Food Alon Shaya: The Man, The Restaurant, The Memoir
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 NOLA.com: 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