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?