If anyone has any doubt about the penetration of Israeli cuisine into the sophisticated world of gastronomy in the United States, the James Beard Awards ceremony, the Oscars of food, has provided the answer.
Israeli cuisine emerged from the ceremony with two of its representatives awarded the two most desirable and important titles in America: Zachary Engel was named the Rising Star Chef of the Year for his work in the Shaya restaurant in New Orleans, alongside the big win of Michael Solomonov, of the Zahav restaurant in Philadelphia, the flag bearer of Israeli cuisine in America, who was named the Outstanding Chef in the United States.
Engel is the chef de cuisine of Shaya restaurant, working very closely under Executive Chef and Owner Alon Shaya. The eatery combines Israeli-Mediterranean fare with elements of local New Orleans cuisine, which is considered one of the best in the United States. Last year Shaya itself was named the Best New Restaurant in the United States, which is also an important and significant achievement.
In a kind of closing of the circle, Engel received a significant part of his training from Michael Solomonov, when he worked for him for over three years in the Zahav restaurant. Incidentally, one of Engel’s competitors was Zahav’s pastry chef Camille Cogswell. She didn’t win, of course. In an interview with Haaretz, Solomonov recalls that Engel asked for his advice as to how to prepare shakshuka with shellfish. It’s not certain whether this combination would be received enthusiastically by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
The man for whom Engel works is chef Alon Shaya, the owner of his eponymous restaurant, who immigrated to the United States at a young age. The restaurant and its chef are considered among the “coolest” in New Orleans. Shaya himself won the title of the Best Chef: South a few years ago.
The idea of combining Israeli food with New Orleans cuisine seems somewhat problematic, at least to my taste. I still remember the unsuccessful attempt to create a fusion of Scottish and Israeli cuisine, which didn’t quite work. So what do New Orleans and Israel have in common? Engel says that there is actual considerable similarity between the two cuisines, and if you need proof that it works - the Shaya restaurant, which holds about 100 people, is full every evening, with a nice waiting list.
What’s your most popular dish?
“Definitely hummus,” says Engel quickly. “Almost every diner who comes to us asks for hummus.”
Could you give the Israeli reader a few more details. What kind of hummus is it?
“The ideal hummus in my opinion is that of Abu Hassan in Jaffa. That’s the standard. But we improved the hummus, so it would be more balanced here. Less lemon, more tehini and oil. We also have very popular cauliflower. We cook it for eight hours and then put it in the oven.”
The Israeli story of Zachary Engel, 29, is relatively short. The chef has spent very little time in Israel, only a few months of his life, but he feels that it left an impression on him. He remembers the visits to Israel well. His father is a Reform rabbi, and together with his parents he spent time on Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava. At the age of 19 he returned to Israel to participate in the Taglit-Birthright program. “It was a wonderful experience,” he says.
Engel spent most of his life in the southern United States, in Mississippi and Florida, where his father served as a rabbi. When he was 19, while studying in college, he reached the conclusion that he wanted to be a chef. He started working in the Domenica restaurant, an Italian restaurant owned by Alon Shaya and celebrity chef John Besh. “That was food that I was familiar with at home too,” he says. “As a child I ate a lot of schnitzel and hummus, but the truth is that their quality was nothing special. From the moment that I started thinking about Israeli food I thought it would be good if I went to work for Solomonov at Zahav, and the work there really was an excellent school.”
“I also went to Israel and worked a little for Meir Adoni and his sous-chef Yoni Danon [at the Catit restaurant]. It was fun. I also lived in the Carmel Market area and I could enjoy the variety of foods, fruits and vegetables in the market. It was a very colorful place to live. I think it would be good if I get to Israel something like once a year.”
Despite their brief acquaintance, chef Meir Adoni, who recently opened his Nur restaurant in New York, has positive recollections of Engel. “You could see that the guy is talented, full of motivation, knows what he wants from life, goal oriented. Something wonderful is happening here to Israeli cuisine.”
Engel says that the fact that he and Solomonov won awards heralds a greater openness than ever to food coming from Israel. “There’s a really unusual phenomenon here. Israeli food is receiving recognition in the United States as never before. I must admit that it’s fun to be part of a trend that’s developing right at this time.”