Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel
Before Chef Alon Shaya and his former boss Chef John Besh recently and very publicly dissolved their business partnership, most New Orleans food lovers simply knew Shaya as the Jewish guy who turned baba ganoush and hummus into menu items worth standing in line for. In a traditionally Catholic city celebrated for world-class Creole and Cajun restaurants, that’s saying a lot.
With Besh’s financial backing, Alon Shaya opened his Italian restaurant, Domenica, in 2009, and a more casual version of the original restaurant, Pizza Domenica, in 2014. In 2015, Shaya won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South. He topped that after he took a gamble opening a modern Israeli restaurant, Shaya, which won the 2016 Beard Award for Best New Restaurant.
In this era of bad-boy and bad-girl chefs, Alon Shaya’s adolescent street creds are stellar. Each of the 26 chapters in this intensely personal cookbook begins with a few pages of Shaya’s autobiography.
His hardscrabble story begins at age four, when his family immigrated from Israel to Philadelphia. A mostly absent father, a working mother, and dependence on Sesame Street for English lessons led to instability and loneliness. Living in near poverty, he was bullied, ended up in fights, moved on to drugs and theft, and became well acquainted with the police and local courts.
The young Alon found some normalcy in visits from Israel from his Bulgarian-born grandparents. His grandmother, Safta (Hebrew for grandmother), instilled a passion for cooking, and his saba (Hebrew for grandfather), taught him to love life and to eat adventurously. They, and a knife-flipping home economics teacher, laid the foundation for attending the CIA, studies in Italy, and a couple of rediscovery trips to Israel.
His diploma and skills landed him employment in the casinos of Las Vegas, then St. Louis. In 2003 he ended up where he is today, in New Orleans.
Interspersed between the chronicles of Shaya’s eye-opening life are inspiring food photographs and charming watercolor sketches. Chapters end with over 100 recipes that fuse together the cultures that intimately touched his life, including Bulgarian, Romanian, Italian, American Southern, and many recipes considered Middle Eastern.
Recipes come with meticulous instructions. Even so, some, such as the scratch-made pastas, may scare off a few cooks. The majority, though, such as dough for his acclaimed pizza and pita, are easy enough to make in a home kitchen.
Many, such as the coiled, fried bread known as Malawach, invoke a distinct place, in this case Yemen. Some recipes are from his grandmother, including one for Lutenitsa, a charred bell pepper, eggplant, and tomato relish, and another for her “impossibly soft” Bulgarian Lamb Kebabs. There’s also family recipes for flaky cheese-filled borekas, Israeli salad, and a spectacular looking Bright Green Falafel.
One recipe his grandmother might have frowned on is Green Butter, a slow-cooked concoction of butter and pot. Shaya recommends using “high-quality marijuana” and adding the resulting flavored butter to scrambled eggs, cookies, or sandwiches.
Several recipes are adaptations of Middle Eastern favorites tailored to south Louisiana tastes. When Shaya was contemplating opening an Israeli restaurant in New Orleans, he worried that the food he’d grown up with might seem too foreign to a clientele weaned on poor boys and gumbo. This sensitivity reflects in hybrid dishes such as Za’atar Fried Chicken and the Greek-inspired Collard Spanakopita. (Schmaltzy Cornbread with Gribenes, anyone?)
Unfortunately, fans of Domenica won’t find the recipe for the restaurant’s popular Lasagne Bolognese. Also, those hoping for juicy gossip on the ongoing feud between Shaya and Besh will be disappointed. The book’s last chapter focuses on the startup of Shaya’s namesake restaurant, with no mention of his firing or the trademark dispute yet to come.
Nor is there anything about the two Israeli restaurants Shaya’s newly formed Pomegranate Group has announced that are soon opening, Saba in New Orleans and Safta in Denver.
Readers will learn, however, that food means more than sustenance to Chef Shaya, who continues to find solace in familiar Israeli cooking. His life story also proves that angry early years can be overcome. Capricious young adults, therefore, might find this book inspirational. Everyone else will have fun cooking the baba ganoush and hummus.