Israeli-born chef Alon Shaya cooks an eggplant and okra dish in his New Orleans restaurant.
Nearly 300 years after Louis the XIV’s “Code Noir” ordered all Jews out of Louisiana, Israeli-born chef Alon Shaya set up shop in New Orleans.
Shaya’s restaurant, Domenica, opened as a traditional Italian restaurant in 2009. Slowly but surely, however, Israeli flavors started to seep into his menu. The result? Italian staples like slow-roasted goat shoulder and broccoli rabe find themselves folded into shakshuka.
“When you’re Israeli, food is a huge part of your culture,” Shaya said. “There’s no like ‘Oh, I’m not into that.’”
Born in Bat Yam, a coastal town in Israel, Shaya moved with his family to Philadelphia when he was 4 years old. As the head of a struggling immigrant family, his mother worked two jobs to make ends meet. As a result, Shaya would often cook dinner for the family. His meals started off simple: a microwaved potato with cheese. But on those rare special occasions when his Israeli grandparents would come to visit, the kitchen would fill with the comforting smells of roasting vegetables, infused with the flavors of his Savta’s Bulgarian ancestry.
“I fell in love with food because my grandmother would come from Israel every year,” Shaya explained. “I would never know when she was arriving so when I would open the door and smell peppers roasting on an open flame, it was like ‘Oh my God, Savta’s here!’ That started creating a connection between the smell of food and family.”
The next few years were tumultuous to say the least. By his own admission, Shaya was “a shitty little kid” who fell in with “the wrong crowd.” He was constantly getting kicked out of class. His salvation came in the form of a Home Economics teacher who would put him to work chopping onions when others teachers booted him out.
“She really was the turning point for me to get serious about something. She got me my first restaurant job, she drove me there, she checked up on me that I was showing up on time.”
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Shaya spent some time cooking at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and Antonio’s Ristorante in St. Louis.
He spent 2007 in Italy to soak up the techniques he would need to open Domenica.
With the restaurant established, he was surprised to find himself introducing Israeli dishes into his repertoire. He started small: a dish of tahini here, an Israeli bottle of wine there. The customers went wild.
“We were selling more Israeli wine here than anywhere in the state of Louisiana,” Shaya laughed.
Today, Shaya hosts Passover and Hannukah meals at the restaurant, serving dishes like zaa’tar buttermilk biscuits with babaganoush, latkes with a side of creole-cream-cheese-stuffed deviled eggs topped with salmon roe, and Sicilian sea-salt matzo with olives and rosemary. The Passover menu can draw in up to 400 people.
Shaya is the first to say that he’s “fallen head over heels” for New Orleans. His kitchen is well-stocked with locally sourced Southern ingredients — and he often blends them with Israeli flavors.
Though Shaya says there have been “many failed experiments,” his fire-roasted eggplant stuffed with okra and drizzled with tahini is not one of them. Each spoonful was a surprising fusion of Tel Aviv and the Big Easy. The chef pointed out that the eggplant and okra are grown in nearby farms — and to him, that’s important.
“Food doesn’t have to be fried chicken for it to be Southern,” Shaya explained. “It just has to be from the South.”
Alon Shaya shared his recipe for okra-stuffed coal-roasted eggplant with the Forward. Try it for yourself at home!
In the final installment of our Chosen Chefs series, we head to New Orleans to catch up with chef Alon Shaya, executive chef of Domenica. Like all of the chefs we’ve profiled, Shaya is a member of the tribe who’s worth keeping on your radar. If we were the betting type, we could some James Beard Awards in his future.
To hear chef Alon Shaya tell it, Israeli food helped get him where he is today. The acclaimed executive chef of John Besh’s Italian restaurant Domenica in New Orleans, was born in suburban Tel Aviv but moved to Philadelphia when he was just 4 years old.
The child of an Israeli mother and Romanian father, some of Shaya’s earliest memories were of coming home from school and smelling the roasting peppers his grandmother cooked on a flame. “Those are the memories that made me fall in love with food,” said Shaya, 32.
Yoshie and I arrived in New Orleans on a Friday morning. We were newlyweds on vacation, staying with our friend Josh for the Sabbath before spending a few days exploring the city.
Early in our relationship, the Sabbath had been a point of contention between Yoshie and me in that he observed it and I did not. To me, the Sabbath felt like a foreign country — intriguing, but filled with unfamiliar customs and signs written in a language I couldn’t quite understand. As our relationship grew, I gradually began to learn and like more about celebrating the Sabbath, and together we had begun to define the boundaries of a shared religious practice. Still, while we had found a good rhythm in our observance, I worried about how well it would translate away from home. (I must have forgotten that “worrying” is not a popular pastime in the Big Easy.)