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A chef’s journey through food and memories brings him home again

“Shaya,” the new cookbook from chef and restaurant owner Alon Shaya
“Shaya,” the new cookbook from chef and restaurant owner Alon Shaya Used with permission by Alfred A. Knopf

This time last year, Alon Shaya couldn’t have imagined how much his life would change.

The celebrated chef, an Israeli native with a successful restaurant in New Orleans, came to Chapel Hill last March for the Jewish Foods in the Global South symposium at UNC. He spoke about his personal journey of learning what makes a food Jewish and how global forces affect both culinary and social evolution.

It was a powerful message, and one that is expressed with humble reflection and enticing recipes in his new memoir-cookbook, “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel,” which was published March 21.

Last September, however, it was a local force that held his attention. Shaya was fired from his namesake restaurant, winner of the prestigious James Beard Best New Restaurant Award in 2016, and was barred from using his own name in a new venture.

The business was part of celebrity chef John Besh’s hospitality empire, which was rocked by a sexual harassment scandal that forced Besh to resign. The debacle was the first in a series of exposés that has brought down several major names in the culinary field as an offshoot of the #MeToo movement that’s hit several other industries. (Shaya was not accused of any harassment at Besh’s company, according to reports.)

2ND-Alon Shaya
Celebrated chef Alon Shaya, an Israeli native, won the prestigious James Beard Best New Restaurant Award in 2016. His new memoir-cookbook, “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel,” recalls his personal journey of learning what makes a food Jewish and how global forces affect both culinary and social evolution. Rush Jagoe Used with permission by Alfred A. Knopf

The experience was sobering for Shaya. Now, at his new Pomegranate Hospitality group, he’s determined to foster a climate of transparency and support at his two new restaurants.

“It’s been a roller coaster year, but you have to make the best of every situation,” Shaya says during a call last week from New Orleans. “We feel there is a clear path forward for us to accomplish our goals.”

His first venture, Saba, which is Hebrew for grandfather, is scheduled to open in the Crescent City by the end of April. Safta, meaning grandmother, will follow in June in Denver. While both will continue his focus on contemporary Israeli cuisine, which is heavily influenced by the foodways of both welcomed immigrants and political rivals, the chef pledges comprehensive change in the way his company operates.

Shaya says he looks to Raleigh chef Ashley Christensen, who he refers to as “his sister,” as a role model in establishing his new brand. Christensen, a James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef in the country, owns Poole’s Diner, Death and Taxes and several other restaurants. She has become as respected for her activism as she is for her award-winning cooking.

“She’s someone who has really inspired Pomegranate, in terms of our structure,” Shaya says.

From the kitchen crew to the serving staff and beyond, he’s more interested in people who share his vision and values than those with extensive experience. Supported by a full-time director of culinary culture, he is focusing as much on creating a safe and comfortable workplace for employees as he is, for example, sourcing sustainable grains from a local miller to produce even better fresh-baked pita bread for guests.

A culinary legacy

None of this will surprise readers of “Shaya,” which provides an unflinching look at how a troubled, angry youth redirected his mischievous energy through a series of culinary mentors. Much like author Joan Nathan’s award-winning “King Solomon’s Table,” a study of how the Jewish diaspora has affected global cuisines, “Shaya” considers the ways his family’s diverse roots and culinary legacy shaped his understanding of Jewish food. (Nathan also spoke at last year’s symposium at UNC.)

The influence of his adored grandmother cannot be understated. He associated her cooking of traditional Jewish comfort foods like stuffed cabbage and lutenitsa, a roasted eggplant and pepper dish that is the collection’s first recipe, with boundless love.

In the book, which pairs compelling food memories with related dishes, he recalls her visits to his family’s adopted home near Philadelphia, where “the aroma of peppers and eggplant charring over an open flame is what made me fall in love with food.”

“She was a very generous person,” he recalls of his grandmother, who was a pharmacist in Israel. “Through and through, she loved to take care of people. Whether she was making medicine for people or cooking for them, she had that in her. My love of hospitality came through her.”

DISPLAY-Moroccan carrot salad
Moroccan carrot salad takes advantage of young carrots roasted quickly to retain their sweet snap. Alon Shaya dresses them with a zesty coating of harissa, apple cider vinegar, spices and orange zest. Rush Jagoe Used with permission by Alfred A. Knopf

Lutenitsa is one of several recipes Shaya suggests for the Passover table. The major Jewish holiday, which begins at sundown March 30 and continues through sunset April 7, commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Observant Jews will forego leavened foods in remembrance of forebears who left Egypt in such haste that they baked unleavened matzo instead of bread.

“Shaya” also features his recipe for charoset, a bittersweet fruit and nut relish that, during Seder, represents the mortar used by Hebrew slaves to build Egyptian pyramids. He heartily recommends it as a year-round accompaniment for a cheese board or turkey sandwich.

