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‘Tis the Season: Holidays in New Orleans

On this episode of GoNOLA Radio, our Domenica Chef Alon Shaya talks about his special Hanukkah menu and our hosts cover all the holiday happenings.

It is widely claimed that New Orleans is a melting pot of many different cultures and walks of life – one of the many reasons we all love this city so much, right? Well, during this time of the year the city turns in to one of even richer history and culture, and that my friends, is saying a lot. From Reveillon dinners to Hanukkah feasts to Christmas cathedral concerts, there is a way for everyone to celebrate.

GoNOLA RadioSince it’s nearly impossible for one person to cover all aspects, our hosts Lorin Gaudin, George Ingmire and Mikko met with a few New Orleanians who know a thing or two about celebrating the holidays in New Orleans. Chef Alon Shaya discusses how the Hanukkah tradition plays in to what will be on his Hanukkah menu at Domenica.  Georgia Rhody from French Quarter Festivals, Inc. discusses the history of Reveillon and the tradition of Reveillon dinners in New Orleans. To wrap up it up, our hosts cover their individual specialties by discussing historical Christmas characters, concerts in New Orleans cathedrals, top restaurants participating in Reveillon, and Celebration in the Oaks!

To catch all of this – and a special on-air making of Chef ALon Shaya’s latkes – listen to this episode of GoNOLA Radio!

GoNOLA Radio is a free New Orleans podcast hosted by Sunpie Barnes, Lorin Gaudin, George Ingmire and Mikko about the food, music and culture of the Crescent City. Subscribe to GoNOLA Radio on iTunes or download to your mobile device on Stitcher. GoNOLA Radio features music by Cale Pellick.

Podcast Transcript:

A: Welcome to GoNOLA Radio. My name is Sanpa Barnes, and I will be your host of hosts as we explore New Orleans to learn about the city’s rich cultural heritage, food, and music. We bring you experts, real deal experts, who will talk with you about the people who make New Orleans such a wonderful place to live and visit. It’s GoNOLA radio.

Unidentified Speaker: Ladies and gentleman, if you’re using the Stitcher app on your phone to listen to this webcast, I encourage you to push the button that says “Turn on smells”, because right now, this studio smells like the holidays. Welcome, everybody. We are sitting with some wonderful people to talk about the holidays in New Orleans. I have the food goddess with me here, Lauren Goden.

Lauren: Hi.

Unidentified Speaker: And our musicologist, Georgia Ingmeyer, and we have a couple of guests today, both of whom are experts in food, Chef Alon Shaya of Dominica, and George Arulli, who’s the manager of food vendors over at the French Quarter Festivals. We’re going to be talking holidays, not just food, but it’s hard because we’ve got some latkes in front of us, Lauren.

Lauren: Sure.

Unidentified Speaker: Introduce your friend to us, please. Welcome Chef.

Lauren: Oh. Chef Alon Shaya. Okay, we have to start off with talking about Domenica. Which, the spirit of Domenica is sort of a rustic Italian without, but, in the spirit of, not just spaghetti and meatballs, which tends to be a New Orleans Creole and Italian kind of thing. He actually traveled, studied the cuisine of Italy, and brought back to us beautiful pizzas, properly blistered and gorgeously cooked in a phenomenal oven that was brought over on a ship, and just does magical things with that. You’re talking about properly roasted vegetables, just whole-roasted vegetables, this whole Roman, Italian spirit that is citified country rustic food. And Alann.  every year does phenomenal dinner, that for the past three, Alann ?

Alon: Yeah.

Lauren: Has done a Hanukkah dinner at the restaurant. So welcome to the show, Alon, I’m so happy to have you here to help us.

Alon: Thank you for having me.

Lauren: Thanks.

Alon: It’s good to be here.

Lauren: So, Alon, this whole idea of kind of melding the Roman, Italian, and Jewish traditions, how did that happen for you? Where did that come from?

Alon: Well, it, it’s really who I am, and I was born in Israel, so I grew up eating, you know, Israeli food. The food that I had as a kid, my mother and grandmother cooked for me, and so I grew up eating tahini and I grew up eating latkes, and we celebrated all the Jewish holidays by cooking together in the kitchen. So that was just normal to me, and as I started working in restaurants at the age of 16, I started working at Italian restaurants, and I think I was just drawn to Italian food because of the olives and the roasted peppers and eggplant.

