Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Jour­ney Back to Israel

  • Review
By – March 29, 2018

Chef and debut author Alon Shaya doesn’t use the word odyssey” lightly.

Shaya opened his name­sake restau­rant in New Orleans in 2015, which won the James Beard Award for Best New Restau­rant the fol­low­ing year. After a pub­lic split with famed restau­rant group own­er John Besh, he stepped away from the restau­rant and launched Pome­gran­ate Hos­pi­tal­i­ty Group. He’s now opened a new restau­rant, Saba, in New Orleans, and will open anoth­er, Saf­ta, in Den­ver in sum­mer 2018.

While this book incor­po­rates tra­di­tion­al cook­book ele­ments – recipes paired with gor­geous pho­tos, notes on cook­ing, and tips for stock­ing your spice cab­i­net and pantry – it also con­tains a com­pelling nar­ra­tive ele­ment. Shaya chron­i­cles his move from Israel to Philadel­phia at the age of four, describ­ing what it was like to grow up in a house­hold that strug­gled to make ends meet. The one thing that kept him hap­py and inspired was food. As a young adult, cook­ing turned his life around when he began work­ing in kitchens at Las Vegas casi­nos. No longer was he get­ting in trou­ble with the police for drugs and theft, or spend­ing time with the wrong crowds. The book’s riv­et­ing per­son­al sto­ries ele­vate it far beyond a stan­dard cookbook.

After mov­ing to New Orleans in 2003, Shaya redis­cov­ered his culi­nary roots on a trip to Israel with oth­er chefs. He wrote of his expe­ri­ence, One side of me was excit­ed to show every­body these spots, and the oth­er side was trans­port­ed back to being young, rec­og­niz­ing how deep in me all these smells and tastes were.”

Shaya’s new restau­rants are named for his grand­moth­er (his saf­ta, in Hebrew) and his grand­fa­ther, or saba, a choice that hon­ors their influ­ence on his life. Shaya’s grand­moth­er would vis­it from Israel, and he would shad­ow her in the kitchen, learn­ing many of the skills he uses today. Sim­i­lar­ly, his grand­fa­ther helped instill in him impor­tant life lessons.

Amidst the sto­ries of Shaya’s child­hood and upbring­ing, read­ers will find deli­cious yet sim­ple Israeli recipes such as his Israeli sal­ad, Bright Green Falafel, shakshuka,and his leg­endary pitas. Also includ­ed are Amer­i­can-influ­enced recipes from his child­hood, like A Good Turkey Sand­wich (a sta­ple food when fish­ing with his dad) and Spicy Scal­lop Rolls, which he learned to make while work­ing in a butch­er shop when he was ten years old.

The beau­ti­ful pho­tographs cap­ture the essence of Shaya’s love for food, and each chap­ter includes cap­ti­vat­ing water­col­or paint­ings of scenes from his life by artist Frances Rodriguez.

Through­out the book, Shaya illu­mi­nates how inspired he is by his Jew­ish and Israeli roots through recipes and sto­ries. He weaves Ital­ian, South­ern Amer­i­can, Bul­gar­i­an, and Roman­ian recipes into his book, cre­at­ing deli­cious and vibrant cui­sine, acces­si­ble in kitchens everywhere.

Every­thing Bagel Borekas, anyone?

Harp­er Spero is a busi­ness coach who spe­cial­izes in work­ing with ser­vice-based new­bie solo­pre­neurs and small busi­ness own­ers. Harp­er is also the host of Made Vis­i­ble, a pod­cast ded­i­cat­ed to peo­ple liv­ing with or affect­ed by invis­i­ble ill­ness. She is a writer who focus­es on chron­i­cling her rare immun­od­e­fi­cien­cy that you’ve like­ly nev­er heard of. She is based in New York City and spends her win­ters in Tel Aviv. When she’s not in Tel Aviv, she spends her time scour­ing the world for the next best Israeli restaurant.

Discussion Questions