It’s been a busy few years for Alon Shaya.
The Israeli-American, New Orleans-based chef nailed an Esquire’s Chef to Watch nod, a 2012 Starchefs Rising Star award, and is a James Beard Best Chef: South nominee for the fourth year running… Actually, in the span of time between when this piece was written and when it went to post, Shaya won that James Beard award!
In the spring of 2014, he opened Pizza Domenica—a casual, vibrant spinoff of Domenica in New Orleans—with partner John Besh. Yet while Middle Eastern flavors gently permeated his dishes there, the Domenicas are more about pairing local flavors and ingredients with rustic Italian fare than anything intimately personal.
At his newly opened Shaya, Shaya gets to play with the flavors of his childhood with abandon, combining memory and skill into dishes that are both “authentic” yet playful; both local yet truly Israeli.
Here, he walks us through how he created a menu and ambiance that feels like home.
Alon Shaya Gets Deeply Personal with His Latest Restaurant
For Plate Magazine online, April 2015
What was your grounding source of inspiration for the menu?
It was actually a pretty complex process, because the menu was going to create the identity of the restaurant. “Israeli cuisine” is open to interpretation, because Israeli cuisine is the food of many different countries; it’s not the same as saying “Mexican cuisine is the food of Mexico.”
So I decided I wanted the menu to be reflective of the food I had cooked or eaten growing up with my family, and of the times I spent together with my mother and grandmother behind the stove as a child, which really instilled the passion in me to become a chef. It was important that a love of those things showed up on the menu.
And the guidelines you set for yourself to work within those memories?
I wanted the menu to feel approachable and like people could understand it, so that it’s not just the most obscure, weird things from the far reaches of the Middle East.
I thought it was very important to have a whole section of the menu focused on hummus, so we took hummus in five different directions. They all have the same base, but are topped with different things: one with curried fried cauliflower, onions, cilantro and mint, another with eggplant, roasted tomatoes and za’atar. Having stuffed grapes leaves, kebabs and falafel are important, so the challenge was to make them better than what people have had before, and better than they thought they ever could be.
How do you do that?
We buy the best quality ingredients that we can get. We buy lamb and beef from Charlie at Two Runs Farm, and grind it every shift so that the kebabs are beautifully fresh. We mix it with spices from Lior Lev Sercarz in New York City; he’s this spice guru who makes the most incredible blends from all over the world.
But what makes the food in Israel so good is that everything is local there. It’s a small country with huge agriculture, and so you get avocados and mangos and parsley and lemons from only a couple of hours away. So I’m trying to replicate that with our restaurant: we have local farms grow parsley, cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers that are just young enough so that they don’t have too much water in them and are perfect for pickling. We can tell our farmers what we want and they do it for us.
Ingredients aside, in what way have you elevated a classic dish with the skills you’ve gained through professional experience?
The falafel is a great example. Falafel can be heavy, and sometimes when it’s not made right it’s very doughy on the inside and it sits in your stomach in a way that doesn’t make you feel well. I wanted it to be really light and airy, and still have the same crisp texture on the outside while being really soft on the inside. My hush puppy experience taught me that if you whip some beaten egg whites into the batter they’ll puff up and become very light and airy. So we did that, and now everyone’s going crazy for them, saying it’s the best falafel they’ve ever had. It’s something I never had done prior to doing the recipe development for this restaurant.
Flip side, is there a dish that’s unchanged from your history, one that maybe evokes a very specific memory for you?
Definitely, the lutenitsa. It’s a Bulgarian spread of roasted pepper, eggplant, tomatoes and garlic that hasn’t changed a bit from my grandmother’s recipe. One of the first memories of food that I have was when I was in kindergarten or first grade. Every time my grandfather and grandmother would come from Israel, my grandmother would cook up a huge storm. It would always start with her roasting peppers and eggplant on a metal grate over a fire.
I’d come back from school and open the door and smell the roasting eggplant and peppers. The smell would hit me in the face and I’d realize my grandparents were here! They had arrived! I’d run in, so excited to see them. I immigrated to America when I was four, so I’m sure there was this history of memories and sentiment and homesickness from what I knew of Israel coming together at once when I opened that door. That always stuck with me. Since then I’ve always associated food with that connection to my family, to my roots, and to who I am as a person.
Do you still roast those eggplants and peppers over an open flame?
Absolutely. Every time I roast peppers, I think of my grandmother. That smell, to this day, stays with me.
In what ways are you keeping true to how we might dine in Israel today?
A big part of our menu is the wood-burning oven in our dining room. The pita bread is made in it throughout the day, so the guests watch the minute-and-a-half in the oven that their pita takes, and it comes out light and fluffy. I’ve spent a lot of time during our opening working that oven, making sure the pita bread is perfect.
From there, we’re cooking our eggplant and pepper over hot wood coals, to give flavor to our baba ganoush. Then we’re doing a lot of little salads and spreads: roasted beets, labneh, Moroccan carrot salad, and ikra spread with paddlefish caviar instead of carp roe, which you see most often.
I’m trying to get people to have a variety of salads and spread on the table with the pita, so that they can start digging in right away. That’s a huge part of the identity of the restaurant, and what I want people to understand about the technique of eating this food: you pass things around and share. There might be fifteen or twenty different flavors on the table all at once with the pita being the carrier to that, so you find the flavor combinations that excite you the most. That’s a great way to eat this food.
How does the ambiance of the restaurant speak of you?
I wanted the space to feel like you’re eating in Tel Aviv right now in a fun, casual atmosphere filled with a lot of interesting design. We keep the music kind of loud. We talk with our staff about being super happy all the time, because when I eat in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem it feels like there’s a party going on; it feels alive. We have the brick oven in the dining room, and an outside courtyard with umbrellas and tables and lots of trees and stuff. One wall is painted brick, which gives it a fresh, modern feel you find a lot of Tel Aviv restaurants. At night there are a lot of candles on the walls. It’s a beautiful space but still light and casual, so you can bring a lot of people and let loose and have good time.
What makes you most proud with this restaurant so far?
I couldn’t have a better team of managers to create this than whom I have; it’s taken a lot of round table opinions and ideas to make this place as great as I feel it is. And I’m proud that we’ve been able to take people who are passionate, hard working and dedicated to this craft and give them room to grow; nine people have been promoted to management positions. Our GM at Domenica, Shannon, is now our director of operations for Domenica and Shaya. My chef de cuisine, Mike, was with me at Pizza Domenica; he’s a super-smart, organized guy and really an amazing person, and he helped me get both restaurants open this past year. My two sous chefs—Zach and Liz—have worked with me on and off for several years, and have brought a lot to the table. If you’re good you’re going to fine opportunity no matter what, but to be able to open a new door so that we can still work with them and let them grow has been really fulfilling for me.
What about from the personal side?
My mother came and gave me the biggest compliment of all. When she tasted the lutenitsa, she couldn’t talk; she just started tearing up. She said, “Your grandmother would be so proud of you if she could be here and taste this right now.” It got me all emotional. It was like, “Why don’t you shove a knife in my heart, Mom?” It was one of the most beautiful things anyone has ever said to me. I wish my grandmother and grandfather were still alive to see this.