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Eat & Drink

What No One Told You About Alon Shaya

The James Beard award-winning chef hugs strangers and has a penchant for wry humor. Here, he discusses his journey to self-acceptance (and the virtues of salt and butter).

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Alon Shaya. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

I was late to meet with Alon Shaya. My alarm didn’t go off, my dog, Nola, obstinately refused all entreaties to perform her morning constitution on our walk, and I couldn’t find my car keys and had to call a cab, resulting in quite possibly the oldest cab driver in New Orleans picking me up and taking the longest route possible at the slowest driving speed permitted by law; that is, one revolution above walking.

I had made the rookie mistake of not asking for Shaya’s cell number and kept my fingers crossed that I would beat him to our appointment. By the time I arrived at St. Roch Market, where we were due to meet, I was flushed, flustered, completely befuddled, and ready for a cocktail. It was 10:15am. I dashed in, saw that he was already there, and cursed softly under my breath. I rushed over to where he sat, and as I approached he smiled, stood up, and hugged me. Note to self: Alon Shaya hugs strangers. He very nicely waved off my flurry of apologies and offered espresso. I countered with champagne, and we agreed on both.

This is the man who brought cauliflower from the bottom of the vegetable bin to its revered place on the menu at Domenica Restaurant.

Flowers greet guests at Shaya, Alon Shaya’s namesake restaurant. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

The truth is that Shaya and I have met before in passing at various food functions, but vaguely and inconsequently; he was always friendly, but this was the first time that we would be getting past the brief “hello, nice to see you again” stage. And I was stoked! This is the man who reinvented cauliflower and brought it from the bottom of the vegetable bin to its revered place on the menu at Domenica Restaurant, one of three restaurants in New Orleans of which he is at the helm; Pizza Domenica, and Shaya, his recently opened namesake in Uptown, completed the triumvirate.

With two coupes of champagne, two cups of espresso, and two hours and thirty minutes at our disposal, we set about the business of getting comfortable at what I now consider “our” table.

Immigration, Assimilation

Shaya’s grandmother’s lutenitsa, center, sits with other dips. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Our tales are similar: we were both born in other countries, me in Haiti, and he in Israel, to parents who left behind their lives and families and made their way to the U.S. where we children subsequently, and through varying levels of difficulties, went on to fulfill our version of the American dream.

Shaya’s parents moved from Jaffa, Israel, to Philadelphia, PA., when he was four, and he and his nine-year-old sister suddenly found themselves learning a new language and attending a new school, while struggling to maneuver the subtleties of trying to fit into a new culture with new rules: what to eat, what to wear, and how to communicate. In grade school, the hummus and moussaka that his mother packed him for lunch would be traded for sloppy joes or thrown in the trash, and money would be borrowed from friends in order to buy tater tots. At some point as he grew older, he changed the pronunciation of his name to a more Americanized version that sounded closer to “Alan.”

I, too, had had similar experiences. I hadn’t worn the right clothes, hadn’t had the right name, nor the right accent. When I first learned to speak English, I was so worried that I would be mocked at school that I remember spending hours pronouncing the difference between “four” and “for” to ensure that I was accentuating the correct sound.

For young Alon Shaya, whose struggle for identity continued through middle school and high school, the only place where he felt at home and comfortable in his own skin was in the kitchen. One of his earliest food memories is of coming home from first grade and opening the front door to find himself enveloped in the smoky aroma of peppers and eggplants. His grandmother was charring them over the open flame from the stove before roasting them to make lutenitsa, a puree which would be spread over pita bread.

For young Alon Shaya, the only place where he felt at home and comfortable in his own skin was in the kitchen.

Of his teenage years, Shaya recalls detentions, suspensions, and a general inability (or unwillingness) to focus on school. He speaks haltingly, and regretfully of that time. “I was a crap kid,” he says. “A little shithead.” Well, the kitchen has always welcomed shitheads, and even during this troubled time, Shaya managed to find his way into a kitchen. At thirteen, he began to work as a dishwasher in a butcher shop. Using his newly acquired facial hair to his advantage, he told them that he was sixteen. He then went on to work at a local bakery, operating the cash register, sweeping floors and restocking shelves, but would spend his down time from the front of the house back in the kitchen helping the bakers, or just watching them fry dough if they couldn’t find something for him to do.

