It's been about two week since James Beard Award semifinalist Alon Shaya opened the doors to his highly-anticipated eponymous Israeli restaurant. Anchored by a wood fired oven—and some of the best pita you'll ever try—Shaya is a ground breaking new restaurant for New Orleans, one that embraces share plates over tasting menus, heritage over trends, and adds Israeli to the local dining lexicon. Here now, chef Alon Shaya discusses the inspiration behind his menu, how his family feels about him tinkering with their recipes, and just what's in store for those who are venturing to the Uptown restaurant for the first time.
How's business at two weeks in?
We're really trying to work through some of the details, and perfect everything, but we're really happy with the way everything has been turning out so far.
A lot of the stuff I've been making forever, at my house, growing up, cooking. Some things are exactly the way they've always been, like the recipes from my grandmother, and some things we've adjusted to be even better. The falafel is the perfect example. It's a family recipe, but we just recently started folding in a little whipped egg whites. We fry them and they come out really light and airy, and not so dense and heavy. That's something that through my hushpuppy making experience, I was like oh, you know, cool, we can do this, and it'll come out even better. I've never liked a falafel when it sits in your stomach and makes you feel like you just ate a ton of bricks.
Do you dare tell your family that you've tinkered with their recipes?
My mom is very happy. She's already come, and spent a few days with us here, hanging out in the kitchen, telling us oh you can do that better and I gave her one of the falafels and she's like that's the best falafel I've ever tasted. She's all about the end product, just like me. We don't mind changing things up. The Lutenitsa (the Bulgarian spread), that recipe hasn't changed a grain. That's my grandmother's recipe. It's like the simplest, purest thing. You look at it and you're not expecting much. You're just expecting a roasted red pepper spread. Then when you get into it, it's just mindblowing.
Travel also seems to have influenced this menu a lot.
Travel to Israel, for sure. The food we're cooking at Shaya truly represents the food that's being eaten in Israel today. In Israel you have Moroccans, Tunisians, Turks, Greeks, Yemenites, Bulgarians, French, British. Britain ruled Israel before it was an independent state, so my mother went to grade school and was taught by all British school teachers, so she has this British accent, a British/Isreali/American accent thing going on. So, you know, that's just my mom. It shows you how recent all that has happened, and how much influence the immigration into Israel has influenced the cuisine and the food there.
I get a chance here to pull from all of that, and say alright, we want to do this Moroccan dish, this Polish dish. My Father is Romanian, so I put a paprikash on the menu, and to me that means something and it makes sense. The cooks love cooking it because there's that story there, and I hope it translates into the eating experience too.
Is there a single dish on the menu that's your favorite?
That's so hard to tell. Probably the wood-fired pita bread.
Really, why's that?
Because we spent a lot of money building that oven.
I'm joking around, but really I think it is the pita bread. Because It touches every table. It's what everybody starts their meal with. I feel like it's the best pita bread I've ever had, including my trips to Israel. I feel like we've truly nailed that recipe. That wood burning oven adds so much to it. When the customers come and crack it open, and they have that first taste of Shaya, and they dip it into the Za'atar oil, that to me, it couldn't be any more important. They're going to know right there if they'll like the place or not.
Congratulations on your Beard Nomination, by the way. What were you doing when you found out?
Making pita bread actually. You can see, I've already turned this apron inside out. I've been pretty much stuck in front of that oven for the last few days, really making sure we keep up with the pita.
How are you juggling this and Domenica?
We have a great team at Domenica. Chef Phillip Mariano has been working with me there for over six years, and Domenica's not even six years old. Phil and I worked together eight months prior to opening. He's truly been a rock for me there.
All in all, our management team at all three places [Domenica, Pizza Domenica, Shaya] is super strong, and with this growth, we've created this Director of Operations position, Shannon White, our manager here, who is also overseeing Domenica and Pizza Domenica.
This has been taking up a lot of my time, but we have meetings and I go to Domenica often. As this kind of gets its legs, I'll be evening my time out more.
What was opening during Mardi Gras like?
It was great. It hasn't been that crazy.
I mean, it's been crazy in the sense that it's a lot of work, getting everything working and moving in the right direction. From a guest standpoint, it's been very positive. Granted, it's been a lot of friends and family. So over the next few weeks, we'll likely be seeing more people who just spot us on the street, and I'd like to hear their thoughts. People that don't have a no connection to Domenica, or they don't read Eater or anything else, and they stop in randomly and enjoy their meal, that's what means the most to me.
