Alon Shaya is executive chef and partner of Domenica, which earned him the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South in 2015, as well as Pizza Domenica and the eponymous Shaya. His reputation and talented team made two restaurant openings in as many years possible—realizing Shaya’s dream of a modern Israeli restaurant in an unlikely city. It also afforded him a second James Beard Award, for 2016’s Best New Restaurant.
You were in your early 20s when you started under John Besh at his steakhouse in New Orleans. Why did you choose to work with him?
I was introduced to John through my close friend and business partner Octavio Mantilla. Octavio and I worked together in St. Louis. I really looked up to him and trusted his advice. He was not only my colleague, but like a big brother to me. I was introduced to the city of New Orleans and fell in love with it when Octavio moved to New Orleans to begin working with John. I began working with them after enjoying an incredible meal. I knew I had a big opportunity to learn a new cuisine and culture that only exists in New Orleans.
How did you and John Besh become such close colleagues?
I really got to know John well during the aftermath of and recovery from Hurricane Katrina. We spent months cooking for people affected by the floods, which helped us forge a close friendship. I would have never expected a hurricane to cause that bond, but those are the twists and turns of life.
It was hard and not always fun, but our goal was to help rebuild the city through food and bring joy to people when they were sad through a hot meal. It was an unexpected direction for me, but I embraced the path of being loyal to the city and sharing the commitment to cooking for people who really needed food and comfort from the realities of post-Katrina New Orleans in the years after the storm. That commitment paid off tenfold for me. I found that really focusing on a goal, sticking with it and believing in its results, pays off greater than a quick promotion, raise or fun job opportunity.
Is there anything he encouraged you to learn that you doubted at first, but now appreciate?
I learned that if I just make a good pot of red beans and rice, I can be just as good a chef as I would be nailing a 12-course tasting menu.
What advice would you give to young chefs on choosing mentors and/or employers?
When it comes to looking for people that you want to learn under, you have to look at the whole package and what you want from your career. Think past how food tastes. There must be a larger picture to your goals. Look for people who treat everyone with respect and are running profitable and successful businesses. Someone you want to grab a beer with outside of work. Find a mentor who treats their employees with as much respect as they do their customers.
It’s not cool to skip around to several restaurants trying to learn a technique here, or a great sauce recipe there. It takes so much more than that to become a successful chef. You have to buy into a philosophy more than a menu. Find the right person, and then help them create opportunities for you.
While at Domenica, you were able to introduce some of the dishes that now reside on the menu at Shaya, but Israeli cuisine was very new territory for New Orleans. How did you go about crafting a menu that was both approachable and creative?
I made sure to make the menu approachable. It had to have things people already knew they liked: hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, falafel, pita bread. From there I worked hard with my team to create the best recipes for each dish that we could. Those staples created the menu’s backbone, and around them we were able to add in other things that would entice people to come out of their comfort zone, like kibbeh nayeh and foie gras with rose tahini.
I built a trust in the community from six years of cooking at Domenica, so while it was new territory, there was a trust between my diners and myself when the door to Shaya opened. Once they came to the restaurant, it was up to our team to show them why they should come back and spread the word about us. We did that through putting our hearts and good intentions into our food and service.
How involved are your cooks in menu creation?
Everyone has an opportunity to create a menu item. Cook something tasty that would make sense on the menu, bring it to me and the other chefs, and if we like it, it can go on the menu. It’s as simple as that.
The hard part is getting people to actually bring you something to taste. Many people are afraid they can’t do it, or they don’t have the authority to cook something other than what’s on the menu. It’s the cooks who take the risks and work hard to make it the best, who reap the rewards.
If you could give any advice to young chefs, what would it be?
Cook your story and stick with it. Find out what foods make you who you are and embrace that. People will see that you’re cooking with your heart and follow you anywhere you go.