Lauren: Sort of that Mediterranean thing that carries all the way through. Beautiful.

Alon: Yeah, it just, it felt right to me. So I, I fell in love with Italian food, and my dream was to one day move to Italy and cook in small restaurants in the Italian countryside, and so I did that for a few friends who set me up out there. I went and started cooking for families out there, and jut learned so much about Italian food. When I came and opened up Dominica, we first started with a very country regional Italian menu, and it was really just the story of the villages that I spent time in, in Italy. Then as the restaurant’s grown, and we really started to tap into some of my Jewish roots, and the foods that I really fell in love with as a kid, and then had some subsequent trips to Israel, which kind of reignited some of that passion. The Hanukkah celebration, the Hanukkah miracle, the reason that we have the holiday is to celebrate the, after the second temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, there was a miracle that, they lit the menorah, this candelabra that Jews, it’s very significant to Hanukkah, and it has eight candles.
They lit the candle, and they only had enough oil to last for eight hours. They lit it, and it lasted for eight days. With that candle they were actually able to pray, because Jews can only pray in a synagogue when there is a light. It’s called the Eternal Light. After the temple was destroyed, the light was extinguished. They were able to relight it, and they were able to celebrate for eight days with this miracle.

Lauren: The whole thing is about the celebration of light and the oil, which is why we eat fried foods, and, so I know that you’re chomping, you both are, at the bit. Let’s talk about latkes, because that is, I mean, well, my family, your family, I don’t know a Jewish family that doesn’t.

Alon: Sure.

Lauren: Okay, wait, before we get into that, let’s step into the kitchen and see what’s cooking when Alann  makes latkes. After frying up these beautiful potato latkes, what goes into a potato latke?

Alon: Well, most importantly, potatoes.

Lauren: The obvious.

Alon: Yes, yes. And we use Yukon golds. Then we also add egg, flour, salt, a little bit of lemon juice, some onion…

Lauren: Grated?

Alon: Fresh, fresh onion that we grate with the potatoes on the grater. Then we fold in a bunch of green onions, right at the very end.

Lauren: Beautiful. So they’re like, fluffy and light and crispy.

Alon: What makes the best potato latkes is crispy on the outside.

Lauren: Yes.

Alon: Soft and creamy on the inside.

Lauren: Yum.

Alon: But it’s that texture. I’ll give you a little taste, here.

Lauren: Awesome.

Alon: It’s that texture of that crispy and creamy that I just remember as a kid, like, always loving, and it was one of my first experiences with texture that I can remember.

Growing up, we, all the holiday tables, just like n Thanksgiving you eat turkey and cranberry sauce and gravy and mashed potatoes. Well, for Hanukah, you eat latkes, and you eat the latkes with either applesauce or sour cream. And so we serve all three of these things and we allow you as the customer to make the decision of which way you’re going to go. And we, we won’t judge.

Unidentified Speaker: The sour creamers versus the apple saucers and then the acidic.

Lauren: And Alon, you’re doing a four-course meal for Hanukah, for just the week of Hanukkah, right, December 8th through the 16th.

Alon: Yes.

Lauren: And, can you tell us, so the first course is latkes?

Alon: The first course is the latkes. The second course, we’re doing a spinach and ricotta crespelle.

Lauren: And course number three is where you bring in that meat element?

Alon: Yeah. And so, instead of brisket, which is also what I grew up with, we’re doing short ribs at Domenica, and we’re doing it in this very traditional Jewish dish called Hamin, it also is known as Cholent or hamin.

Lauren: Hamin, right.

Alon: And it’s a pot, it’s based around Shabbat, where on Shabbat, Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, you’re not allowed to do any work. You’re not allowed to cook, you’re not allowed to drive, you’re not allowed to turn on electricity and everybody, you know, every Jewish person has their own level of how much they observe Shabbat, but the way they eat on Shabbat typically is, you put this big kind of crock pot on of meat and beans and barley and eggs and vegetables, and you just kind of let it cook all night long. So we’re doing a type of, a version of that, with short ribs, and quail eggs, and heirloom carrots that we’re getting grown at Farms for us.

Lauren: Beautiful.

Alon: And cannellini beans.

Lauren: Nice!

Alon: And, and so there’s, and then we’re doing this smoked marrow butter on top.

Lauren: And then your dolce, or your dessert, that you’re doing?

