Chef Michael Solomonov won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. Chef Michael Solomonov won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. Chef Michael Solomonov won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. (Photo: Steve Legato)

Semifinalists for best U.S. chef, restaurants showcase modern Israeli cuisine

James Beard nominations include some of our Israeli Kitchen favorites.

What do you get when you cross a handful of local Louisiana shrimp with a plate of bubbling, zesty Mediterranean shakshouka? According to Alon Shaya, Israeli-born head chef and owner of the acclaimed New Orleans restaurant Shaya, the result is happiness on a plate.

“I always knew that I could bring happiness to my family by cooking something for them," Shaya told From The Grapevine. And the praise keeps coming: this eclectic Cajun-Mediterranean fusion spot has been nominated as a semifinalist for a 2016 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. (If you're not familiar with James Beard, think of it as the Oscars of the restaurant industry.) If it wins, it would be the second time in a row for Shaya, which has already been named the Best New Restaurant in America by Esquire Magazine. Not bad for a restaurant that's only been open for a year.

Dining room at Shaya restaurant, finalist for the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant Popular menu items at the Shaya restaurant include avocado toast, hummus, lamb ragu and Louisiana shrimp shakshouka. (Photo: Stephen Young)

"Growing up on Mediterranean food, I was a bit skeptical of just how good this place could be," Jerry James Stone, a food blogger and vegetarian chef, told From The Grapevine after a recent visit to Shaya on his birthday. "Who equates NOLA to Med cuisine? But I couldn't have been more wrong. The hummus was as smooth as butter and the varieties were as surprising as they were delicious. Where Shaya excels is in its simplicity. I still crave their braised cabbage almost daily."

And judging by the rest of the nominations this year, America's love affair with Israel's Mediterranean cuisine is showing no signs of slowing. Critically acclaimed Philadelphia restaurant Zahav earned two James Beard nominations this year: its chef, Michael Solomonov, has been nominated for Outstanding Chef, and the restaurant is a nominee for Outstanding Service.

The two nominations are just the latest in a long line of accolades for the restaurant and its chef since opening in 2008. The success of Zahav has made a culinary celebrity out of Solomonov, who won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic in 2011. He published a cookbook last year that shared some of his best recipes at Zahav, including that irresistible hummus his customers can't stop talking about.

Award winning hummus from Zahav restaurant The authentic Mediterranean hummus at Zahav restaurant is just one of many mouth-watering Israeli dishes beloved by patrons. (Photo: Zahav Restaurant)

He also recently narrated and starred in a documentary about Israeli cuisine. Solomonov returned to the country of his birth for a coast-to-coast bus tour that stopped at more than 100 locations. Solomonov, his director Roger Sherman and a small film crew visited restaurants, markets, farms, orchards and wineries.

Chef Michael Solomonov (left) traveled to many restaurants in Israel, including Avigail's Kitchen.Chef Michael Solomonov (left) traveled to many restaurants in Israel, including Avigail's Kitchen. (Photo: Florentine Films)

Now playing on the film festival circuit, “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” will have a theatrical release this summer. That will be followed by community group screenings, airings on television and streaming services.

For Solomonov, however, no matter where his celebrity status takes him, the goal remains unchanged: simple yet flavorful foods that celebrate the rich cultures of his native Israel.

"People take food very seriously and it's very dear to their heart," he told NPR. "For a lot of [Israelis] they haven't been back home in a long time, and this is our way to take them back home, to transport them momentarily."

Other nods in this year's James Beard list include The General Muir in Atlanta, helmed by Todd Ginsberg, who's known for infusing Israeli cuisine into the American food landscape. A newbie on the Beard circuit this year is Moshit Mizrachi-Gabbitas, an Israeli who opened Janjou Patisserie, a bakery in Boise, Idaho, in 2013. She's a semifinalist in the Outstanding Chef category.

The James Beard Foundation will whittle down the semifinalists to a shorter crop of finalists in March, followed by the formal awards ceremony where winners will be announced in May.

For more inspiring food stories and fantastic recipes, head over to our Israeli Kitchen.

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Semifinalists for best U.S. chef, restaurants showcase modern Israeli cuisine
What do you get when you cross local Louisiana shrimp with Mediterranean shakshouka? This James Beard Award finalist for Best New Restaurant.