Leave it to food to reveal the most basic of truths—we aren’t so different after all. Exhibit A: Israel and the American South. Seemingly disparate on the surface, the two are each cultural crossroads with rich food traditions that owe much to the contributions of newcomers, at one time or another. None of this is lost on Alon Shaya. Born in Tel Aviv, he grew up in Philadelphia, and his culinary journey has taken him from New Orleans to Italy and back. He limns his experiences in cookbook-meets-memoir Shaya, out this month. While his cooking is influenced by a host of cultures, it’s anchored by that of his Israeli homeland. Here, he shares a few Middle Eastern eateries that give him inspiration.
Was Israeli food a significant part of your family’s life after immigrating to the United States?
Food was the way we were able to reconnect with Israel on a regular basis. It really helped my mom with the move—I wanted to do nothing more than start eating cheeseburgers—but she would make all the things we would eat in Israel, and that always stuck with me.
What did that food mean to you?
It wasn’t easy for me to fit in when I first came to America. I was going through this identity crisis—as would any five-year-old who didn’t speak English well and was trying to make friends. Any time I cooked with my mom, it brought me comfort at a time when, in the rest of my life, I was working on assimilation.
How would you describe your cooking philosophy?
I like simplicity in cooking, food that tells a story and has personal meaning. I like to tap into history and focus on a singular identity for a dish, whether it’s where it’s from, its main ingredient, or the emotion I want it to invoke in someone as they’re eating it.
What do you hope people will understand about Israel through your cooking?
It’s a complicated subject, and one that is continuing to evolve. Saying “Israeli food” is like saying “American food”—it’s really a combination of many cultures. Israel has only been around since 1948, and over that time the country has dramatically changed. The food represents what was there before: Syrian food, Lebanese food, Egyptian food, and also what has happened since, which has brought in the Bulgarians, the Turks, the Greeks, the French. Now, the food reflects the medley of all of these cuisines coming together.
What’s your favorite thing to cook at home?
We make red beans and rice at the house. My wife makes that every Monday, and I whip up a little salad to go along with it. There’s no better time in my house than on a Monday night.
You had a very public change in your career last year with your departure from Besh Restaurant Group. What’s next?
We’ve formed Pomegranate Hospitality, and have been building our structure as a company, focusing on how we can put the team members first. We’ve formed a nonprofit aimed at bringing culinary vocation back into high schools. We also have plans to open a restaurant—more news to come.
How has that break influenced the way you and your team move forward?
This experience has been a moment for us to reflect, to really sit down and talk about breaking the stigma that the restaurant industry has to be this die-hard industry of people burning out and drinking and treating each other poorly. We are doing everything we can to be sure we set ourselves up to do the opposite of that.
Tell us about writing Shaya. Why did you want the book to tell your life story?
[Writing the book] was a very personal experience for me. The only way I knew to communicate the food I wanted to talk about— Italy, the South, Israel, Philadelphia, the culmination of all these places that have meant so much to me—was to start at the beginning. And to tell the story about how every fork in the road of my life has been affected by food.
1,000 FIGS | New Orleans
Gavin Cady and Theresa Galli first fed New Orleans from their food truck, Fat Falafel, before opening this intimate neighborhood restaurant that’s a go-to dinner spot for Shaya and his wife, Emily. “Their flatbread is crazy good, and they don’t hold back on the garlic—which is always a plus,” he says.
BREADS BAKERY | New York City
Israeli baker Uri Scheft made a name for himself with Tel Aviv’s Lehamim Bakery before moving stateside to open this New York outpost in 2013. Now with three locations around the city, it cranks out a chocolate babka that’s often hailed as the best in the Big Apple. Shaya counts himself among its fans, and is also big on the bakery’s challah bread and shakshuka focaccia—pastries filled with tomato sauce, egg, and spicy peppers. “I ate one for breakfast and was immediately in love with it,” he says.
ZAHAV | Philadelphia
“Michael Solomonov is a king for a reason.” Every time Shaya’s back in Philadelphia, he and his mom eat at the fellow Israeli chef ’s flagship—one of the toughest tables in the city. “It goes down as one of my favorite restaurants of all time. Every time I go, it reminds me how happy I am to be Israeli.”
TUSK | Portland, Oregon
Shaya recommends going to Tusk with a group, because you’ll “want to order everything on the menu.” Bright white and breezy inside, the restaurant prides itself on sourcing all its vegetables directly from local farms. Order some of the plates filled with them—brussels with apples and aleppo peppers, charred cabbage with seaweed and mushroom broth—along with hummus and plenty of flatbread to sop all it up with.
DIZENGOFF | Philadelphia
Another Solomonov concept, Dizengoff is modeled after an Israeli hummusiya; the menu comprises plates of creamy hummus topped with a rotating roster of toppings—beef cholent, mushrooms and pine nuts, eggplant. “They get really creative, but do it so well they make it seem simple,” Shaya says. “It reminds me of being back in Israel. Whenever I’m in Philly, hummus at Dizengoff and a philly cheesesteak at my favorite spot (Dalessandro’s) are the essential stops.”
SOFRA BAKERY | Cambridge, Massachusetts
Turkish-inspired Sofra churns out savory pastries and pies filled with the likes of spiced beef and braised greens, along with an array of prepared foods. Shaya figures he could eat there seven days a week and never grow tired of it. “Their stuffed cabbage reminds me of my grandmother’s, and who doesn’t need a quart of matzo ball soup at all times?”
KISMET | Los Angeles
Shaya digs this female-chef-led restaurant on the West Coast. “The food invokes the spices and combinations you find in the Middle East, and they load the dishes up with California vegetables,” he says. (Think cucumbers with persimmon and rosewater labneh, marinated feta with roasted onion, beet, and orange blossom.) “And the place has a great vibe that makes you want to hang out.”