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The Food of My People

It was cooking that made me embrace being Jewish

Alon Shaya
March 16, 2018
Photo: Rush Jagoe
Alon Shaya with his father.Photo: Rush Jagoe
Photo: Rush Jagoe
Alon Shaya with his father.Photo: Rush Jagoe

Even though I was born in Israel, grew up with a religious mother, and went to a high school where the majority of students were Jewish, somehow, by the time I started college at the Culinary Institute of America, I didn’t really know much about Jewish food. That became especially obvious when some friends and I decided to start a Jewish Culture Club at school, the first in the CIA’s history.

Let me back up. When I began school there, I was still a little bit awestruck that I was even at the CIA. I’d been accepted (and had been able to afford to go) thanks in large part to the perseverance of mentors like my high school home-ec teacher Donna, who helped me and my mom sort out scholarship applications and financial-aid forms. To me, the CIA was like a culinary Harvard. Its main building was an old and regal brick monastery on a campus in New York’s Hudson Valley, dotted with apple orchards. Teachers here were called “chefs,” and, unlike nearly all of my high-school teachers, none of them avoided eye contact with me when I passed them in the hallways. On one of our first nights on campus, new students were invited to the house of the college president, Ferdinand Metz. He asked our group of aspiring chefs, “What’s the best kind of apple to use in an apple pie?” Other students called out answers; none of them were what he was looking for. I raised my hand and suggested that it took three different kinds of apples for different layers of flavor and texture. I got it right! I was so excited that I called Donna collect the next day to tell her.

To my surprise, I was starting to love being in school. We had academic classes like Gastronomy, where we studied the history of food and read about figures from Escoffier to Alice and Culinary Math, in which we learned about costing out food and how to read a profit-and-loss statement for a restaurant. Then there were the kitchen-based classes. We learned how to brunoise and julienne, how to make chicken stock and béchamel sauce. In Meat Fabrication, we’d butcher whole chickens and cows. Once, we broke down an entire pig, and then the chef in charge said, “All right, now you guys put it all back together.” We clustered around the pig parts: “Well, I think the head goes here, and the tenderloin goes here, and the leg goes here. . . .”

And for someone who’d grown up without a lot of resources, eating whatever was immediately within reach, every day at the CIA brought new things for me to taste. I had sushi for the first time and was stunned by the smooth, clean flavor of the raw fish. That sense of revelation happened over and over again, with so many firsts: escargots bathed in a pesto cream sauce; risotto, each grain of rice still plump and tender; sweet and salty Korean short ribs. I dipped crusty baguettes into bright creamed watercress soup presented under sterling-silver domes in French Dining and felt as if I were royalty. I learned how to use chopsticks properly in Asian Cookery. Someone told me that hoagies were called po’boys in New Orleans; I’d had no idea.

I got mostly A’s in my classes and even helped tutor my new friends. But I couldn’t entirely evade my old habits. There was a kid named Sal in one of my classes who routinely ticked me off with his constant bragging. One day, I said something insulting to him and he jumped right across the table at me. The chef teaching our class had to break up the fistfight. That night, I slit all the tires of Sal’s convertible Chrysler Sebring with my fish-fillet knife. Everyone knew I did it. And, unlike when I was in high school, my shenanigans caught up with me. Cutting Sal’s tires almost cost me my degree; the only thing that stopped the school from expelling me was my excellent academic record.

I found some friends who bridged the old and the new Alon. We’d discuss whatever we were learning to cook, and then would go drive an old Jeep Cherokee into shopping carts in a grocery store’s parking lot, as if we were at a demolition derby. Pushing a grocery cart around at 30 miles an hour and then hitting the brakes so that it would fly forward and smash into someone else’s car—that was our idea of how to unwind.

For the first time in my life, though, I was close friends with other kids who were Jewish. Ross and Keven became my best pals; one year, Ross brought us home with him to New Jersey for Passover. We all went to services, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed them. I began to ask myself what being Jewish was all about, whereas, before, going to synagogue had felt like a chore. It was then, on our way back to school after the holidays, that we decided we’d start a Jewish Culture Club.

