Charleston Wine & Food wrapped yesterday after more good food and conversation with the region’s best chefs. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to sit down with Chef Alon Shaya, Executive Chef and Partner of Domenica, PIZZA Domenica, and Shaya in New Orleans — and last year’s winner of the James Beard award for Best Chef: South.
We asked Alon why Southern chefs and restaurants are so special, what he’s learned working with John Besh, and the biggest highlight from his weekend at #CHSWFF (it’s a good one). Read on!
You grew up in Philadelphia. What brought you to New Orleans?
I was born in Israel; my family immigrated to Philly when I was four. I always knew I wanted to be a chef and wanted to cook for the rest of my life.
How did you know?
It was really the only thing I was good at. It was ingrained in me from the beginning — there was never much of a question of what I wanted to do.
I went and saw a cooking demo by Emeril Lagasse and got his cookbook, called Louisiana Real & Rustic. That was my first cookbook ever. I had this secret love affair with New Orleans without having ever been there or knowing much about it. It was always on my hit list of places that I wanted to go and cook and explore the food.
After culinary school I moved to Las Vegas for a couple of years, and then St. Louis for a couple of years. When I moved to St. Louis I started working with Octavio Mantilla, who is now my business partner. I was 21, and he was like my big brother. He really showed me the ropes and taught me how to be a good leader.
His wife got pregnant and they wanted to move back to New Orleans to be closer to the family, and I didn’t want to be left in St. Louis by myself. He was my best friend. He said, come to New Orleans.
Were you so excited, finally getting to go to New Orleans?
Absolutely. It was like, here’s my ticket. But before you make the commitment to pick up and move, you’ve got to go and visit the place. So I did, and I ate dinner at Restaurant August. After that dinner, which John [Besh] cooked for us, I was like, I want to be here and I want to learn from this guy. Eventually I came down and became the chef at his steakhouse.
What was the #1 thing you learned from working with him?
Really knowing the soul of where you are, and cooking responsibly. If we live in New Orleans, this is how we have to look at food. That really was an important lesson that made everything more grounded.
Prior to that it was like, what can I create? How do I invent? How do I make the next best thing that no one knows about yet? I learned from him that you need to make, like, good rice. Good chicken. A good pot of gumbo. Just cook to where you are.
I did that and eventually moved to Italy to learn how to cook Italian food from the source.
The first restaurant I ever worked in was an Italian restaurant in Philly. I felt comfortable with it; the food spoke to me because we grew up eating Israeli food in the house — goat cheese and olives and roasted peppers and eggplant. It was very comfortable for me to do that. I just stuck with it.
We’re in Charleston and you’re in New Orleans — why do you think there’s such excitement about Southern food right now?
You have great chefs cooking amazing food, and they’re able to back it up with being good businesspeople. Sean Brock is a big part of that, and Frank Stitt and John Besh. They know how to treat people and manage people well and are able to tell their story through what they do.
Everyone loves a good story. The South has such an amazing culinary heritage — it’s just about getting that out to people so people in New York and San Francisco start paying attention to it.
Also, food television and social media. It’s a lot of stars aligning. It’s the same reason why everybody’s asking me, “Why is Israeli food so popular?” It’s the same thing — this guy named Ottolenghi wrote a really beautiful book, and it happened at a time where you could take a picture and send it to someone in 10 seconds, and at a time where people are more open to trying new foods and looking at food in a different way.
How do you describe the food at Shaya?
I describe it as modern Israeli. The thing about Israel is that it’s not just Mediterranean, because Bulgaria isn’t Mediterranean, and neither is Russia and neither is Yemen. You also have Greece and Turkey and Morocco, and all these other places that influence the cuisine there. It’s a melting pot. It’s a cuisine of immigrants, just like America.
Is it Southern at all?
It’s Southern because we use Southern vegetables and Southern animals and try to buy from a lot of local vendors. That, in turn, kind of makes it Southern. We’re able to utilize all this great stuff from Louisiana.
But we’re not trying to make cornbread with za’atar on it. Which I did for a while, prior to Shaya opening up. I took a trip to Israel in 2011 and kind of got the bug that I needed to be cooking this food on a large scale. I went back to Domenica and started putting Israeli influence in the menu. That’s where the roasted cauliflower came from, and I would make shakshuka and chanterelle mushrooms and roasted goat. It got out of hand — to the point where I started calling hummus “ceci puree.”
Then I realized, Domenica is going to fade into oblivion if we don’t keep the identity really strong. I needed an outlet to start cooking that food, and that’s how Shaya came about.
Did you have any reservations about it, since the food is less familiar to people in New Orleans?
Absolutely. I was worried that people weren’t going to go for it. I’ve always said — and I’m my biggest hypocrite in this sense — when people sit on their couch and they’re watching television and they’re thinking, I’m hungry, what comes to mind? Cheeseburgers, pizza, Chinese food. No one’s sitting around saying, Israeli. That was a worry for me. How do we make this not just for people that are in the know, but for everybody?
We went for it. When I made the menu I wrote it in a way that wasn’t intimidating, wasn’t using a lot of foreign words. Everyone knows hummus, kebabs, falafel for the most part. I didn’t want to say, I’m going to do something new and cool and not include these things. I said, I want the menu to be as familiar as people to possible so when they come and they’re eating Israeli food, they understand it already and feel comfortable with it.
That’s the approach that I took. And at the end of the day if your food’s good and your service is good, people will be happy and the word will spread and people will come back.
Obviously it has — you’ve had so much recognition for Shaya and the reception has been amazing. Do you feel surprised?
Overwhelmed. I’m definitely happy. It’s all happening with such intensity that it’s like, let’s be cool and make sure we’re keeping our vision strong. Let’s make sure we’re not just writing it off to say, we’ve done it, we’re successful, let’s go off and do something else now. We have to stay focused and keep the vision grounded.
It’s nerve-wracking at the same time, because there’s a lot of attention. There’s people coming to the restaurant from all over because they’ve heard about it. I know, because that’s what I do! I come to Charleston and I want to eat at FIG. I’ve heard so much about it. When I walk in I’m expecting solid gold chandeliers and little angels sprinkling fennel pollen on my meatballs. How do you live up to that?
That part can be nerve-wracking. But what we’re doing is the right thing, and we’re focusing on the right thing. We just need to keep doing that and making it better every day. Hopefully people don’t get tired of it.
What are your biggest business challenges right now?
Really, it’s always been getting great cooks to come show up to work every day in our restaurant. It’s a hard thing to do. I think we’re also challenged with thinking about, how do we make our restaurant a place that people really do want to work and are happy to come to every day? How do we create a culture that is healthy all around? People need the right amount of time off, and they need to feel like they’re part of something bigger than their three salads in front of them.
We’re trying to think of our business in a way that really inspires the people that we work for to keep growing with us. That’s the way I like to work: I like a roundtable discussion about food and ideas about food. We talk about the customers and what are they going to want out of the dish, and I want to get as many people involved in those conversations as possible.
What’s been the biggest highlight of the weekend?
Holding up a squirrel carcass in front of a crowd full of people. And then eating it!
How was it?
Really good. It was my first time having it, so I didn’t know what to expect. I loved it.
Photos courtesy of Charleston Wine & Food.