Shaya bakes pita in a large oven that came at the expense of three extra tables. “That’s what needed to happen in order for us to make the best pita bread we could,” he says. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

At school, Shaya signed up for a home economics class where he met Donna Barnett, the teacher who would guide him and help him discover that cooking was actually something that he could do for a living. “She was the only person in my life at the time who said you have potential and you can actually accomplish something. And she got a lot of flack from her colleagues for putting a knife in my hands. I’d get kicked out of class and instead of going to detention, I’d go to Donna’s class and I would slice onions and she would talk to me. She was the only person that I could really talk to,” he says contemplatively. “My dad wasn’t really around and my mom was busting her butt trying to put food on the table and keep the lights on. And Donna was not only my mentor, she was also my therapist.”

When he turned sixteen, she helped him get a job at a pizza restaurant in a nearby town. It was while working there that he realized that not only could he, but that he wanted to cook for a living. However, it wasn’t until his senior year in high school when he began participating in a vocational program where he would spend half of his day cooking that he decided that he was going to be a chef.

Had he foreseen, anticipated, and desired where that decision would take him?

“It meant I could get a job when I was done with high school and do something with my life,” he says. “It wasn’t about being famous, it was an opportunity to have a life after high school, and that’s kind of the way I saw it. I didn’t ever think that I would be an executive chef or have my own restaurant. That all sounded like you had to be really smart and have your shit together for that to happen, and nothing in my life at that point even gave me the slightest notion that this would be possible for me. So my goal was to make sure that I would always have a job, but I also knew that I loved cooking and that there was nothing else that I wanted to do.”

He had no idea, however, how he would actually create this career. He had no money and no discernible means to get it so attending culinary school seemed unreachable. But another teacher stepped in to help.

The airy dining space at Shaya. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Shaya in the CIA

This time it was Seth Schran, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and an instructor in the vocational program in which Shaya was enrolled. Seth helped him complete his scholarship and grant applications, and even called Shaya’s mother to plead for financial help on his behalf be it through whatever meager savings she had, or contributions from other family members. Finally, Seth wrote him a letter of recommendation for the CIA and as Shaya explained it, “somehow I got the scholarship and grant stuff together, scraped some money together, and by paying semester to semester trying to campaign for the money to keep going, I got an associates’ degree then moved to Vegas and started working.”

He gently shook his head in wonderment. It’s as if he had never really stopped to give much thought to the steep trajectory that he experienced at the launch of his budding career.

I ask how a self-described “crap kid and little shithead” fared at the prestigious CIA, a school renowned for its grueling curriculum. He laughs and says, “I got honor roll on day one and graduated second in my class. I never really considered myself stupid; I just never had anything to focus on, and once I did I wanted nothing more than to wake up at 7 a.m. every morning and go to class. I spent all of my time either studying or working.”

A drizzle of olive oil for shakshuka, an egg and tomato dish at Shaya. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

We’re now at the ninety-minute mark of our meeting, and we’ve been interrupted many times by a stream of fans who approached our table to ask him about his recent visit to Israel, to share with him how much they love Shaya (the restaurant), or just to say hello. We broke apart, he to acquire more champagne and me to acquire food. A few minutes later, we’re tearing into marinated crab claws, pickled shrimp, and watermelon salad, and between sips of champagne to ease the process, Shaya continues.

Following his move to Las Vegas, and fueled by the intensity of youth and his single-minded determination to succeed, Shaya worked as many hours as he could and took on as much responsibility as was given to him. He advanced quickly: apprentice sous-chef, sommelier certification, and eventual relocation to St Louis, MO, to head the opening of Antonio’s, a Harrah’s Corporation property, as executive chef. He was 21 years old.

“Here I was, opening a restaurant, designing it, picking out glassware, writing the menu, hiring staff, and I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I wasn’t qualified, but I figured it out. I never asked myself if I could do it or not. I just told myself that I was going to make it happen. I made crazy mistakes! But it was a huge learning experience.” He gently shakes his head in wonderment. It’s as if he had never really stopped to give much thought to the steep trajectory that he experienced at the launch of his budding career.

Shaya says the cauliflower at Domenica was his way of sneaking in the food of his Israeli roots. (Photo courtesy Domenica on Facebook)

I wonder if the hothead of his youth ever made an appearance in those early days in the kitchen.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “I was a jerk!”

“Like Marco Pierre White?” I ask.

“Maybe, but way less sophisticated.”

