Who’s the best chef in the South?
Alon Shaya, recipient of the James Beard Award, fires up New Orleans with three hot restaurants.
New Orleans may be known for its gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish etouffé and sugary beignets, but three of the hottest restaurants in the Crescent City are the Italian eateries Domenica, Pizza Domenica and the new Mediterranean spot Shaya.
Shaya, whose eclectic Israeli-American South menu includes Louisiana shrimp shakshouka, was just named one of the 21 best new restaurants in America. All of the combined success has led to Alon Shaya, the chef and owner behind all three, winning the coveted James Beard Award for best chef in the South.
Domenica has been a hit with diners and reviewers since it opened in September 2009, and so has its offshoot Pizza Domenica, which followed in April 2014. Shaya, combining Mediterranean flavors with dishes from the chef’s native Israel, opened in February 2015 and is “exceeding my expectations of what we envisioned,” he tells From The Grapevine.
Shaya and Pizza Domenica are just blocks apart on Magazine Street in uptown New Orleans, while Domenica is eight miles away in the business district. While the chef spends more time at the new restaurant, he checks in at the others daily by phone and stops in a few times a week. “I have an amazing team,” he says. “I do my best to make sure they have the tools they need and believe in the vision and mission of the restaurant.”
Each eatery has a different vibe, Shaya says. “Unlike Domenica which has an in-house program for handmade salumi and pastas and a large dining room filled with cool artwork and crystal chandeliers, Pizza Domenica focuses solely on wood-fired pizzas, great salads and small plates like meatballs and polenta, and feels like a comfortable neighborhood restaurant with lots of reclaimed wood and a long bar with chalk boards," he explains. "Shaya is completely different. It has a light and airy feel with outdoor seating, lots of fresh flowers and plants, wood-burning pita oven in the dining room, light-colored wood and blue accents in the wall covering throughout. It has a very bright and inviting atmosphere, and we aren’t afraid of turning the lights down and the music up when the sun sets.”
Shaya applies his food philosophy to all three. “I believe food should be cooked because of a story," he says. "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.”
Some of his most popular dishes are wood-fired pizza and whole roasted cauliflower at Domenica and Pizza Domenica – he sells more than 700 heads of cauliflower a week – and hummus at Shaya, where Greek, Bulgarian, German and Moroccan cuisines “are also a small part of a much bigger picture. I don't think we have another restaurant [in New Orleans] that brings together all of the cultures and cuisines that are being celebrated in Israel today.”
Shaya, who was born south of Tel Aviv, grew up cooking with his mother and grandmother. “I always knew that I could bring happiness to my family by cooking something for them. I used to make lutenitsa, which is a Bulgarian spread of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. We would roast the peppers and eggplant on the stove-top 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,” he says, adding that he was “making stuffed peppers, grape leaves, cabbage, jelly donuts, spanakopita, moussaka and much more all before I was 10.”
His childhood memories of visiting his grandparents revolve around food. “We would always go out for ice cream together in Jaffa. We would also stop at Abulafia bakery for pita with za’atar and borekas with feta. Those are all on the menu at Shaya now.” Shaya’s family moved to the U.S. when he was a child, settling in Philadelphia.
Shaya, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America, has fond memories of his time apprenticing at Besh Steak at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
“It was like a culinary playground. There were lobsters, famous chefs, caviar and bright lights everywhere. I learned a lot about going over-the-top to make people happy.”
He wound up in New Orleans “because of my partner and friend Octavio Mantilla, a big brother to me ever since we met and worked together in St. Louis,” and fell in love with the city, its food, music, people and culture. “There is an indescribable feeling of being in a community that has challenged me, made me learn more about who I am, and then invited me to stay, relax and enjoy the way you would expect from a favorite grandmother,” says Shaya. “It was cooking and living through Hurricane Katrina that made me really look deep down inside and question where I wanted to be in life, and I decided New Orleans needed me and I needed New Orleans.”
Shaya, whose wife Emily owns a vintage rental business, learned to surf on a trip to Israel, and plans to go back twice this year to see family and revisit favorite food haunts.
Meanwhile, running three restaurants keeps him busy, although he does hope to write a cookbook someday. “Shaya is still very new,” he says. “We have lots of work to do.”
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