says Judith Dunbar Hines, formerly the city's director of culinary arts and events. "And, for years, she is the person to call about cheese."
Following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Q: Why cheese?
A: It's difficult to say, just because I like all sorts of food. But I saw in cheese, it's something that I think is very visual. I liked all aspects of it. It is like with winemaking, the entire cycle of it. You see, it all begins with the earth, the soil in which the animals graze. The animals, so you need to take care of that. And I think it's just a perfect metaphor for life, that it really is that continuum, that cycle. I like cheese, I like dairy. I'm Ukrainian, so we're brought up on sour cream. (laughs) I just like to eat cheese. There's a romance to it, there's a history to it. It's all those things.
Q: Did cheese launch Tekla?
A: I began my company, really, with caviar. We started importing Iranian caviar and then, of course, 1979 came along (the Iranian hostage crisis). Hello! And not long thereafter the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. So there were all kinds of political turmoils. I (started working with Paris-based) Petrossian in 1981, and at that time that's all I had.
I was very fortunate. Rich Melman (founder of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises), when I rang him — my sister-in-law (Essee Kupcinet, wife of famed columnist Irv Kupcinet) recommended I call him because he had very fine restaurants at the time, and she said, "Ring him and ask him, you know, if he could help you with the chefs" — and he said, "Look, I don't get involved with any of my chefs. They run their own kitchens, but I'd be very happy to give you their phone numbers and their names." Which I thought was amazing. So he gave me Gabino Sotelino's. They had just opened Ambria at that time. … He was totally quality driven. I brought samples, had him taste. He said, "Yes." He knew the name Petrossian, of course. He had worked in Paris at the Plaza Athenee.
Q: When did you expand into cheese?
A: 1992. When I first started, all I had was caviar, smoked salmon, smoked eel, trout, things of that nature. Just the Petrossian line and, oh, foie gras. So, Gabino, after a while, said, "Why don't you bring some cheese in for me? I'm getting these from New York and I'm not so happy." And I thought, "Uh, do I want to get into cheese?"
Q: How did you make a mark with cheese?
A: I would break cases. Because the cheeses I brought in were small ones, I could compose a whole cheese plate for chefs. Up until that time they had to buy a case of this and a case of that. I said, "Let me just put a cheese plate together for you. That way you can buy one of each." The only things I cut were things I knew would be sold in a few days. Nobody was doing that. It helped because … they could use that one unit in an evening. You don't want to bring small cheeses to room temperature, temper them and put (them) back in the cooler. That would destroy the cheese.
Sarah Stegner, who was then at the Ritz-Carlton, was a great influence in terms of younger chefs offering cheese courses. Sarah offered a traditional cheese trolley. She was very interested in American cheeses. I had met Judy Schad in France on a trip with my affineur (a person who ages cheeses for sale), Chantal Plasse. It was serendipitous, as Judy had become more interested in French-style cheese.
Q: Did you ever want to live somewhere besides Chicago?
A: My husband and I were scuba divers. At one point we thought of moving to Barbados because he had an option to buy a retail store from (wine importer) Frederick Wildman's nephew. We thought we would do that, but it never quite worked out.
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures in food?
A: Occasionally I love a hot dog, but then I get very picky. I don't like the bright green relish. My palate tends to be savory. I love caviar. I love smoked salmon. I'm an easy invite. For appetizers I'll bring caviar and smoked salmon. I love cooking, but I'm not a good cook. I'll make an appetizer or bring the cheese course.
Q: What sort of lessons did you learn in business?
A: Life is serendipitous. Things are always a matter of chance, whether you survive a train wreck or whether you meet someone unexpectedly.
Q: It must have been exciting to have a cheese named for you.
A: It was very touching, very sweet. Judy called to say, "Would you mind?" (Laughs.) You are kidding, aren't you?