Food Alon Shaya: The Man, The Restau­rant, The Mem­oir

Forward Magazine - - Contents - BY LIZA SCHOENFEIN

Whathap­pens when a gifted Is­raeli-Amer­i­can chef opens an epony­mous restau­rant to great ac­claim, only to be pushed out by his part­ners, who keep the restau­rant — and his name?

If you’re Alon Shaya, you fight for your name in court while form­ing a new restau­rant group and com­ing out with your first cook­book.

Be­fore the book — and the culi­nary mael­strom swirling around Shaya in New Or­leans these days — there was a young chef who, af­ter culi­nary school and a stint cook­ing at Har­rah’s in Las Ve­gas, came to New Or­leans to work for chef and restau­ra­teur John Besh and his busi­ness part­ner Oc­tavio Man­tilla at Besh Steakhouse. Af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, Shaya spent a year cook­ing in Italy be­fore re­turn­ing to New Or­leans to open an Ital­ian place with Besh Restau­rant Group called Domenica.

Then a trip to Is­rael with Besh in­spired the idea for another new place. It would be an un­likely fu­sion ex­per­i­ment, in which the chef cre­ated mod­ern Is­raeli food us­ing lo­cal in­gre­di­ents, in­tro­duc­ing the so­phis­ti­cated-if-in­su­lar New Or­leans din­ing com­mu­nity to an un­fa­mil­iar cui­sine. The restau­rant was called Shaya.

The year it opened it was named best new restau­rant in the U.S. by Esquire. Also in 2015, Shaya the chef was awarded the pres­ti­gious James Beard Award for Best Chef: South — for his work at Domenica — and took a spot among the For­ward 50. The fol­low­ing year, the Beard Foun­da­tion dubbed Shaya the best new restau­rant in the coun­try.

The fast-paced rise of the restau­rant and its chef was fol­lowed by an equally ex­pe­di­tious fall: Shaya was fired by BRG in Septem­ber 2017, af­ter an at­tempt, ac­cord­ing to the chef, to pur­chase his name­sake restau­rant from the com­pany. Shaya quickly tried to se­cure his name by fil­ing a trade­mark re­quest, and the fol­low­ing month an­nounced the birth of a new com­pany called Pome­gran­ate Hos­pi­tal­ity. Not only would Shaya the restau­rant ex­ist with­out Shaya the chef; it would also lose its ex­ec­u­tive chef, Zachary En­gel, and gen­eral man­ager, Sean Court­ney, both of whom agreed to fol­low Shaya to Pome­gran­ate.

BRG had other prob­lems: John Besh stepped away from the day-to-day op­er­a­tions of his com­pany in Oc­to­ber af­ter a blis­ter­ing re­port of sex­ual im­pro­pri­ety within the group ran in The Times-Picayune. (Shaya the restau­rant was not im­mune to these ac­cu­sa­tions though Shaya the chef was not per­son­ally im­pli­cated.) BRG sued the chef, claim­ing the restau­rant’s suc­cess was due to the pow­er­ful PR ma­chine be­hind the restau­rant group. The name, it claims, is theirs. At press time, the le­gal dis­pute was on­go­ing.

There’s one place the chef is still able to dis­play his name with pride, and that’s on the cover of his new cook­book, “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Jour­ney Back to Is­rael.” Writ­ten with Tina An­tolini and pub­lished by Al­fred A. Knopf, Shaya de­scribes his book as “the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of my culi­nary sen­si­bil­ity, which be­gan in Is­rael and has re­turned there.”

“Shaya” joins the ranks of chef cook­books that re­lay more than recipes: It’s the story of Shaya’s jour­ney from undis­ci­plined, at-risk im­mi­grant child — his fam­ily moved from Is­rael to Philadel­phia when he was 4 years old and, as he tells it, he quickly started get­ting into trou­ble — to the heights of culi­nary ac­claim through a re­turn to the cui­sine of his home­land.