Alon: Our dessert is, our pastry chef Lisa, who is a…

Lauren & Alon: …Genius…

Alon: She created this wonderful eggnog that you guys tasted earlier.

Unidentified Speaker: Yes, we’re drinking eggnog, by the way.

Alon: Maybe the first time eggnog and latke have been up on the same table together. So, Lisa has created this beautiful dessert, where she’s making this cheesecake and then deep-frying it. And then she’s serving that with this version of  funnel cake that she makes, which is also fried. And she’s making a satsuma curd, from ocal satsumas.

Lauren: Very seasonal and appropriate.

Alon: So, very crispy and creamy and acidic, all kind of coming together in one dish.
Lauren: I highly recommend it. Well, Christmas in New Orleans has been, is amazing for me, even as, as a Jew, Christmas is more of a, of a, kind of a happy time. I don’t, obviously, celebrate it from the religious perspective, but Georgia, the city celebrates it from a food perspective. Tell us what’s going on with Christmas in New Orleans.

Georgia: Well, we absolutely celebrate the Reveillon. That’s one of our main focuses around food, and Reveillon was a family, traditionally a family creole meal of the 18th Century.

Lauren: Sure, it was the breaking of the fast.

Georgia: After midnight mass, when, when they would have it, it’s filled with luxurious, rich foods, regional, local foods, seafoods, game, egg dishes, sweet goods.

Lauren: It’s all very decadent and intense.

Georgia: Yeah, not heavy, just lavish.

Lauren: Back in the day, though, when Reveillon at the, it was very heavy. I mean, there were real cream sauces and egg dishes, and oysters, and people were eating really lavishly, because they were braking the fast following midnight mass, so you’re ready to rock and roll, so to speak, and eating big, and I think it’s fascinating., So when did New Orleans and the French Quarter festivals, then, decide to incorporate that Reveillon tradition and, like, bring it to the restaurants, which brings it to the city, to the populous?

Georgia: In 1986. We’ve been doing it for 28 years. We are 28 Christmas New Orleans style campaign.

Lauren: And what does it mean when we say that we’re bringing it to the restaurants. What are the restaurants doing?

Georgia: Restaurants are interpreting that Reveillon menu in their, you know, setting. And this year, we even have something new to add to that is a more contemporary Reveillon . So we’ve, we’ve asked not only for the, for the old-school interpretation, but the modern interpretation as well.

Lauren: Because a lot of our chefs are using newer techniques to cook, and then incorporating those in, and so there’s kind of that push and pull, if you will, of wanting to have the traditional flavors, but the most modern and contemporary technique. And so, that’s a great way to bridge that gap.

Georgia: We didn’t want to limit, we didn’t want to stifle.

Unidentified Speaker: Now, the Reveillon are, are not going to be after midnight, are they?

Georgia: No.

Unidentified Speaker: Okay.

Georgia: Regular restaurant hours, generally the month of December, some of them have started this week. Yeah,we’re excited. We have 47 restaurants participating, our largest number in the city ever.

Unidentified Speaker: It’s some of the great names.

Georgia: Yeah.

Some of the best restaurants in the city.

Georgia: We definitely have some, some best restaurants on board. We’re, we’re pleased to have Borgne participating this year, and what else do we have? We have Sobu is participating.

Lauren: Right, the Commander’s Palace family of restaurants, they’re involved as well, Tory McFeld does one. Kind of the Old Guard, too. Some of the Old Guards are doing eletoirs.

Georgia: Arneaus.

Lauren: Arneaus, it’s beautiful.

Georgia: Muriels, very economical, from $30 to 95, and everything in between.

Lauren: And it’s really, it’s really amazing. It’s an opportunity to, you know, get in and sort of try a real specialty menu that might otherwise not get a chance to taste some of these really unique dishes. Some of them are things that are incorporated onto the restaurant menus, but not everything. There’s always a little special something.

Unidentified Speaker: So we have eight days at Domenica, and on the 16th you wrap up Hanukah, so on the 17th we can start the nine days to Christmas, and I’m sure some of the Reveillon may even run…

Georgia: All month.

Unidentified Speaker: All month. Right through the New Year.

Georgia: Through the 12th.

Unidentified Speaker: Through the 12th night! So we can get ’em all in, Lauren. Start making some phone calls. And there’s so much to do in New Orleans, it’s, it’s really a great place food-wise, clearly we, our guests have shown that. We have the Celebration In the Oaks in City Park.