It was during his time in St. Louis that Shaya met Octavio Mantilla, then director of operations for Harrah’s, and the two became close friends. Mantilla played the big brother role and became his mentor, teaching him how to manage and be a leader (and helping him to not get fired). Mantilla, who went on to open Besh Steakhouse, convinced Shaya to make the move to New Orleans, where he would first work as buffet chef at Harrah’s. At 23, he was leading a team of 400 employees and was responsible for a $10 million a year operation. He understates that he “did pretty good job of it.”

In 2005, he accepted the position of chef de cuisine at Besh Steakhouse, working alongside John Besh. Shaya now had a chef to answer to.

“To work for John was not an easy change for me. I kind of had this ego. I’d always been the one in charge, and it was a really hard transition for me, but John whipped my ass into shape from a chef standpoint. He would send me to pick blueberries in Mississippi and cure ham in Tennessee, and pushed me to participate in these experiences that I had never had before. He brought me back to the essence of food and put me in tune to the philosophy that I hold today about food, and to truly be focused on the customer, the guest experience.”

A Chef Finds His Passione

Then Katrina happened. Shaya began to question his life and his choices, and he began to realize that by taking on so many responsibilities in his career thus far, he had lost focus on the one thing that he loved: cooking. He had also zeroed in on a dream, to open an Italian restaurant. So, in 2007, after helping to re-open Besh Steakhouse and open Restaurant August, he moved to Italy for a year.

“What did John say when you told him that you wanted to leave?”

“He said, go, explore, learn – and come back.”

‘Besh pushed me to participate in these experiences that I had never had before. He brought me back to the essence of food.’

For much of his time in Italy, Shaya lived with a family in Parma and apprenticed himself everywhere that would take him. He traveled and cooked; he swept floors and peeled tomatoes and baskets of shrimp. He learned to cure meat and bake bread and make pasta. He spent every dime he had saved, and then he returned to New Orleans.

Shaya chats with restaurant patrons. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

“Did you ever consider not coming back?”

“No,” he replies emphatically. “I was completely head over heels for New Orleans. I was sold on this city. I never even considered going to any other city. Katrina made me kind of rethink my whole life. Katrina is the reason why Domenica even exists. I questioned what I really wanted to do with my life. [After Katrina,] I was cooking red beans and rice in a driveway and handing people hot plates of food and they were so thankful and it reiterated to me why I do this, why I cook. It was important for me to be cooking, not looking for the next opportunity on the ladder. I felt that I was needed here, and that I was a part of the puzzle. I was connecting food to life rather than food for the sake of food and I wanted to be a part of this culture that was bigger that myself. It was life-changing for me.”

‘Katrina made me kind of rethink my whole life,’ says Shaya. ‘Katrina is the reason why Domenica even exists.’

I understand what he means: the desire to be an integral part of this city that we both call home, to immerse ourselves within it, and to dance to its beat. We speak of the New Orleans food culture, and he shares that he hosts regular Monday night red beans and rice, for friends, at the home that he shares with his wife and their two dogs. She cooks, and he makes the salad.

“What I love about this city is its real sense of food community,” he continues. “It’s going to Willie Mae’s for fried chicken, it’s eating oysters and crab claws at Curious Oyster, or going to Pascal’s Manale or Mosca’s. There’s no other city in the U.S. that has the present food culture that New Orleans has. I can think of singular dishes from other cities, but I can’t think of any city that has a true culture built around food.”

Shaya creates menus that are intensely personal. His grandmother’s lutenitsa is on the menu at Shaya, and Pizza Enzo at Domenica Restaurant is named for Enzo, a pizzaolo he worked with while living in Parma. They would cook all day, and then spend most of the night drinking grappa and talk about all things pizza, the crust, the sauce, the cheese, the oven, the flour. He also sees that personal connection throughout the city.

Fresh pita at Shaya. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

“My hope is that the young New Orleanians are falling in love with the city and the food, and that they want to embrace it and push it forward and not allow the dirty rice and the gumbo and the etouffée of the city to disappear. You have chefs like Donald Link, John Besh, Emeril Lagasse, Susan Spicer, and Leah Chase, who paved the way, and hopefully the young chefs and the young kids will recognize the road that these chefs paved and will be inspired and another generation will pick up the reins.”

As we sat on our stools under the towering columns of St. Roch Market, sharing the names of our favorite New Orleans restaurants and dishes, I congratulate him on his recent win as Best Chef Southern Region, an honor presented by the James Beard Foundation.

