South-by-Middle-East | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

South-by-Middle-East

South-by-Middle-East

Alon Shaya/ Courtesy Rush Jagoe

An Israeli-Southern mashup served by chef Alon Shaya

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By the time Alon Shaya was in second grade, he was going food shopping alone after school, selecting ingredients to make supper for his mother and himself. The first dish the Israeli-born James Beard award-winning chef made on his own was cherry-poppy seed hamantashen.

Shaya, who lives in New Orleans, founded the celebrated Italian restaurants Domenica and Pizza Domenica and his namesake Shaya, which serves Israeli food with a New Orleans inflection. While he is no longer involved with those places, he is about to open two new restaurants, Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) in New Orleans and Savta (grandmother) in Denver.

His first book, Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel (Knopf), is a cookbook and memoir – the recipes are organized around his life story, following his adventures and curiosities. It’s an unusual format, as his has been an unusual path to rock star status as a chef.  

“It’s the autobiography of my culinary sensibility, which began in Israel and has returned there,” he writes.

Shaya moved to the U.S. when he was four. His Romanian-Israeli father had come to Philadelphia a couple of years earlier, and he, along with his sister and Bulgarian-Israeli mother, joined him. A year later, his parents were divorced and Shaya was raised in the Philadelphia suburbs by his mother, who worked two jobs.

The highlight of those early years was when his grandparents would visit from Israel, and he’d come home to the aromas of his grandmother’s traditional cooking – stuffed grape leaves, charred vegetables, casseroles of cabbage stuffed with ground beef and rice, chopped chicken liver. He’d help peel vegetables and would pretend to be sick, so that he could skip school and spend more time with her in the kitchen. Those days are recounted in the book’s first chapter, when he provides recipes for Tomato Soup with Rice (his grandmother would make it for him after he faked a fever), Bulgarian Lamb kebabs, Everything Borekas and Lutenitsa, an aromatic mix of charred peppers and eggplants, blended with tomatoes and caramelized tomato paste.

But when his grandparents would leave, and through much of growing up, he was on his own. He began working to make extra money at age 10, at first babysitting and then more entrepreneurial jobs. His first food-related job was with a local butcher, where he swept and washed dishes. But as he would throughout his life, he kept his eyes on what was going on around him. With the guys in the back, he tasted foods he never eaten before, like scallops, and loved them. Then he moved on to a bakery across the street, where he waited on customers and learned from the bakers.

Elsewhere in his life, though, he was getting into trouble, whether for drugs or stealing. He wasn’t particularly interested in school, but one course changed his life: Home Economics. There, he began discovering his talents and creativity, and also learned real kitchen skills. His teacher, Donna Barnett, noticed and understood him, and he excelled.

In an interview in Manhattan at Breads Bakery, also owned by Israelis, he says, “Then I realized I could become a chef. I didn’t have many other options.”

Barnett helped him get his first job in a restaurant. The two are still in touch – he credits her with saving his life--and together they help other young people get started in the culinary world.

Shaya went on to study at the Culinary Institute of America, and worked in restaurants in Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and St. Louis before moving to New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he began cooking with a friend, using whatever supplies they could find, to help feed the hungry as well as those doing rescue work. They made a version of a New Orleans staple – red beans and rice. The book includes a recipe by his wife (a New Orleans native, whom he met at a Jewish Federation function soon after Katrina), Emily’s Famous Red Beans and Rice.

“Cooking for people after Katrina brought me back to earth. I was 25, had worked at fancy restaurant jobs before that and was always trying to create the next big dish. I lost sight of the fact that food is my way of bringing happiness,” he says.

“I fell in love with New Orleans. I realized I could make a difference. I want to live there for the rest of my life.”

A couple of years earlier, when his grandmother’s health was failing, he went back to Israel to see her. She was then bedridden, and they’d cook together: Shaya doing the shopping and following her directions in the kitchen, bringing tastes to her in the bedroom to make sure he was on track. He took careful notes. This was the last time they saw each other.

Back home, he put the notes away for some years. After Katrina, he followed a dream to study cooking in Italy and apprenticed in different places. Back in New Orleans, he opened two Italian restaurants, and then found he was sneaking some Israeli hints into the food, like adding zaatar to a pizza crust. In 2011, he took at trip to Israel with a group of New Orleans chefs, organized by the local Federation. They were based in Rosh Ha’ayin, sister city to New Orleans, where they cooked for the IDF and prepared Shabbat dinner. When he visited the markets, smelled the spices and heard Hebrew, he realized he “was missing part of my life.”

“I was still hiding my Jewish heritage. But then I couldn’t hide it any more. I needed to open an Israeli restaurant,” he says, and opened Shaya in 2015, and served as executive chef and partner at all three places. For the menu at Shaya, he went back to his grandmother’s recipes.

“I became whole as a chef. It was my culinary coming of age,” he says. “I felt like I had finally realized my meaning for being on earth.”

Now, he travels to Israel about twice a year, and always finds it inspiring. As for the South, he’s very comfortable there too, and does a lot of volunteer work for the New Orleans Jewish community. “I love the connections here, how Judaism thrives in the South.” Most Monday nights, he and his wife host friends at home for red rice and beans.

At Shaya, as in the cookbook, the food is Israeli-flavor-focused but not kosher – he uses the local resources around New Orleans like shrimp and oysters, and local produce. But, as he explains, his Kugel in Crisis can be made without bacon, and the shellfish can be left out, and there are many dishes that feature only vegetables.

“I like breaking rules. I used to break big ones. Now it’s small ones.”

“Israeli cuisine is really a gumbo, a melding of many food cultures,” he says. “I like to cook food that tells a story, that has more meaning than just a couple of ingredients thrown together.”

Shaya, with recipes for matzah balls, jambalaya, and hummus, reflects that. With its more than 100 recipes and color photographs, the book is worthwhile for many reasons related to Shaya’s outlook and creative cooking and for a particularly helpful bit of information about salt – that not all kosher salts are the same, and that Diamond Crystal is flakier and thinner. If a recipe calls for a teaspoon of salt, home cooks should use either one teaspoon of Morton’s or two teaspoons of Diamond Crystal. (While his recipes specify Morton’s, the restaurant kitchen uses Diamond Crystal.)

About six months ago, he split with his business partner after a falling out; the partner faces public allegations of sexual harassment. Although Shaya worked hard to remove his namesake restaurant from the group, he could not.

“I have faced adversity over the years and found ways to overcome it.”

His new company is called Pomegranate Hospitality. “There are 613 seeds in a pomegranate,” he says, “and each seed represents the commitment to do something good. We support values of education, empowerment, and equality.”

His two new restaurants, Saba and Savta, are named for his grandparents. Saba in New Orleans is slated to open in May, and Savta in Denver in June.

“I could not be more excited about what’s next,” he says.

Brussels Sprouts with Caraway and Tahini

Creamy Baked Fennel

Israeli Couscous with Summer Vegetables and Caramelized Tomato

Roasted Beets with Tahini

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