Since Passover is a spring holiday, Shaya urges cooks to visit farmers markets for new stalks of asparagus, tender carrots and other produce missed during long winter months. One of his most popular dishes from his former restaurant, Moroccan carrot salad, takes advantage of young carrots roasted quickly to retain their sweet snap. He dresses them with a spicy coating of harissa, apple cider vinegar, spices and orange zest.

The book’s recipes reflect “the core of my Israeli cultural identity, which has persisted, even as I explored the cuisines of other places,” he writes in the preface.

“This is not a typical cookbook,” he writes. “It’s a collection of stories of place, of people, and of the food that connects them. It’s the autobiography of my culinary sensibility, which began in Israel and has returned there.”

Jill Warren Lucas is a Raleigh-based freelance writer. She can be reached at 3lucases@gmail.com or via Twitter at @jwlucasnc.

Moroccan Carrot Salad

Every hummus joint in Israel has a carrot salad on the table along with other salatim (or mezze), such as baba ganoush and labneh dip. We knew we needed a carrot dish like that at Shaya, a way to highlight the heirloom carrots of all shapes and colors that are grown throughout Louisiana’s winter and spring. This salad, as effortless as the ones that inspired it, is spiked with harissa and perky with spices and fresh mint, and its flavors get even better as they sit with each other.

It’s really important here to use thin, young carrots with a great snap and tons of natural sweetness; they’re roasted so quickly – almost akin to searing a steak hard and fast – and won’t have anything to hide behind if you use the bland supermarket carrots the size of a baseball bat. Scrawny ones, thin enough that you could use them whole without even peeling, usually have the sweetest flavor, but if yours are bigger, peel them first and cut them into smaller chunks, about 3 inches long.

2 pounds carrots, no tops

1 tablespoon plus ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 ½ teaspoons Morton kosher salt, divided

2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

1½ tablespoons harissa

1½ teaspoons sugar

½ teaspoon sweet paprika

¼ teaspoon ground caraway seeds

¼ teaspoon ground cumin

Grated zest of 1⁄2 orange

½ yellow onion, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons lightly packed fresh mint leaves

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Toss the carrots with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt, and spread them over a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for 12 to 15 minutes, until they’re sweet and tender on the outside but still have that raw crunch in the center. Let cool to room temperature.

In a large salad bowl, combine the remaining 1⁄4 cup olive oil with the vinegar, harissa, sugar, spices, orange zest and remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. No need to worry about emulsifying. Thinly slice the onion, toss it in the dressing, then pile in the carrots. Tear the mint leaves over the salad just before serving.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Excerpted from “Shaya” by Alon Shaya. Copyright 2018 by Alon Shaya. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Charoset

A traditional food at Passover, this bittersweet fruit-and-nut relish is little known outside the Jewish community. It’s got such a range and depth of flavors: savory and sweet, bright and warm. This soft, spiced version is my go-to throughout the fall and winter as an accompaniment to any cheese board or turkey sandwich. If you want to impress your friends – whether they’re Jewish or not – make some gribenes, or crispy chicken skins, and use them to scoop the charoset, chip-and-dip style, next time you’re entertaining.

10 Medjool dates, pitted and chopped

7 or 8 dried figs (6 ounces), chopped

6 ounces (about 1 cup) dried apricots, pitted and chopped

1⁄2 cup hazelnuts, toasted

1⁄2 cup pistachios, toasted

3 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and chopped

1 small yellow onion, chopped

1⁄3 cup rice wine vinegar, preferably seasoned

1⁄3 cup sweet sparkling white wine, preferably Moscato d’Asti

1⁄3 cup sugar

3 tablespoons honey

3 tablespoons apricot preserves

¼ teaspoon Morton kosher salt

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom pods

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

Grated zest from ½ orange

Grated zest from ½ lemon

1½ tablespoons lemon juice

1½ tablespoons orange juice

Roughly chop the dates, figs and apricots, removing any woody stems or ends. Add them to a food processor along with the hazelnuts and pistachios, and pulse to chop coarsely, taking care not to pulverize the mixture into a paste. It’s okay if some of the nuts remain whole. Set aside.

Add the apples and onion to a large saucepan with the vinegar, wine and sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, then turn the heat down to low and cover the pot. Cook until the onions are translucent but the apples still hold their shape, 6 to 8 minutes.

Scoop everything from the food processor into the saucepan with the onions and apples; add the honey, apricot preserves, salt, spices and zests. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until all the dried fruit has softened and absorbed the juices from the pan and the liquid has reduced to a point where it’s no longer bubbling. When you give it a taste, the flavor should be warm with fruit, alive with spice, with just a savory note in the background. The apples should still have some body to them.

Remove from the heat, and cool to room temperature before stirring in the orange and lemon juice. Leftovers keep well in the fridge for several days.

Yield: About 4 cups

Excerpted from “Shaya” by Alon Shaya. Copyright 2018 by Alon Shaya. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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