NEW ORLEANS — Chef Alon Shaya’s unlikely love affair with Louisiana started years ago.
“My first cookbook was Emeril (Lagasse’s) ‘Louisiana Real & Rustic,’” said the chef, who was born the Tel Aviv, Israel suburb of Bat Yam. “I always thought that one day I could come and cook in Louisiana. It just seemed like this mystical place to me.”
While Lagasse made his name by excelling at the city’s classic Creole cooking, Shaya has forged a different path since arriving in New Orleans more than a decade ago. In 2015, he opened his namesake restaurant , a bustling Israeli eatery on chic Magazine Street that the James Beard Foundation last month named the Best New Restaurant in the U.S. The food harkens back to dishes he grew up with, drawing on culinary influences from places as diverse as Yemen, Bulgaria, Morocco and Turkey.
There’s the lutenitsa, a spicy Bulgarian relish Shaya learned to make from his grandmother, and the shakshuka, a North African dish of eggs, chili peppers, tomatoes and onions.
“The fact that Israel is made up of so many people from so many backgrounds allows that food to attract several different types of people from different backgrounds,” Shaya said. “That’s kind of the magic of it.”
Shaya’s family moved to the U.S. when he was 4, settling in Philadelphia. He attended the Culinary Institute of America and then honed his craft at various restaurants. But a friend encouraged him to move to New Orleans in 2003. With a fulltime job at Harrah’s Hotel, Shaya also worked on his days off at Restaurant August for famed New Orleans chef John Besh .
Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Shaya evacuated with Besh and the two watched as the city was consumed by water from the failed levees. He quickly returned, doing what he could to help. Shaya recalls cooking red beans and rice with ingredients from a looted Wal-Mart, feeding volunteers who were helping rebuild Willie Mae’s Scotch House , and struggling to reopen the steakhouse where he was then the head chef. At times, he slept in Besh’s car.
“Those moments throughout those few weeks changed my life forever,” Shaya said. “It made me very loyal to the city because I felt like I was really needed down here, like I was a part of something that was just way bigger than myself or way bigger than some cool recipe that I could pick up along the way.”
A city that could have been just another became home and Shaya decided to open his first restaurant, Domenica, in 2009, and its sister eatery, Pizza Domenica, five years later. As he describes it, he was “gung-ho, 100 per cent Italian.” His wife even called him Alonzo.
Then in 2011, he travelled to Israel with other chefs.
“I’m walking through the markets and listening to people talking and I can almost hear my grandmother’s voice. I see the foods I grew up eating. ... This light went off inside saying ‘Why do I never cook any of this stuff?’” he said.
When he returned, he started sneaking Israeli influenced dishes onto the menu at Domenica ‚Äî a head of roasted cauliflower served with whipped feta cheese was extremely popular. He also served a lamb Bolognese on a bed of whipped tahini with crostini sprinkled with za’atar.
“I was calling hummus ‘ceci puree,’” he said, referring to the Italian word for garbanzo beans. “Before you know it, the menu at Domenica was looking very emotionally torn.”
Eventually, he decided it was time to open an Israeli restaurant, imagining a small, neighbourhood eatery in the Mid-City area. Instead his partner, Octavio Mantilla took him to the chic ‚Äî and expensive ‚Äî Magazine Street locale, complete with a courtyard and an upstairs private dining room.
A little over a year later, the hummus seems to be paying the bills.
It can take weeks to get a prime dinner reservation. The restaurant is only the second in New Orleans to win the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant award (Peche Seafood Grill won in 2014).
The restaurant’s success is no surprise to Liz Williams, the head of the city’s Southern Food & Beverage Museum, who said New Orleans has a long history of embracing food from other regions.
Snowballs, seen as a quintessential New Orleans dessert, came from Sicilians who emigrated during the 1800s, bringing with them flavoured syrups at a time of newly manufactured commercial ice, she said. Many of the city’s po boy shops now offer pickled vegetables, and Williams says she’s found shrimp Creole flavoured with lemongrass ‚Äî both reflections of the city’s Vietnamese influence.
Shaya says he isn’t done yet ‚Äî there’s another part of his upbringing he wants to embrace in the town he calls home.
“Deep down inside I would love to open a Philly cheesesteak place someday, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon.”