By the time Alon Shaya was in second grade, he was going food shopping alone after school, selecting ingredients to make supper for his mother and himself. The first dish the Israeli-born James Beard Award-winning chef made on his own was cherry-poppy seed hamantashen.
Shaya, who lives in New Orleans, founded the celebrated Italian restaurants Domenica and Pizza Domenica and his namesake Shaya, which serves Israeli food with a New Orleans inflection. While he is no longer involved with those operations, he is about to open two new restaurants, Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) in New Orleans and Savta (grandmother) in Denver.
His just-released debut book, “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel” (Knopf), is a cookbook and memoir — the recipes are organized around his life story, following his adventures and curiosities. It’s an unusual format, as his has been an unusual path to rock star status as a chef.
“It’s the autobiography of my culinary sensibility, which began in Israel and has returned there,” he writes.
Shaya, the son of a Romanian-Israeli father and Bulgarian-Israeli mother, moved to the U.S. when he was 4. A year later, his parents were divorced and Shaya was raised in the Philadelphia suburbs by his mother, who worked two jobs. The highlights of those years were visits from his Israeli grandparents, when he’d come home to the aromas of his grandmother’s traditional cooking — stuffed grape leaves, charred vegetables and casseroles of cabbage stuffed with ground beef and rice.
But when his grandparents would leave, he was on his own. He began working to make extra money at age 10. His first food-related job was with a local butcher, and then he worked in a bakery. But as he would throughout his life, he kept his eyes on what was going on around him and learned from all.
Elsewhere, though, he was getting into trouble, whether for drugs or stealing. He wasn’t particularly interested in school, but one course changed his life: home economics. There, he began discovering his talents and also learned kitchen skills. His teacher, Donna Barnett, noticed and understood him, and he credits her with saving his life.
In an interview in Manhattan at Breads Bakery, also owned by Israelis, he says, “Then I realized I could become a chef. I didn’t have many other options.”
Shaya studied at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in restaurants in Philadelphia, Las Vegas and St. Louis before moving to New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he began cooking with a friend to help feed the hungry and those doing rescue work. They made a version of a New Orleans staple: red beans and rice. The book includes a recipe for that dish by his wife Emily, a New Orleans native he met at a Jewish federation function soon after Katrina.
“Cooking for people after Katrina brought me back to earth. I was 25, had worked at fancy restaurant jobs before that and was always trying to create the next big dish. I lost sight of the fact that food is my way of bringing happiness,” he says.
He returned to Israel when his grandmother’s health was failing. The two would cook together and he took careful notes. This was the last time they saw each other.
He then put the notes away for some years. After Katrina, he followed a dream to study cooking in Italy. Back in New Orleans, he opened two Italian restaurants, and then found he was sneaking Israeli hints into the food, like adding zaatar to a pizza crust. In 2011, he traveled to Israel with several New Orleans chefs. When he visited the markets, smelled the spices and heard Hebrew, he realized he “was missing part of my life.”
“I was still hiding my Jewish heritage. But then I couldn’t hide it any more. I needed to open an Israeli restaurant,” he says, and opened Shaya in 2015, using his grandmother’s recipes.
“I became whole as a chef. It was my culinary coming of age,” he says.
Now, he travels to Israel twice a year, and always finds inspiration. As for the South, he’s very comfortable there too, and does a lot of volunteer work for the New Orleans Jewish community. “I love the connections here, how Judaism thrives in the South.”
At Shaya, as in the cookbook, the food is Israeli-flavor focused but not kosher — he uses local resources like shrimp and oysters and local produce. But, as he explains, his Kugel in Crisis can be made without bacon, shellfish can be left out, and there are many dishes that feature only vegetables.
“Israeli cuisine is really a gumbo, a melding of many food cultures,” he says. “I like to cook food that tells a story, that has more meaning than just a couple of ingredients thrown together.”
About six months ago he split with his business partner after a falling out; the partner faces public allegations of sexual harassment. Although Shaya worked hard to remove his namesake restaurant from the group, he could not.
“I have faced adversity over the years and found ways to overcome it.”
His new company is called Pomegranate Hospitality, and his two new restaurants are named for his grandparents. Saba in New Orleans is slated to open in May, and Savta in Denver in June.
“I could not be more excited about what’s next,” he says.