In the Land of Po-Boys and Gumbo, an Israeli Chef Brings High-End Middle Eastern Cuisine to the Table
Alon Shaya set down roots in New Orleans nearly two decades ago—and has since garnered a loyal following for his locally-sourced, elegant Israeli fare.
As part of our “Beyond Borders” series, a collaboration with the Charleston Wine & Food Festival, we spoke with five-time James Beard Award nominee (and recipient of the award for Best Chef, South, in 2015), Alon Shaya, a well-known talent in the Crescent City. After his very public departure from the Besh Restaurant Group—and from his eponymous restaurant, Shaya—two years ago, the chef went out on his own, starting Pomegranate Hospitality and opening two new venues. The early success of Saba, in New Orleans, and Safta, in Denver (Hebrew for “grandfather” and “grandmother,” respectively), is proof positive that his focus on local ingredients and authentic Middle Eastern dishes resonates with discerning diners. Shaya says he sees food as a social tool—a way to minimize the cultural differences among us.
“I discovered that cooking was my golden ticket.”
I was born in Bat Yam, Israel, and immigrated to Philadelphia with my family when I was 4 years old. I fell in love with food while learning to cook from my Bulgarian grandmother and my Israeli mother. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, I was offered a job as head chef at Harrah’s Casino near St. Louis, Missouri, and quickly took it. I was definitely chasing a paycheck, as it was more money than either of my parents had ever made. It was obvious to me that cooking was the way to a life outside of crime and negativity.
“I became obsessed with the culture of New Orleans.”
I moved to New Orleans in 2003, and that was when I officially became a Southerner and fell in love with Louisiana cooking. I have been here for 17 years now, cooking Italian (as executive chef at Domenica), Southern, and Israeli food.
“Opportunities to learn from others constantly come up; I try not to miss them.”
My grandmother and my mother are my two biggest culinary influences, but so many of the people I’ve cooked with—in New Orleans, throughout the South, and during the nine months I spent in Italy in 2007—have influenced the way I cook. Because I’m an immigrant, I have had a chance to travel the world, cooking, eating, and experiencing food traditions from so many. I’ve learned to be inquisitive and take opportunities to cook with the people who have a lot to say through the dishes they make.
“I am committed to empowering cooks to be true to who they are.”
I love teaching people how to harness their history to cook in a way that is unique to them. My focus is on food that is based in tradition and tells a story.
“We can learn a lot about each other over a bowl of hummus.”
Hummus is a dish that is served throughout the Middle East and has been perfected over the years by the Palestinians, who have such a rich, beautiful food tradition. I believe we should share the cuisine of other cultures so that the story of the food can be told.