Alon Shaya. Alon Shaya. Alon Shaya. (Photo: The Besh Restaurant Group)

Meet the young chef bringing new influences to New Orleans

Flavors of the Mediterranean have captured tastebuds in The Big Easy.

Alon Shaya has made quite a name for himself since coming to New Orleans in 2003. He started Domenica, then Pizza Domenica, and now is launching his eponymous Shaya. Along the way he's been nominated for a James Beard award and developed a following among foodies in The Big Easy.

“I fell in love with New Orleans immediately – the music, the food, the culture – and have only come to love it more,” he told From The Grapevine while sitting in Pizza Domenica, a rustic yet elegant restaurant with a menu featuring wood-fired pizzas, roasted meats and vegetables (the Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Whipped Feta has been a bestseller from the beginning), house-made pastas and salume. It has become one of the city’s top restaurants since opening in 2009.

The spot is just a few blocks from where his third restaurant, Shaya, has just opened. It is the Israeli-born and Philadelphia-raised chef's ode to his homeland.

“We’ll have falafel with garbanzo beans from a small farm where they’re grown organically, and treated well, and get that same parsley from Covey Rise to grind into it. We’ll get fish from the Gulf of Mexico daily. I like taking a very seasonal and artisanal approach, a very fresh approach to the cuisine. That’s what I’m excited to show.”

The dining room at Shaya.The dining room at Shaya. (Photo: Stephen Young)

And he’ll be cooking for a neighborhood, as opposed to at Domenica, which is located in a hotel in the Central Business District. “I love the fact that on a busy night, there are tons of families. All the high chairs are being used in the restaurants," he said. In fact, many of the dishes at Shaya are meant to be shared, and will be sold for parties of three or more.

People get dreamy-eyed when speaking of Shaya's food, especially the Lasagna Bolognese at Domenica. Shaya says its secret is that it’s very traditional. The distinction lies in the high quality of ingredients – the house made pasta verde, into which they puree fresh parsley, from Covey Rise Farms (a local supplier). Their meats are also sourced from several local farms. The food at Shaya will get the same care.

Shaya is a pretty laid-back guy, but his passion becomes evident as he speaks of the places that inspire him, and the common thread that runs through those cultures.

“The (American) South, Israel and Italy are my three places I always think about when I think about food. There’s no definitive line between them. It all kind of comes together here, goes away there, and then comes back together. It’s very personal – an emotion – that I tap into. Sometimes I get a little creative, sometimes I keep it very traditional. Those three cuisines bring together my love of food.”

Menu items from Domenica. Clockwise: salumi, beignets, fresh ricotta cheese with toast, and roasted cauliflower with whipped feta.Menu items at Domenica. Clockwise: salumi, beignets, fresh ricotta cheese with toast, and roasted cauliflower with whipped feta. (Photo: Tom Head/Flickr)

Shaya’s first job as a teenager was at an Italian restaurant. "The garlic, the olives, the goat cheeses, the roasted peppers and eggplant," he said. "It reminded me of the foods I ate at home with my mom and grandmother. You know, it was all the Israeli food that we primarily ate.”

In 2007, he spent his savings and traveled to Italy to work for a year. His experience there resonated with his experience of Louisiana’s strong food culture – and with Israel’s.

Upon returning, he presented a business plan to Chef John Besh, of the Besh Restaurant Group, with whom Shaya had worked before leaving for Italy. They forged a partnership resulting in the opening of Domenica. The rest is history, as they say.

In Israel, he’s inspired by the freedoms of expression – in food, music, art, and by the vibrant melting pot. And it’s a cuisine he finds “underestimated." New Orleans is much the same, and he's happy to share a bit of his old home with his new one.

“I’m a chef and these are my roots," he said. "I have so much love for it. It’s my life story written on a menu.”

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