And the best new restaurant in America is …
A beloved Mediterranean eatery in the heart of the Big Easy wins a coveted James Beard Award.
Israeli cuisine in Cajun-crazy New Orleans? It's an unlikely combination that's got some foodies and critics scratching their heads, but that's only until they try the food. At that moment, it becomes brilliantly apparent that Shaya is wholly deserving of being named the best new restaurant in America.
The James Beard Foundation crowned Shaya – helmed by Israeli-born chef Alon Shaya – the Best New Restaurant in America of 2016 last night at a star-studded awards ceremony in Chicago. "Who woulda thought hummus in New Orleans?" Shaya said when he accepted his medal. "What was everyone thinking?"
Shaya's innovative and charming pairings of Mediterranean classics like hummus, tabbouleh and shakshouka with Deep South staples like Louisiana shrimp, gumbo and jambalaya have been lapping up rave reviews since opening a little over a year ago. Last October, Esquire Magazine praised the eatery for its flawless ability to simultaneously uphold two seemingly disparate cultures: "the exacting traditions of Jerusalem cookery, and the richness we associate with NOLA cuisine."
Esquire writer Tom Junod said Shaya's success is something of a mystery. "It’s one thing to have pita; it’s another to have the best pita you’ve ever had in your life," Junod told From The Grapevine. "How does a restaurant even do that?"
The answer, elusive though it is, may lie in the deep pride that Shaya himself has in both his Israeli heritage and his adopted hometown of New Orleans. “I believe food should be cooked because of a story," he told From The Grapevine last spring after receiving the esteemed James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South. "There should be some personal investment in what you're cooking because of a mentor, family history or emotional experience. It should connect with the person you're cooking for in a way that sparks emotion in them as well. It should also be fun.”
Shaya, who owns two other Big Easy restaurants in addition to his namesake Shaya – Italian favorite Domenica and its casual offshoot, Pizza Domenica – said Esquire's recognition is a testament to the hard work and passion exhibited every day by his staff.
"We have a team that I am so proud and honored to be a part of," Shaya said. "We just opened and are cooking and serving with our hearts."
But his entrepreneurial spirit and go-getter work ethic haven't derailed the true reason he developed a love of cooking in the first place – he has always equated food with happiness. “I always knew that I could bring happiness to my family by cooking something for them," he said. "I used to make lutenitsa, which is a Bulgarian spread of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. We would roast the peppers and eggplant on the stovetop until they were completely charred, then we would peel the skin and make the spread. It is on the menu at Shaya and people go crazy for it."
Crazy indeed. In addition to topping Esquire's coveted list and the chef's James Beard Award, Shaya also earned a shout-out from Travel & Leisure magazine as one of the movers and shakers of the Southern Fusion movement.
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE: