Chef Alon Shaya is on fire—figuratively, not literally (at least, as far as I know). Among numerous other accolades, he is a two-time James Beard award-winning chef. The Executive Chef and Partner of Domenica, Pizza Domenica and Shaya, he has recently taken New Orleans by storm (also not literally and sorry for the terrible pun).
An Israeli immigrant raised in the suburbs of Philly by a single mom, Shaya was—by his own account—a disruptive kid who seemed like he was well on his to way to winding up in jail. It took him a few trips around the world and the help of a few very special ladies to help him see the light. Or, in his case, the pilot light.
I caught up with him at the Seaport Food Lab and grilled him (sorry, I can’t stop) on, among other things, the best places to eat in NYC (you’re welcome) and the curious pronunciation of his first name.
Periel Aschenbrand: Why is your name pronounced A-loh-n and not A-lon?
Alon Shaya: I made the conscious decision in kindergarten to call myself something everyone could pronounce because everybody called me Alone.
PA: Oh my god, that’s so sad.
AS: And I was already like, “That’s so depressing. I don’t want to be known as Alone. So I was like, ‘My name is A-lohn, like a lawn mower,” and everybody was like, ‘Yeah, we got that.’
PA: Ha! And what happens when you go back to Israel? All bets are off?
AS: There everyone is like, ‘What’s your name?’ and I’m like, ‘A-loh-n,’ and they’re like, ‘Alon?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ I lead this double life of pronunciation.
PA: I can relate with a name like Periel. When I was a kid I wanted to change my name to Jennifer. Anyway. How’s New York been treating you?
AS: Awesome. We’ve had a packed itinerary and been sold out every night and during the day, trying to find good food.
PA: I would be remiss not to ask if you’ve found any sweet spots to eat that you want to share with us.
AS: I went to Café China in midtown. It’s super good. I always make Russ and Daughters an obligatory stop. We went to Uncle Boon’s, it was my first time there. Really, really good.
PA: I’m really impressed with myself that I’ve been to all these places.
AS: We went to Le Coucou for lunch. I love how they’re bringing fancy French dining back and making it approachable and cool.
PA: I like that. So. Do you speak Hebrew?
AS: I lost the language. My family immigrated, when I was four, to America.
PA: To Philly, right?
AS: Yeah. So that was a weird time to try to remember who you were before that.
PA: Do you remember moving here?
AS: I remember the plane ride over. I got in trouble for stealing a bunch of sodas and then denying it until the stewardess found them all hidden in my seat.
PA: So you were four when you moved to America. How old were you when you knew you wanted to be a chef?
AS: My father had moved to America two years before, so he left Israel in 1980 and then in 1982 we moved to Northeast Philly. And then when I was five, my parents split up. So I had kind of begun to associate food with happiness and family at the age of about seven, when it really hit me that I really loved food and I connected it with my old life. We had a really hard transition to America, with my mom leaving my dad and her raising my sister and me on her own—and with me trying to fit in. And so I remember when my Saba and Safta would come visit from Israel, my Safta would just cook. When I was seven, I came home from school one day and opened the front door to my house and she was roasting peppers and eggplants on an open flame to make Lutenitsa. And that smell hit and once I smelled that, I knew they were there, I knew that family was back together, I knew they were going to have Toblerone chocolates in their suitcase for me, I knew they were going to take us out for ice cream and Chinese food and spoil us. So I think I made that connection early. When food was involved, it meant we were all together. Pretty much what my grandmother did all the time was cook and that’s how I spent my time with her. I didn’t realize I wanted to be a chef until much later in life.
PA: I was going to say, the logical next step from there is having an eating disorder or becoming morbidly obese, not become an award-winning chef.
AS: I was always fascinated by food. It was always something I welcomed and I was always very adventurous. I try to not get comfortable with cooking, ever. My wife jokes that I never make her the same thing twice. Which is true. I like to make all my cooking mistakes at home.
PA: That’s good. How long have you been in New Orleans?
AS: Fourteen years.
AS: It’s a great place.
PA: It’s a far cry from Philly.