I was a little bit hesitant to tell my new friends that when I was 12, I’d been kicked out of Hebrew school. My dad had given me a pair of steel-toed boots (from the thrift store, no doubt), and I thought it was cool that they were strong enough to destroy things, so I walked around and kicked holes in the Hebrew school’s drywall. They expelled me just before my bar mitzvah; I was already on the cantor’s shit list for screwing around with the pronunciation of “amen” in the prayers I was supposed to be learning. I did memorize the prayers, though, and my bar mitzvah was held as planned. After the ceremony, however, my dad accused my grandfather—my saba—of stealing the money people were giving me. It was my typical family scenario.

That mayhem clearly prepared me to run a Jewish Culture Club. At our first meeting, about twelve people showed up, some dressed in Orthodox Jewish garb. I addressed the group and read the mission statement that Keven, Ross, and I had come up with. “We want to bring people together and teach them about the great foods of our heritage,” the statement said, and went on to explain what an important cuisine this was, and how it was generally missing in our school’s curriculum. For a moment, I felt like I was back in second grade, at show-and-tell, with my borekas, only this time I had a sympathetic audience! But then, just as in second grade, I blew it. “Imagine our first club party,” I said. “The whole school will come! We’ll set up tables and serve tabbouleh and tagine. We could even do something really cool—like roasting a whole pig!”

There was an uneasy silence in the room. One of my friends took over. This is how little I thought about my faith and food: I knew that most Jews who kept kosher considered eating pork products “trayf,” forbidden—I just never really cared much about that. I was more excited to talk about any kind of food than to try to be culturally correct.

From that point forward, I started to pay attention whenever I heard or saw anything that might reflect Jewish culture. As a gift for starting college, my dad had given me an old television set from the 1980s, wrapped in chipped wood veneer, with a giant remote that had only four buttons. I took aluminum foil from the kitchen to make little rabbit-ear antennae, but even then I could really get only one TV channel. But that channel played Seinfeld reruns constantly, and someone on Seinfeld was always mentioning chocolate babka or inhabiting a stereotypical Jewish identity. It seems funny now, but a lot of my cultural education came from Seinfeld.

A less humorous side of my Jewish education came when we were putting up flyers around school for our club meetings. The morning after we’d taped up posters, I came home to discover that the one I’d put on my own dorm-room door had been marred by a piece of tape with a huge swastika on it. The same thing happened to Keven. We never told the school; we didn’t want to make too big a deal out of it and have that be what attracted attention to the club. I remember calling my mother, though, who then told Saba, who happened to be visiting from Israel. He suggested he would get his “friends” to “deal with the situation.” My mother and I had to beg him not to do anything. With renewed seriousness, Keven, Ross, and I went ahead with our Jewish Culture Club meetings, and the anti-Semitism gradually died off. It intensified our sense of ourselves as a group, however: suddenly, cooking Jewish food together felt like a substantive act, born out of a kind of adversity.

The small rituals of making food for Jewish holidays grew on me. We’d make latkes together for Hanukkah, shredding potatoes on a box grater, mixing them with onion, flour, and eggs, and pan-frying them until crisp. We organized a kosher cooking demonstration in the school’s theater, the first time something like that had happened on campus. We had to go through the whole process of making the demonstration kitchen kosher-friendly—boiling spoons and whisks, having a rabbi come to oversee the process. I’d never learned how to do that before.

Keven and I were eventually invited to represent Israel at a food festival in Yonkers, New York. Different countries were represented by different booths, each of them an elaborate production. Russia had a snow machine, which fake-snowed all over the cooks as they were preparing their food. Morocco included tagines and rows of spices like you’d see in a souk. Israel was a desertscape, with a mural that prominently featured a camel. We decided to make up a fancy incarnation of falafel and pita, hummus and tabbouleh. Now it seems laughable to me. We made honey-wheat pita bread. Out of that, we produced doll-sized pita cups, filled them with a dollop of roasted-red-pepper hummus, and topped the whole concoction with a mini-ball of falafel, which, I’m sure, was stuffed with something that had a double-barrel name. It may have been food I’d find needlessly fussy now, but at the time it felt as if I was starting to find a piece of myself. I’d never thought about the familiar foods of my childhood as “Jewish” until then, and I found a growing resonance in understanding these dishes to be the food of my people, my roots. It was cooking that made me embrace being Jewish.

Excerpted from Shaya by Alon Shaya. Copyright © 2018 by Alon Shaya. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Alon Shaya is a chef and founder of Domenica, Pizza Domenica, and Shaya restaurants.

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