Are you guys doing reservations and walk-in service?
People are definitely going to want to make reservations. We'll do walk-ins as well, but we only have a limited amount of seats.
Are you seating upstairs too?
Upstairs has been redone for private events. One room for about 60 people. Another room can do about 22 people. They're beautiful rooms. But we do have the courtyard, so on a nice day our dining room space will double.
Did you keep the same kitchen set up as Dominique's on Magazine?
We moved a bunch of stuff around. We definitely didn't tear down any walls, but moved a lot of equipment and made it work for our menu. I've designed several kitchens over the past ten years and I always say do the menu first, and come up with what the identity of the restaurant will be, and then design the kitchen.
For me, I wanted the identity of this place to be about the wood fired oven and pita bread, because I know how to use a wood fired oven. We have two other ones. I thought, if everyone can come in and get pita bread that's been cooked within the past two minutes—pretty much when you walk through the door, we fire the pita bread—so, that to me was part of the identity. All of the little salads and spreads you start with are part of the identity. I wanted people to sit, share lots of little plates, pass things around, rip that bread, dip it in. Really allow the communal table to be together, that's what this food is all about. It's not about six course tasting menus or anything like that. Both of those things come from the wood burning oven over there.
How many cooks man that station?
Two, and then we have five more in the kitchen. And we have three upstairs, for production and pastry.
What has your daily routine been looking like since opening?
I get in very early, and leave very late at night. It's really been just hanging out with the cooks, cooking. I've been training everybody on the wood burning oven. We've been readjusting things, making sure we have the tools and ingredients we need. I'm kind of like the superglue trying to keep this entire together.
The Bossman. Do they fear you?
No. I'd say it's really been a round-table of an opening. All of our managers and chefs, we all really spent the entire two and a half months before we opened talking about things together, making decisions together. Coming up with the ideas. Like our managers Sean and Peggy came up with the Moroccan tea and the sodas. Zack, one of my sous chefs, came up with the Persian rice dish. And Liz, my production sous chef, made the falafels and kebabs just perfect.
There's no way it's been a one man show. If it was, I wouldn't be sitting here. I'd be crying in a ditch somewhere. There's been so much that's been done, and I've not only needed them, but I've welcomed all their thoughts and ideas, and it's truly paid off. This place is ten times better than it would've been had I just come in, wrote a menu, and hired some cooks.
That being said, it seems like it was a pretty quick turn around from the time you announced the restaurant to the actual opening. How long in the making has the restaurant actually been?
Conceptually many years, but we brought the management team together in December to do recipe testing, writing manuals, floor plans, rules of the road and all that.
Where do you see Shaya going in the very near future?
We're going to do Passover here. I'd like to begin doing private events in our Upstairs space. That's the next big phase for us. Also, the outdoor seating area, beginning to seat that on a regular basis.
Where do you like to eat in New Orleans?
My wife and I eat more Vietnamese food than anything else. My new kind of space that we found recently is Pho Ga. It's crazy good. You call the day before and pre-order your tamarind glazed lobster. They have lobster tanks. They take the lobster and do this beautiful tamarind glaze with lemongrass and jalapenos and rice, and it's like the whole lobster in a wok, cooked at a high temperature. It's crazy. A lot of things they have there are good. The lemongrass shrimp with rice, the very basic stir fries are mindblowing. Anything stir fry with beef is killer. It's not like a Chinese stir fry, where it's full of soy and stuff. It's much lighter, with garlic, ginger cilantro, jalapenos. I love that place. I love Tan Dinh for spicy tofu, quail with black pepper sauce, and their pork rice paper rolls, the big ones that you pour all the broth over the top. I got to Ba Mien for the calamari, and their steamed rolls. Dong Phuong for banh mi. I go to Hong Kong Market for my crispy pork fix.
I like La Petite Grocery a lot. I go there a bunch. I like eating at Emeril's. If you haven't been there recently, David [Slater] is killing it. These fried chicken boards he's doing. They're so amazing. Every time I go there, he cooks for me, so I'm not sure if I'm getting things from the menu or off the menu, but I always walk out of there thinking that's some of the best food I've had in New Orleans ever.