As Israeli cuisine becomes more and more popular, it’s no surprise that its chefs are beginning to twinkle brighter and brighter in the culinary firmament.
Who could have guessed that a trip with the “Queen of Jewish Cuisine” herself, Joan Nathan (King Solomon’s Table, James Beard Award American Cooking 2006, 1995), to Israel would spin off into In Search of Israeli Cuisine, a documentary by Roger Sherman, (James Beard Award Best Food Documentary 2013) and provide the spark that lights up the most exciting trend in international cooking? Rising star begets rising star. This year’s James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year, Zachary Engel, the chef de cuisine at New Orleans’ Shaya (2016 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in the United States), owned by Chef Alon Shaya (2015 James Beard Award for Best Chef, Southeast) is the latest chef to brighten the gastronomic sky. Engel, who has worked with other Israeli cuisine heavies such as Michael Solomonov (James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef 2017) and acclaimed Israeli chef Meir Adoni (who just opened Nur in New York a few weeks ago), took some time shed a little light on the inspiration that illuminated his path as he followed his own shining star.
Jewish Food Experience®: Growing up Jewish, having a father who is a rabbi, would you say that experience gave you a “Talmudic” or a more incremental “Parsha” approach to cooking? How?
Zachary Engel: With my dad being a rabbi, I had a very Jewish upbringing. We observed Shabbat as a family every Friday night and went to synagogue. I was very involved in Jewish youth group and spent almost every summer of my life at Reform Jewish summer camps. When I started cooking and chose cooking as a career path, it made a lot of sense to look a long way down the road and figure out what it was that I would want to cook as a chef once I got to that point. Israeli food speaks to the Jewish experience and so I went to work for Michael Solomonov at Zahav because he was the only one cooking Israeli food at the time. Growing up as the son of a rabbi defines a lot of who you are when you are a child. That identity is the basis for the story I try to tell through food.
JFE®: What were the most important lessons you learned from Solomonov, Adoni and Shaya?
ZE: I have been fortunate to have incredible mentors in my life. From Michael, I learned a solid foundation of the flavors and techniques of the Middle East. He also showed me how hard to work in the day-to-day operations of a restaurant. The dedication he had to being in the restaurant and his presence made the wheels turn each day and you could see Zahav get better incrementally.
I didn’t spend a lot of time with Meir; he was busy opening Mizlala but his chefs ran a tight kitchen. At Catit, I saw the level at which a fine-dining kitchen operates and the focus it takes to create the best food in the country. Every cook needs to have benchmarks for what the best is; ingredients, techniques, cleanliness so that when it is their time to lead they can bring those principles to their kitchen.
From Alon I learned how to operate the business. When I took the chef de cuisine job I had limited knowledge on management, cost structures and menu planning. He entrusted to me the entirety of the business and has shown me how to be a chef and how to move towards operating like an owner. Our working relationship is very close, and he has exposed me to a lot in a short period of time and gives me just enough room to move forward while watching out that I don’t make mistakes.
JFE®: What has changed for you after winning the James Beard Award?
ZE: Shaya is still as busy as ever, and we’ve been really focusing on making sure the restaurant is still operating at the high level that we’ve been at for two-and-a-half years. People around New Orleans seem to recognize me and congratulate me, which makes me feel even more at home here. Nothing too crazy has changed since winning a James Beard Award but I’ve been patient for opportunities throughout my career and we have plans to cook more food and continue to tell the story of Israeli food.
JFE®: You’re in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, and you can only grab five things. What are they?
ZE: A giant steak from M25, a butcher shop and restaurant for “carnivores,” for dinner; fresh orange or pomegranate juice, green almonds, shesek (loquats) and bourekas from Mercaz HaBoureka for breakfast the next day. I never did a lot of shopping for meals when I lived there, just a lot of grab-and-go items for snacking.
Top photo: Chef Zachary Engel’s halloumi with strawberries. All photos courtesy of Zachary Engel.