Born in Israel and raised in Philadelphia, Alon Shaya spent most of his time in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother, and to this day he can remember the smell of roasting peppers and eggplants over an open flame. Though his maternal culinary tutors may not have hailed from Italy, the inspiration of rustic Italian cooking has remained with Shaya to this day. He translates those memories and his singular talent into the dishes at Domenica, the authentic Italian restaurant he owns with Chef John Besh. Of course, Shaya has had a little help along the way from other top chefs from posts in Las Vegas and St. Louis to Italy, where he spent a year exploring the local cuisine.
Since Shaya launched his New Orleans career, Besh has been the biggest non-familial influence on the chef’s life. After Hurricane Katrina hit, Besh put Shaya up in his Slidell, Louisiana, home and later in an apartment above Restaurant August. And Besh didn’t just share room and board. Under Besh’s tutelage, Shaya has received a James Beard Nomination, and he has been recognized as a “Chef to Watch” by Esquire and one of the hot young stars of the New Orleans culinary scene. Emerging as a local talent in his own right, Shaya blends an ability to innovate (chlorophyll al dente pasta, anyone?) with an intuition for the kind of food that people crave, whether it’s called comfort food or rustic. We’ve watched him work—and more importantly, have eaten his work—all of which is a testament to the chef’s ability to absorb the best in culinary culture, from Italy to Louisiana and beyond.
Interview with Chef Alon Shaya of Domenica – New Orleans, LA
Nicholas Rummell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Alon Shaya: My home economics teacher. I had always cooked as a little kid, but at one point I was at a dark spot in high school, you know, bad grades. I took a home economics class to get out some real class, and I loved it. My teacher saw I was really into it, grabbed me by the ear and said, "This is what you're going do." I said, "Sure. I know I'm not going to be a doctor or a lawyer." She set me up with my first job in a kitchen in Philadelphia, making salads and cooking on the line. I had a job at the time working in a butcher shop, scrubbing pots and pans, but that was just a way to make money. I had been around food my whole life, but I had never put it all together. I realized [with that first job] that I had this calling.
NR: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
AS: I want to cook dishes that have been around for couple hundred years and will be around for another couple hundred years. I'm not trying to invent anything. I feel like if you can cook the perfect loaf of ciabatta or make the perfect limoncello or bake the perfect pizza crust or braise a pork shoulder, these will be things you can do forever. I like eating at trendy restaurants; I love doing that and exploring that. But I feel at Domenica we cook Italian food, and Italian food is simple and based off of tradition.
NR: So, for you, it's not so much about innovation as it is about perfection?
AS: Exactly. How do we make sure we are making the best pasta dough that we could ever make? I will say, though, that sometimes striving for perfection leads you to innovate. We use modern technology in the kitchen. We use a circulator to cook chicken so we get it at the right temperature. We're not slaves to the old recipes. But we try to adhere to the tradition.
NR: Tradition is very big with you. How does your family's tradition influence your cooking?
AS: Well, I was born in Israel, so I'm putting a lot Israeli influence into Domenica's Jewish holiday meals. I recently went to Israel with other New Orleans chefs, and the trip inspired me. We made jambalaya out of lamb sausage, gumbo out of quail and chicken. We used cod instead of crab and put it on top of fried green tomatoes. We'll use some of those recipes for the Passover meal at Domenica and for other Jewish holidays.
NR: What about your experience in Italy?
AS: That shaped me as well. I remember eating tortelloni in Italy at a small mom-and-pop restaurant. The old grandmother was heating the cream for the sauce on the espresso machine, and it made for a light, foamy sauce. I love that. When I see that, it always strikes a chord with me. I've also spent some time in the Jewish ghetto in Venice. They use olive oil in their pastries because they can't put butter next to meat. So we're using almond oil and olive oil in a lot of our cookies and cakes. In Rome there are fried artichokes (a la Judea), and we're trying to do that as well.
NR: Are there any flavor combinations you'd love to experiment with? Any you try to stay away from?
AS: I try to use the traditional combinations and enhance those. I'm not trying to combine blueberries and sea urchin to make it good. I'd rather serve blueberries with peaches, or make a great blueberry torta with almond cream. Those are the things that I love.
NR: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
AS: It's important for young chefs to comprehend that they should wait until they're 35 years old before trying to figure out the next best thing for an ingredient like the blueberry. They should spend that time perfecting blueberry pie and blueberry gelato. Tradition is exactly what it's supposed to be. Battle and figure out what you want to do, what your passions are.
NR: What's your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
AS: Oh man, probably opening Domenica and teaching all these great cooks all I know about Italian food. Nobody knew what a torta fritta was before I came here. Now customers talk about it like it's no big deal. It's become normal.
NR: Where do you see yourself in five years?
AS: I'm not sure. I have no plans to go anywhere. I love New Orleans. I love the city. I've built my business here. Not to say I would never open up something somewhere else, but I would never want live anywhere else.