He smiles, dips his head slightly, and says, “thank you, yeah, it was phenomenal, magical.”

And then he stops. Note to self: Alon Shaya doesn’t gush.

Shaya had been nominated for the award three times, and his restaurant, Shaya, had only been opened for a couple of months when he received the fourth nomination. My first visit to Shaya was for lunch the Sunday before Mardi Gras, and it had been open for three days. My friend and I walked into an empty restaurant and had our choice of tables. We chose to sit in the courtyard and as we walked towards the back of the restaurant, we passed by the brick oven where Shaya himself stood, baking. On the counter in front of him was a platter that held an overflowing tower of pita bread. I remember asking my friend, “What is he possibly going to do with all that pita? There’s no one here!”

I tell him the story and he laughs uproariously, “I was just baking! I was just thinking, ‘Well let’s just keep cooking and maybe people will show up! We just have to keep cooking.'”

Perhaps the fervent baking was also because the pita is his favorite dish at Shaya.

Spreads and dips to pair with pita. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

“The pita bread, to me, is the window into what the restaurant is about and what the food is about and where it’s going to take you. It’s the fist thing you taste. The brick oven takes up a section of the dining where we could potentially have had three more tables, but that’s what needed to happen in order for us to make the best pita bread we could.”

Though opening Domenica Restaurant might have been Shaya’s ode to Italian food, it’s clear that restaruant Shaya was a heart decision. “I felt in my bones that this is who I am and that I’m no longer scared of it, and I’m not going to hide from it,” he says, a contrast to the identity struggles of his childhood. “I wanted to show the world where I come from and what I can do. The opening of Shaya was one of the most amazing and incredible experiences of my life.”

“Did you cry?”

“Oh, yeah, all the time,” he says, laughing.

I then ask the question that I’d been waiting to ask for most of our chat. The one answer that matters to all of us who craved seeing our achievements fastened to the refrigerator door with a star magnet.

“What does your mother think of all of this?”

“Oh man, she’s nothing but love. She came in and tasted the lutenitsa and started crying and said that my grandmother would have been so happy and proud. I work so hard now because part of me feels so guilty about what I did to her as a teenager. I was misguided and immature, but I made her life harder than it already was. And now I want nothing more than to make sure that she’s proud and happy.”

I felt that we had covered a lot of ground but we still had fifteen minutes, and I didn’t want to give them up. We were both silent for a moment. And then I say, “So, I hear you like cauliflower.”

He cracks up and explains that the famous cauliflower dish had been inspired by a trip he took to Israel, and that it had been his way of sneaking Israeli food onto the menu at Domenica.

“How do you cook it that makes it so great?” I ask, my pen at the ready for copious recipe note taking.

“Oh, I don’t know, the right amount of salt and butter.”

Note to self: Shaya is funny.

‘I feel like the fact that I can be who I am in New Orleans, and able to do what I’m passionate about and be successful at it,’ he says, ‘that’s the American dream.’

As our time comes to an end, we pile the dishes, brush the crumbs off the counter, and sip the last drops of champagne. But I couldn’t help but think about young Shaya. He, like me, my brother, and so many others, was thrown into a brand-new world to maneuver. I wonder what would have happened if he had not been rescued in time?

“What would you say to young kids who might be having a difficult time, as you did when you were younger, focusing or figuring out their place in the world?”

“I spend a lot of time talking to kids in school now. I was just in Philly a few weeks ago and went to a super high-risk school in northern Philly and spoke to a class of young culinary students. I think it’s OK to say to someone, ‘You may never be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an astronaut, or cure cancer, but you do have something inside of you that can be meaningful in life and that can contribute to society and that can set you up for a fruitful and rewarding career,'” he says. “If you truly make a commitment and focus on that, nothing can hold you back, and to me, that’s not underselling or being negative, that’s just being real.”

He recalls all those who helped him along the way – Donna Barnett, Seth Schran, Octavio Mantilla, John Besh –  and what it’s meant to him.

“Honestly, I think that I’m just living the American dream. Coming to America and making the most of the opportunities I was given. I feel like the fact that I can be who I am in New Orleans, and able to do what I’m passionate about and be successful at it, that’s the American dream. That’s what brought my parents to this country.”

Then, Alon Shaya and I part ways, and I go home and call my parents to thank them.

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