The hottest table in New Orleans — a city with its own deeply entrenched food traditions — is currently neither Creole nor Cajun but modern Israeli restaurant Shaya.
All credit to chef Alon Shaya, who subtly prepped locals at his Italian restaurant Domenica, itself a multi-award winner, before opening his eponymous establishment, last year voted Best New Restaurant in the USA. “For four years before opening Shaya I had been slipping in Israeli dishes — my version of shakshuka and a whole head of slow-cooked cauliflower charred in the wood-fired oven. In fact that charred cauliflower, inspired by the one I tasted at Abraxas in Tel Aviv, has become a signature dish at Domenica,” he says.
Shaya’s expansion into Israeli food is all down to an epiphany the chef, who has spent most of his life in the USA, experienced on a trip home in 2011, coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. “Cooking for troops in the Golan Heights and at a food festival attended by 10,000 in Rosh Ha’Ayin, north of Tel Aviv, made me feel I needed to embrace Israeli cuisine, the food of my childhood that made me fall in love with cooking,” he explains.
Not that Shaya’s childhood was easy. His father, a Romanian who had moved to Israel in the 1970s and fought in the Yom Kippur War, moved to the USA in search of greater opportunity in 1980, two years after his son was born. By 1982 he had saved enough to bring four-year-old Shaya, his elder sister and their mother to Philadelphia.
“A year later my dad left, and my mother raised us on her own,” he says. Times were tough: “She was working two jobs and we had zero money.” Nevertheless, this balabusta made time on Sundays to prepare hummus for her children’s lunchboxes, a mitzvah for which the rebellious young Shaya was anything but grateful: “I had worked hard to assimilate, and what I really wanted was Tater Tots.”
The joy of Israeli cooking kicked in when his Bulgarian grandmother, who had emigrated from Sofia to Jaffa in 1948, came to visit. “We cooked together from when I was five or six, and as we roasted peppers and eggplants to make a dip, I learned to associate food with happiness. I serve that dip at Shaya. My grandmother, a pharmacist, loved to cook, and I still remember the jam she made with strawberries and lemon to go with ice-cream.”
In his teens, Shaya went seriously off the rails: “Being on my own so much while my mother was out at work culminated in my dealing drugs, stealing cars, getting into fights. I got arrested a lot,” he admits. The stabilising influence in his life was his cookery teacher, Donna Barnett, whose classes he attended after being excluded from academic ones: “I would get expelled and go chop onions.” It came naturally; he had been preparing the family dinner since he was 10.
“My mother worked selling rail tickets and caring for the elderly, as she still does, so I would do the cooking.” But his mother got up in time to give him the best possible start: “She put out Israeli breakfast every morning — feta cheese, olive, cucumber and tomatoes with that hummus.”
The transformation from troubled teen to star chef started in Las Vegas, where Shaya worked for friend and mentor Octavio Mantilla, who brought him first to St. Louis to open an Italian restaurant — “I was an executive chef at age 21” — and then to New Orleans. It was 2003, and soon after, everything changed when Hurricane Katrina struck. “Dishing up red beans and rice to hungry people just rescued from their roofs made me realise preparing food was about making people happy, not to show what I could do. Katrina made me realise I no longer wanted to work for a big casino operation.”
He followed his heart to Italy to learn how to hand-roll pasta and cure meat, before returning to New Orleans in 2009 to open Domenica with star chef John Besh, who now co-owns all of Shaya’s restaurants.*
Two years later that he went on the Israel trip, with Besh along with David Slater, a Jewish chef cooking highly traditional New Orleans food at Emeril’s, the city’s most famous Cajun restaurant. Shaya and Slater have remained firm friends, both finding the experience of cooking in Israel profound; Slater now serves the fries at Emeril’s drizzled with tahini and says locals love it.
Shaya is most famous for pillowy pitas, cooked in a wood-fired oven, and hummus bowls with substantial ingredients — slow-cooked short ribs, or local ingredients like roasted okra with black-eyed peas — at their centre: “We celebrate what’s in our own back yard as well as the food of Israel,” he explains. “The whole world loves pitta and hummus, but I like to serve them in a way that surprises people.”
The secrets of those surprises will be revealed in a cookbook Shaya: an odyssey of food, my journey back to Israel (to be published next March) which will also tell his life story. Meanwhile Shaya is giving back to his community with the help of Donna Barnett, having persuaded the teacher who was his salvation to help him mentor primary school children in New Orleans, the city of his first epiphany.
*Since the time of writing, it has been reported in New Orleans newspapers that Besh and Shaya have decided to part ways and are in negotiations for Alon Shaya to purchase Shaya restaurant from the Best restaurant group. Shaya has declined to comment on his position in relation to Domenica and Pizza Domenica.