But this is not an Is­raeli (or even more broadly, Mid­dle Eastern) cook­book — though the ba­sic story is fa­mil­iar among Is­raeli chefs: “I am a prod­uct of this place,” Shaya writes in the book’s preface, “with my Is­raeli-Bul­gar­ian mother and my Ro­ma­nian-Is­raeli fa­ther. And my food re­flects the weav­ing to­gether of all these culi­nary strands, along with those of my own mi­gra­tions to the Amer­i­can South and to Italy.”

The food, like the au­thor, is a hy­brid. “The recipes of this cook­book re­flect both this range — hum­mus to bolog­nese, kugel to za’atar dusted fried chicken — and the core of my Is­raeli cul­tural iden­tity,” Shaya writes.

A recipe for roasted cauliflower, a pop­u­lar dish he cre­ated for Domenica, is a prime ex­am­ple of the chef’s ap­proach. Be­fore open­ing the Is­raeli restau­rant, Shaya found him­self sneak­ing Is­raeli el­e­ments into the dishes at Domenica. “With a lit­tle cam­ou­flage,” he writes, “no one would know it was Is­raeli food mas­querad­ing as Ital­ian food.”

While trav­el­ing in Tel Aviv, Shaya ate at a restau­rant called North Abraxas, where they roasted whole heads of cauliflower in a wood-burn­ing oven. “I could to­tally do a dish like this,” he said he thought to him­self. He wanted to add a dip­ping sauce like lab­neh, the thick Is­raeli yo­gurt, but de­cided that goat cheese would make the cauliflower feel more Ital­ian. “Then I talked with a lo­cal goat farmer in Louisiana and re­al­ized he made a goat feta cheese,” Shaya writes. “It felt like worlds col­lid­ing.”

The cauliflower with whipped goat feta was a huge hit at Domenica.

Other recipes in the book, in­clude za’atar fried chicken and za’atar “toad in the hole,” take Amer­i­can clas­sics and in­fuse them with Is­raeli fla­vor.

“How do you take some­thing you al­ready love and add some­thing to it that makes it unique to your story?” Shaya asked. “You’re not in­vent­ing any­thing, you’re just elab­o­rat­ing on things that peo­ple find fa­mil­iar and love and pre­sent­ing them in a way that’s unique to who you are. Most of the recipes in the book are tied back to that phi­los­o­phy.”

In Fe­bru­ary, Shaya’s new com­pany an­nounced that it would be open­ing two new res­tau­rants this spring: Saba (which means grand­fa­ther in He­brew) in New Or­leans and Safta (grand­mother) in Den­ver. Saba, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from Pome­gran­ate, will “pay homage to the culi­nary land­scape of Is­rael.” Like Shaya, it will “source seafood, meats and pro­duce from lo­cal farms and nearby wa­ters around New Or­leans.”

What is Is­raeli food if not an amal­gam of tastes and tech­niques and tra­di­tions from a va­ri­ety of places and cul­tures?

“Is­rael didn’t in­vent hum­mus and pita bread,” Shaya said. “I have them in the book be­cause I’m an Is­raeli and that is my story. I’m not claim­ing those recipes, I’m putting it into the con­text of my own life. If there’s one thing peo­ple can agree on it’s tasty food. If we can find any bridge for com­mu­ni­ca­tion and for peace, that should be the no brainer one.”

A worth­while — if vaguely ironic — sen­ti­ment as Shaya goes about the busi­ness of open­ing an Is­raeli restau­rant in New Or­leans to com­pete with the one that al­ready bears his name.

Liza Schoenfein is the For­ward’s se­nior food writer. Fol­low her on In­sta­gram @LifeDeath Din­ner

‘How do you take some­thing you al­ready love and add some­thing that makes it unique?’


HIS ODYSSEY: Shaya’s new cook­book is the story of the au­thor’s jour­ney from at-risk, undis­ci­plined, im­mi­grant child to the heights of culi­nary ac­claim.


AN AMAL­GAM OF TASTES: From left: tabouleh and roasted cauliflower with feta.

SHAYA: AN ODYSSEY OF FOOD, MY JOUR­NEY BACK TO IS­RAEL By Alon Shaya With Tina An­tolini Al­fred A. Knopf, 440 pages $35

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