Last year, I had the opportunity to attend the South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami and experience the festival’s first-ever kosher dinner, “Exploring Israel,” where I met Chef Alon Shaya as well as Michael Solomonov, Ashley Christensen and Zak Stern (also known as Zak the Baker). Since then, this culinary star has been on the rise. This past year, Shaya’s restaurant of the same name has won the 2016 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in the United States while the chef himself found new ways to practice tikkun olam (repairing the world) through his nonprofit work and helping to raise money to fight hunger and poverty alongside DC’s Joan Nathan and Chef José Andrés.
Shaya was the official host of this year’s SOBEWFF kosher event, “Burnt Ends: A Kosher BBQ Dinner.” Though I couldn’t attend, I caught up with Chef Shaya, and he answered a few questions about the past year, what keeps him grounded and what lies ahead.
Jewish Food Experience®: After winning the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in the US, how did that affect your vision for Shaya going forward?
Alon Shaya: The James Beard Award for best new restaurant was an incredible honor for us to win. We didn’t look at winning as a need to change what we do or our vision. Mostly it confirmed to us that we were heading in the right direction with the style of food and hospitality we provide. We continue every day to try and improve what we do, so it’s always an incline to our goals of being the best restaurant we can for our guests and employees. We knew after we won that people around the country were going to come and expect an amazing experience, so that is what we try to do every day, with or without the award.
JFE®: What’s the Shaya Barnett Initiative?
AS: The Shaya Barnett Initiative is my partnership with my former high school teacher, Donna Barnett, who got me off the streets and into the restaurant business as a high schooler. She has continued to be a mentor to me my entire life, and I credit her with giving me the spark I needed to advance my career. Together, we hope to help students that have potential to succeed, but may not have the tools to get there. We have contributed over $10,000 dollars worth of kitchen equipment to Edna Karr high school in New Orleans, and we are now working with them on curriculum and creative ideas to continue the growth of their culinary arts class. If we can change one person’s life for the better, by getting them into a career in hospitality, we will be succeeding in our goals.
JFE®: What are some new and creative Israeli ingredients you see showing up in mainstream American cuisine?
AS: I see tahini, labneh, date molasses (silan) and dukkah popping up on menus all over the country. It’s great to see chefs begin to embrace the Israeli pantry into their cooking repertoire. I remember as a young chef when I discovered Chinese hoisin sauce, I put it on everything from pasta to tacos. Now I see chefs doing that with ingredients that my mom and I had to go out of our way to specialty stores to get, like baharat spice and orange blossom water. I think it’s great.
JFE®: How/where did you learn to perfect your smoking techniques?
AS: I have a smoker in my backyard at home. I’ve stood in front of that thing for hours at a time, waking up in the middle of the night to adjust the vents and check on the cooking process, going back to bed and hearing my wife complain I smell like a brisket at 3 am, then not being able to go back to sleep because my dog thinks I smell like a brisket. Every time we have a party at the house, I am always smoking something and setting it out for people to eat. I think it’s the perfect casual party food. I have continued to try new ways to get my smoked meats, fish and vegetables to be better. I recently went fishing with a bunch of friends and smoked the fish we caught whole. It’s always a learning experience, and I figure the best way to keep getting better is to keep on cooking.
JFE®: Name your five can’t-live-without-spices.
AS: Star anise, cumin, turmeric, nutmeg, paprika.
JFE®: Zagat named DC the hottest food city of 2016. Any chance we’ll see Shaya DC?
AS: DC is a city with incredible food culture—I traveled there [earlier this year] for the annual Sips & Suppers event led by Joan Nathan and had a chance to explore the city more and to eat at a few phenomenal restaurants. We have no confirmed plans for additional locations currently, but DC is certainly a city we have a strong affinity for.
Top photo: Chef Alon Shaya (center) poses with guests at the kosher dinner at SOBEWFF.