AS: Well I went from Philly to NY, for school. I went to the CIA, then went to Vegas for a few years, then St. Louis, and I always had a love affair with New Orleans food. My first cook book ever was the Emeril Lagassi cookbook. My mom took me to a book and food convention in Philly and we got front row seats for the Emeril Lagassi cooking demo and I was just star-struck. And he made these little shrimp beignets and he handed me one off the stage and I was blown away. And now, when I cook with Emeril and tell him this story, I think he likes it. But I remember seeing his shoes, he had really fancy black leather shoes on, and thinking, “Man, he’s a really cool, successful chef and that’s what I want to be.” I started working in kitchens at the age of fourteen, washing dishes, sweeping floors and taking out the trash and by the time I was sixteen, I got a job in a restaurant. My high school Home Economics teacher, Donna Barnett, got me my first restaurant job. She was like a mother figure to me and she still is. She was actually here for dinner last night.
PA: I love that.
AS: I was getting into a lot of trouble in high school and hanging out in the absolute wrong crowd, getting kicked out of classes, getting suspending, getting arrested and breaking all kinds of laws, and Donna saw that I had a talent for food when I was in her class. My mom tried her best but I was just too much for her to deal with. I took Home Economics because I knew I would get to hang out with knives and food and the things I loved. Eventually, Donna worked out a deal with the other teachers that they would just send me to her class instead of sending me to detention or suspending me. And she would have me chop onions and celery and as I was doing that, she would get into my head and ask me questions about what was going on. And I would talk to her. She was the only person I ever really connected with in high school.
PA: That’s incredible.
AS: And we started a foundation together called the Shaya Barnett Foundation, whose mission is to strengthen Louisiana’s hospitality industry through support of individuals within the community. So Donna got me my first job in an actual restaurant and that changed everything. I finally understood what I wanted to do after high school. And she really coached me and helped me through all of that. And then she helped get me get scholarships and grants to go to culinary school, otherwise I would not have been able to go. We couldn’t afford it. I didn’t even know what a scholarship was. So from almost getting kicked out of high school, I graduated top three in my class.
PA: And what happened to your Safta?
AS: In 2011, when I was in Israel, I realized that I was scared of cooking that food. I was insecure. It took me back to when I was trying to assimilate and trying to become an American, to when I was trying to prove I could be like one of them. I didn’t want to be individual. I didn’t want to be showing of my Hummus in the lunchroom when everyone else was eating tater tots and Sloppy Joes.
AS: For me it was like: I’m different and I’m not happy about it. It was ingrained. It was deep down, to the point that I wouldn’t cook Israeli food. And then, the light went off. And I was like, ‘I can do this! I should be proud of this!’ And then I started sneaking all kinds of Israeli food on the menu at Domenica.
AS: I was putting Zatar on Buttermilk biscuits, I was making Ceci puree—which is hummus—I was sneaking it all in. And when I was doing that, the customers loved it.
PA: And Safta?
AS: So I took another trip back to Israel and another one. And it kept registering. I started looking at my old notes. When I went back in 2003, it was when my grandmother was passing away. She was bedridden, but before she passed, she asked the whole family to come up and everyone was sitting around on the couch and talking and I was itching to do something. And I said, I want to cook all the recipes Safta made for me when I was kid.
AS: And so she would give me shopping lists. And I would go to the market and buy it all and I would come back and I would cook it all and bring her tastes in her bedroom and she would say add a little bit more of this or whatever, and I wrote all those things down.
PA: You were getting positive reinforcement?
AS: Well, she was like, do this, do that. I made this salad I learned in culinary school for her and she was like, “I don’t want to taste that. We need to stay focused on these dishes.” She knew how important this was. And that this was our last time together. She knew I was a chef, she had seen the transformation of my life and she knew I needed to know how to make all of that.
PA: That’s just amazing. Where was she from, originally?
AS: Bulgaria. They moved to Jaffa in 1948. I was born in Bat Yam.
PA: No way. That’s where my husband grew up. What was her name?
AS: Matilda. But everybody called her Mati.
PA: That’s a great name for your next restaurant.
AS: It is a good name.
PA: To that end. What’s your favorite drink?
PA: How do you eat your eggs?
PA: How do you drink your coffee?
AS: With a little milk.
PA: What’s your favorite Jewish Holiday?
PA: Did you have a Bar Mitzvah?
AS: I did.
PA: What did you wear?
AS: A cheap suit.
PA: What shampoo do you use?
AS: Whatever my wife buys.
PA: Gefilte fish or lox?
PA: Five things in your bag right now?
AS: My cell phone.
PA: That’s it?
AS: That’s it. I’m low key.
PA: Favorite pair of shoes?
AS: My Blundstone boots.
Periel Aschenbrand, a comedian at heart, is the author of On My Kneesand The Only Bush I Trust Is My Own.