By ALAN SMASON, SPECIAL TO THE CCJN
Alon Shaya has had a storied career in the culinary industry. Twice a James Beard Award recipient, Shaya’s star was flying high only a year ago when he was named Best Chef in the South, the follow-up to his award for Best New Restaurant in 2016.
Then, investigative reports in the Times-Picayune and other media, pointed to the Besh Restaurant Group (BRG) headed up by John Besh in which an atmosphere of rampant sexual harassment was alleged. Shaya was interviewed for the report, but when executives at BRG learned of his involvement in talking to the reporter, his services as the executive chef of Shaya, the Israeli-themed restaurant named for him, were terminated. In addition, he was locked out of Dominica Restaurant and Pizza Dominica, which he had helped found.
Shaya was hoping to regain control of his former award-winning establishment, but the new management at BRG was not interested and successfully fought an attempt by Shaya to regain use of his own name for his new culinary team working under the name Pomegranate Hospitality. A recent court decision found in favor of BRG.
Shaya is losing no sleep nor showing any signs of slowing down. Just a few weeks ago, he was present at the launch of a new cookbook published by Alfred Knopf. Titled “Shaya, An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel,” the book includes recipes he has made famous at his restaurant as well as several that he has preserved from his childhood home in Israel.
Working with Tina Antolini, a former New Orleanian who has written other cookbooks, Shaya is preparing to embark on a major tour in support of the book as well as the imminent opening next month of his new restaurant Saba. Saba, which means “grandfather” in Hebrew will be opened in mid-April on the former site of Kenton’s Restaurant, just off Magazine and Nashville Avenues.
Shaya’s culinary director, Zachary Engel, himself a recent James Beard Award recipient himself as Rising Chef for his work at Shaya, will be working with Shaya in the new endeavor.
While the past few months have been filled with uncertainty, Shaya reveals much in the book about his upbringing. In fact, he revealed his recalcitrant behavior as a teenager when he was living in Philadelphia. Shaya explains it as a youngster getting involved with the wrong crowd. He admits to using drugs and committing other criminal acts before he took control of his life and brought it into a positive direction.
“It’s definitely a story I didn’t really talk about much, but in writing the book I felt like it was important to kind of be open about it and make sure I communicated about how I ended up where I am,” Shaya revealed in a CCJN phone interview. “All of that really has a lot to do with it.”
Shaya was born in Israel in 1978 to an Israeli mother with Bulgarian roots (“My grandparents on my mother’s side came in 1948.”) and a Roumanian father who had emigrated to Israel in the late 1960s. Although he has some fuzzy memories of living in Israel, the family moved to Philadelphia when he was four. Occasionally, they would return to visit his grandparents from time to time.
Although his parents survived the Holocaust, Shaya’s paternal grandfather was not so lucky. “He was forced to go fight on the Russian lines with the Hungarian Army because he was caught speaking against the Nazi regime,” he explained. “He was overheard telling somebody that his wife was Jewish. They detained him and sent him to fight against the Russians, He obviously didn’t want to do that and tried to escape and they put him in a prison camp and he ended up dying there.”
Shaya reveals in his book that his life changed in high school when his interest in the fairer sex got him interested in taking a home economics class in order to meet girls. There, under the direction of his teacher, he was exposed to the possibilities of a cooking career.
His memories of cooking with his grandmother in Israel also were important to having him seek out a career in the culinary industry. “I always loved food, even from a very young age, so those smells really affected me at the time when I was smelling and cooking with her,” he recalled. “I didn’t realize I could make a career out of it until I was in high school.”
Photographs in the book are by Rush Jagoe with the cover designed by Deny Culbert. Shaya is also proud of the distinctive illustrations by Frances Rodriguez. “She was friends of a friend. We were acquaintances,” Shaya said of Rodriguez. “She used to be roommates with one of my best friends years ago and has also done a lot of great work around town, so I’ve been a fan of her work.” Shaya notes her work at Peche Restaurant, where she rendered a large, distinctive painting of a fish.
“I asked her if she’d be interested and she said yes,” he continued.
The cookbook is the result of three years’ work, but was originally intended to bolster the business at Shaya. Now, it seems, it will be timed to launch the new restaurant.
Shaya began cooking while still in high school (He admits it was his own idea to meet girls.) and give credits in the book to his home economics teacher Donna Barnett, who recognized his talent and changed his life forever. Barnett and Shaya are still close today. Straight out of high school, he moved to New York and received an associate’s degree from the Culinary Institute of America there. Not long after that, his work as a chef took him to Harrah’s Casino, where he worked in the kitchen.
Following Hurricane Katrina, he relocated to the renovated Roosevelt Hotel and took up work at Dominica. Later, based on the success of his Italian dishes at the hotel, he started Pizza Dominica on Magazine Street.
But it was a Federation-sponsored trip to Rosh Haayin, the Israeli sister city to New Orleans, that brought back many of the smells of his Israeli youth and set him on a path to coming up with an Israeli restaurant concept.
Now, in the fallout of his move away from his namesake restaurant, he can look forward to taking over a location that he can reshape into his own.
“We’re really excited about the neighborhood and we’re excited about being on Magazine Street,” he said. “There’s just a lot of great businesses around that area. We’re just excited to join the neighborhood and be among such great, iconic places in New Orleans.”
The location boasts some off-street parking behind the restaurant, which will also help maintain a steady stream of customers.
As to the former Kenton’s Restaurant, Shaya is more than optimisitic. “It’s great. You have to work with what you got. We’re really excited about the whole space,” he boasted. “There’s a lot of seats and the dining room’s amazing. We don’t have too much work to do. It’s only going to be a few weeks of construction to make the place feel like Saba’s identity and then we should be open up right after that.”
Plans include a design of a new wood-burning oven to bake pita bread, similar to the one at Shaya. He promises many of the old favorites from Shaya will be back on the new menu, but that they will have different options with the new location.
“What we cooked in the past is the tip of the iceberg,” he adde. “It will be our identity and there will be new surprises and there will be things that people will recognize and have loved.”
Over the course of the last few months, he and the team at Pomegranate Hospitality have been working on building values for the business. “What we’re focusing on it the well-being of our employees and our team members,” he mused. “We want to discourage someone who is being dispicable in our dining room and treating our staff unfairly. They won’t be welcomed in the restaurant.”
Shaya looks to the future and notes that the past has not been as bad as some might believe. “There’s a lot of great things that came out,” he noted. “The number one great thing that happened is the future. It’s a path forward that’s very clear to us and what we have to focus on and we have to do.”
He is excited about the team and its vision, even though the cost has been high. “It’s completely worth every penny to be with the people that I know who will help bring this vision to life. We’re excited to get the doors open at Saba,” he said.
The team at Saba will give attention to its customers. “We want people to demand attention. We want to give them attention. We want to provide them with the best possible experience that we can,” Shaya said.
After the doors open at Saba, the team will be opening another new restaurant called Safta (“grandmother”) in Colorado. “We love it there, ” he said. “We built some great relationships there.”
So, in the meantime, it’s the first of two restaurants opening its doors and a book tour in Shaya’s future. And does he have another book bursting to come out? “Eventually I may write another book, but there are no plans to do that just yet,” he confided.