From Bat Yam to the Bayou: An Israeli Chef in New Orleans

Lamb bolognese with zaatar crostini and tehini sauce is just one of the creations of Alon Shaya, the Israeli-born chef now starring in the U.S. south.

New Orleans is known for its seafood gumbo, greasy ‘po boy’ sandwiches and crawfish etouffee. But don’t stop there. The capital of cajun and creole cuisine is also, increasingly, the place to find Chinese noodles bars alongside the jambalaya joints, sushi options for those who tire of remoulade and Middle Eastern sweet shops that give beignets a run for their money.

Playing a starring role in this cosmopolitan culinary transformation is one Alon Shaya, a friendly, unassuming 34-year-old who was born far, far away from the bayou – in Bat Yam, a small central Israeli city straddling the Mediterranean sea coast.

Shaya is the chef at Domenica, New Orleans' uber-popular Italian-with-a-pinch-of-Israel restaurant, which has introduced the likes of wood-roasted goat served shakshouka style to the Louisiana menu. Esquire Magazine named Shaya one of its “Top Chefs to Watch,” Eater New Orleans named him “Chef of the Year” and, most recently, he was a James Beard Award finalist for “Best Chef in the South.”

The journey that led to lamb bolognese with zaatar crostini and tehini sauce taking over New Orleans began with Shaya’s arrival in the United States at age four, together with his mother and sister. They came in the footsteps of his father, a Romanian immigrant to Israel who had opened up a frame shop in Jaffa after the 1973 war but, struggling to support the family, had left Israel three years earlier to seek a better life in Philadelphia.

But the land of opportunities was not particularly easy going either, admits Shaya, who was back in Israel last week on a culinary tour organized by fellow chef Michael Solomonov, of Zahav restaurant fame.

A year after the family reunited, Shaya’s parents split up, and his dad moved out of the home. Soon, Shaya’s sister, constantly fighting with their mom, also moved out, to live with an aunt, and Shaya was left, at 10, taking care of himself. With his mother out working two jobs, the third grader often found himself doing the shopping at the supermarket, and fixing himself meals in the kitchen alone. His first culinary education arrived in the shape of the yearly visits by his mother’s parents from Israel. With the presence of his grandmother, an immigrant to Israel from Bulgaria, the cramped Philadelphia kitchen would fill up with smells of eggplants and peppers, he remembers, and Shaya spent long afternoons learning how to stuff grape leaves, roll out filo for bourekas and make humentachen for Purim.

Food became his connection to his heritage. Today, Shaya says, his Hebrew is rusty, he has forgotten much of what he learned during his in Hebrew school (he was kicked out for being too difficult) and, since his grandparents passed away, he does not often touch down at Ben Gurion airport. Still, he remains closely connected to the land of his birth through its food.

“In some ways, because I grew up in America, I had to work hard to re-connect myself to Israel,” says Shaya. “I knew, I suppose, that if I didn’t find a way to celebrate what I was, and find some passionate connection, then I would lose that identity.”

At 14, Shaya took a job at a neighborhood butcher shop, sweeping floors and stocking the shelves. By 16, he was making money by prepping desserts and salads in Philadelphia restaurants after school. He was a wild child, by his own admission, who was lucky, he admits “not to end in jail.” It was cooking, he says, that saved him. “By the time I finished high school I knew I wanted to put the ‘balagan’ of my life behind me,” he says - using the Hebrew world for ‘chaos’ – “and focus on food and cooking.”

After training at the Culinary Institute of America, Shaya’s career got off the ground with an internship at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Soon, he was opening Antonio's Ristorante for Harrah's at its casino in St. Louis, and then was lured to New Orleans, to serve as the chef de cuisine at Besh’s Steak in Harrah’s Casino, where he worked closely with acclaimed chef John Besh. In 2007, Louisiana Cookin’ showcased Shaya on its cover as one of the five young "Chefs to Watch.” 

In 2009, together with Besh and restaurateur Octavio Mantilla, Shaya opened Domenica, an authentic Italian restaurant filled with the flavors and tastes he had come to love during a year in the small towns of Parma. He still would cook up his grandmother’s dishes at home, he says, but work, somehow, was a separate passion, and purely Italian.

 “I never thought I would introduce Israeli food into my repertoire,” he admits. “It was only later, down the lane, that I started letting that happen.” Becoming more confident as a chef, he believes, allowed him to take the red-and-white checkered cloths off the table at Domenica, change the menu language from Italian into English and play with a different version of the Italian food that showcased other sides of his roots.

These days, the Domenica menu features such dishes as roasted whole cauliflower served with sea salt and whipped goat feta (inspired by something Shaya once ate in Israel,) a lunch sandwich of fried eggplant with a tomato and parsley sauce and goat cheese (his grandmother made it with cream cheese) and matzo meal beignets with lemon curd (a total Shaya invention) for dessert.

The restaurant has also become famous for the Jewish holiday meals Shaya puts on there: There are crunchy mazahs baked in the pizza oven to start off his Passover Seder tasting menu; apple and walnut marmellata latkes during Chanukah; and a veal brisket with root vegetables and apples as the Rosh Hashanah special, along with an apple and honey cocktail drizzled with walnut oil.

“I came to realize that what makes a restaurant great is if it can tell a story,” Shaya concludes, wrapping up the interview and his trip to Israel, but vowing to return soon. “Now, I feel like I am cooking my life story. I am cooking what matters to me.”

Coal-roasted eggplant with tahini and olive oil-roasted vegetables

Recipe by Alon Shaya

Yield: 10 standard portions

Standard serving size - 1/2 whole eggplant

Ingredients

5 whole eggplants

1 cup Heirloom tomatoes, peeled and diced

½ cup roasted red peppers, peeled and diced

1 leek bottom, washed and diced

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tsp thyme, picked

1 leek top, washed and sliced

Salt to taste

1 ½ cups tahini, raw

3 Tblsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed

2 garlic cloves, minced

Directions

1.If you have a wood-burning oven, remove enough hot coals to cover 5 whole eggplants. Place half on the bottom of a hotel pan and place the eggplants on top. Cover the eggplants with the remaining hot coals. If you do not have a wood-burning oven, you can char the eggplants on the stove top, using a metal grate to hold them steady. Turn until charred all over, then place in a 400 F oven until tender throughout.

2.Combine the tomatoes, leek bottoms and roasted peppers together in a sauce pot with the thyme and olive oil. Cook over low heat until the vegetables have held their texture in the pan but melt in your mouth. Approx. 20 minutes on a very low flame.

3.In a food processor, combine the tahini, lemon juice, garlic and salt. Process until very smooth and flavors combine. You may need to add some water so the tahini will have a texture conducive to drizzling.

4.Fill a small sauce pot with water and bring to a boil. Blanch and shock the julienned leek tops. Dry well then fry at 375F until they stop bubbling. Remove from fryer and place on paper towels to soak up excess grease. Lightly season with salt.

5.Cut the roasted eggplant in half lengthwise keeping it attached at the top. Season with salt.

6.Drizzle the tahini over the eggplant. Spoon on some of the vegetable “confit” and top with the fried leek tops.

Note: As a child my grandmother would roast peppers and eggplant in the house over an open flame. It is one of my first food memories. This dish allows me to relive those memories through the wonderful aromas and flavors it has.

Liz Steinberg