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3-Course Interview: Alon Shaya 

The James Beard Award-nominated chef talks about his new Israeli restaurant, Shaya

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Chef Alon Shaya's work at his restaurants Domenica and Pizza Domenica (in which he is a partner with chef John Besh and Octavio Mantilla) earned him a nomination for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: South award. He spoke with Gambit about his recently opened namesake restaurant Shaya (4213 Magazine St., 504-891-4213; www.shayarestaurant.com) and modern Israeli cuisine.

Pizza helped establish a following at Domenica and the spinoff Pizza Domenica, and now Shaya restaurant has a big bread oven. How did that come about?

Shaya: I have been making pizzas for years, and I love wood-burning ovens. Making pita bread is just like making pizzas, but without all the toppings. We thought, "Why not pay the same attention to pita bread?" and put this oven in the restaurant. ... That bread serves as the foundation for most of the menu. It starts the meal off with a story — why you're eating here. There's this really rich cultural cuisine in Israel. It's made up of 60 countries and cultures. When you take that first bite of bread and put it in the oil, it sets the tone. Then here come all these spreads: hummus and baba ghanoush — and kebabs and all these things belong with pita bread. I love that flow.

Is there something more personal about doing Israeli food?

S: I am really proud of lutenitsa. It's a Bulgarian puree of roasted peppers, eggplant and tomatoes. My grandmother was from Bulgaria and moved to Israel, where my mother and I were born. When we moved to America, [my grandmother] would come and visit every year. I remember being in first grade and coming home and opening the front door and getting a whiff of eggplant and peppers being roasted on the stovetop. The second that smell hit me, I knew my grandparents were there. They probably brought me a bunch of candies and treats. My family was there, and I knew that they came from so far away. That connection of smell — and knowing my family was there — it made me feel really comfortable with food. We'd cook together all day long. This is why I knew cooking could make people happy. That's something I have known since I was 7 years old.

How did you put together the Shaya menu?

S: I wanted to balance it. I want it to feel like people can feel comfortable making choices even if they haven't eaten at a lot of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean restaurants or traveled there. Everyone knows what hummus is. It's like the official condiment of the NFL. ... There's a section of different kinds of hummus. If anyone feels intimidated by other things, they can feel comfortable with that.

  Then there are things like kibbeh nayah — beef and lamb tartare mixed with pomegranate and walnuts. It's not something you can get anywhere else. The Jerusalem mixed grill on our lunch menu is a sandwich that has sweetbreads and chicken livers and hearts, spicy serrano chili sauce called skhug and orange zest. It's got all these exotic types of flavor combinations.

  Even people in Israel don't know what Israeli cuisine is. It's just come about. ... When you say American cuisine, what do you think of? It is Tex-Mex, Cal-Italian, Creole — it's all these things. What America did in just over 200 years, Israel has done since 1948 when Israel was created. There was all this immigration in a generation. With that, all these changes have been happening. The Moroccans have come, the [Polish] have come, Yemenites, Bulgarians, French, Greeks. Everyone has landed there and are now cooking their food for other cultures.

  There's stuff (on the menu) that's Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian, but you'll see paprikash, which is Hungarian. There is malawah, which is a Yemeni flatbread. You'll see matzo ball soup, which is Polish and Lithuanian and worked its way to America. All the food evolves and takes on a brand new identity. I would like to pull on that identity.

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