Chef Alon Shaya’s Holiday Table Represents His Past and Present
One month removed from receiving the 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: South, Alon Shaya stood inside his eponymous restaurant and presented a dish of lutenitsa—a Bulgarian purée of roasted pepper, eggplant, garlic, and tomato, served cold—to a table of eager diners. “This is the dish that my grandmother made that first got me excited about cooking,” said Shaya. The short pause and overture of his eyes spoke volumes about the chef’s pride in the familial influences that he has carried with him throughout his professional career.
Shaya first gained notoriety as chef and partner of Domenica in New Orleans, where he successfully intertwined the bountiful ingredients of the South with the regional fare that he cooked and studied during a sojourn through Italy. A prime example is his stracci dish—thin sheets of green-hued stracci pasta tossed in oxtail ragu, and topped with fried chicken livers—a steadfast item which has been on the menu since the restaurant’s opening six years ago.
Since its inception, Domenica’s predominantly Italian menu has been accented with touches of Chef Shaya’s Israeli heritage, a country that he emigrated from when he was four years old. At first was the shakshouka, a dish of eggs poached in a cast-iron skillet bubbling with tomato sauce, peppers, and onions, and supplemented with tender morsels of locally-raised goat. Then came the coal-roasted eggplant, split in half and drizzled with tahini. During Passover, tables full of both Jewish and Gentile diners celebrate over special prix fixe menus featuring smoked cod and pastrami-roasted duck.
Those forerunners on the menu at Domenica eventually led Chef Shaya to realize his dream of opening a restaurant that pays tribute to both his personal heritage and the waves of Jewish immigrants who, like his family, came to Israel. At Shaya, the menu reflects Chef Alon’s interpretation of modern Israeli cuisine, a culinary canon greatly impacted by its immigrants and their many cultures of origin. Whether from North Africa, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe, the variety of Israeli citizens hold a common thread in religion. The annual celebration of Hanukkah unites that melting pot in a festive and commemorative eight-day feast.
When preparing dinner to celebrate the Festival of Lights, Chef Alon recalls the many meals of his youth where he cooked alongside his mother and grandmother. The feast typically began with hummus, the ubiquitous purée of chickpeas and tahini, blended with garlic and lemon. A long turn through the food processor creates an incredibly smooth, almost fluffy consistency before plating with a healthy dose of extra virgin olive oil and chopped parsley. At Shaya, hummus is served with pillows of pita bread baked in the wood-fired oven; at home, Chef Alon bakes pita bread inside his Big Green Egg. Rounding out the preprandial spread are Moroccan carrots roasted until barely tender and then tossed in a vinaigrette flavored with orange zest, cumin, and amba powder, an Iraqi condiment made predominantly from dried mangoes, vinegar, and spices.
Friends and family dine at a table artfully arranged by Chef Alon’s wife Emily, who owns an antique and vintage furniture rental business. The feast continues with short-ribs slowly cooked in the style of a tagine with garlic, onion, and fennel and placed over couscous. Grape leaves envelop a whole red snapper, generously seasoned inside and out with Persian lime to produce a delicate and moist fish. Persian rice is cooked with saffron and then enriched with yogurt and egg yolks before meeting a searing hot cast-iron skillet coated in clarified butter for a golden brown final presentation. The aforementioned shakshouka and a nutty pomegranate and almond tabouleh complete the main courses.
In the Shaya home, the Hanukkah meal is customarily finished with two desserts. First, a stunning light and airy babka braided with bittersweet chocolate is served. Then comes the pièce de résistance: sufganiyot, freshly fried doughnuts commemorating the miracle of the oil that kept the Temple lit for eight days. In his childhood, Chef Shaya would stand beside his mother and help fill these donuts with grape jelly. Working in tandem, a young Alon would carefully squeeze the fruit filling while his mother guided his hands every step of the way. Any overfill would be quickly corrected by the son with a swipe of a spoon which proceeded directly into his mouth, while the mother watched and smiled, surmising that such mistakes were likely intentional. Many years later, the son continues that tradition with his own delicious flair, filling the sufganiyot with a sweet satsuma curd before a final dusting of spiced sugar.