Lauren: Fabulous.

Unidentified Speaker: Georgia, I’m going to ask you in a second about the concerts in the church, epic cathedrals, I’m sorry. I’m going to do a little plug here.

Lauren: Go for it.

Unidentified Speaker: I’m the executive director of Louisiana History Live. And you know us if you’ve ever come to New Orleans at the holiday time, as the guys with swords and the girls with the hoop- skirts playing the great characters from New Orleans past. And, but we are not, like, re-enactors. It’s not like I sit at home pretending to be Jean Lafitte all the time. But, you know, I have studied…

Lauren: Just most of the time.

Unidentified Speaker: Just most of the time. But we have the Baroness Pontelle, we have Andrew Jackson, we have George Devalda, riverboat gambler, we have Maria LeVeau, we have 30 different characters that report to the city of New Orleans, who walk in character, who speak from that character’s point of view. We know where we are now, so it’s not like, oh my God, what is this escalator, but we know that President Obama is president, but, I prefer James Madison, you know, whoever, you know, we have our own interpretation of what it would be like for Andrew Jackson to walk down the street, and it’s a very interesting experience. You can find us all throughout the French Quarter on Fridays, we’re going to be at the Monteleone and the Omni Royal.

Lauren: Do you guys carol? Do the caroling?

Unidentified Speaker: So there’s that. Yes. The caroling and the square you mentioned,, I know that the city and the French Quarter festivals works with hotels what they call a Poppa Noel discount on some rooms, so if you’re coming in from, you know, from Tuscaloosa or from Baton Rouge, spend the night so you can get really overstuffed at Domenica, and then go out and get a couple more egg nogs and then go to your hotel room and…

Lauren: You can hit Fulton Street and get the snow experience I love.

Unidentified Speaker: Oh, things to do, and again, and they have a new, I just talked to the, the head engineer over there, she had some fabulous metal sort of sculpture things, so it’s really going to be fantastic. They’re the same people that are building the sets for the Super Bowl, which will be another show coming up in a few weeks. But, but yes, I’m telling you, it’s not just empty flattery – this is a Christmas location. And of course, what’s missing, George? You know, tell us about these concerts, these amazing offerings we’re going to have.

George: Well, there are all kinds of things going on, concerts over there at St. Louis Cathedral, beginning at 6 p.m. unless otherwise noted. All these concerts are actually free and open to the public, and from December 2nd, around this time, the time this piece is going to be airing until the 20th will be 15 different concerts. And in the interest of not taking up too much air time, I’m just going to focus on a few that I think are going to be great. The Preservation Hall- Stars at St. Louis on December 6th should be great treat. Christmas songs done in a traditional jazz form.  I mean, that can’t be any better. And then they’re going to be touring the country playing this music, you know. Well, but we’re getting it here in New Orleans for free in front of this amazing cathedral. Going to be quite the thing. Now, on the 11th of December, you have the Fister Sisters, bringing back the spirit of the Boswell Sisters and Close Harmony Touch, these Christmas tunes, bringing back that feel of old-time radio. The Fister Sisters are the real deal,  that’s going to be quite amazing. And finally, around the 18th or on the 18th of December, Don Vappy will be there playing, no doubt with a cast of amazing musicians. Don’s playing shows this mixture of a man steeped in history who still keeps it real today. He understands where it came from, he brings it to you now, but he’s such an amazing player, very charming fellow, and he gives you a little bit of history in the middle of all that, so those are going to be three shows of 15, and there’s other things going on throughout the city, including stuff at St. Augusta Church. The concert series alone is worth coming to Christmas for.

????: Yeah, there’s one other thing worth mentioning, and this a Baroque concert with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra taking place on Thursday, December 13th at 7:30 p.m. They’re going to be playing all kinds of great music and including stuff by Bach, who’s one of my favorites when it comes to Christmas music.

Unidentified Speaker: Well, Christmas in New Orleans, y’all. George, Merry Christmas to you.

George: Happy holidays, everybody. Look forward to seeing you again next year.

Lauren: Yummy.

Announcer: GoNOLA radio is a production of New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation in conjunction with FSC Interactive, music by Kale Pelt. My name is Sandpa, tune in next week by subscribing to GoNOLA radio on iTunes or GoNOLA.com.

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