Chef Alon Shaya’s newly released namesake book, Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel, is not a conventional cookbook. According to Shaya himself, it’s not even a cookbook. He prefers to call his new book a collection of short stories with recipes, and when I had a chance to meet with him recently, he shared with me how he arrived at this format.
He first thought about a cookbook because people were prompting him for his recipes, but when he started to think about the recipes and how varied his influences were, he felt they needed context. They needed to be tied together with the stories of his life, his mentors, his influences and his journey.
Not divided by parts of a meal, by seasons, by types of food or any of the headings usually found in a cookbook, Shaya is divided into chapters of Shaya’s life. Each subsection begins with a story that represents a part of his past and is followed by a handful of recipes that Shaya associates with that portion of his life.
Shaya’s quite personal stories, which he credits Tina Antolini for helping him to tell (he told me his conversations with Antolini were like therapy sessions), range from his relationship with his parents, his grandparents (saba and safta), his parents’ divorce and his rudderless and wild youthful years.
But Shaya designed this book to be about more than the rough times. It’s also about his journey, both as a chef and as a person, growing, learning and absorbing lessons from a variety of mentors and the many places he’s lived and worked. These culminate in his years in New Orleans, where his influences come together in the modern Israeli restaurant he opened in 2015.
His story starts and ends with the influence of his Israeli heritage. Perhaps the most meaningful stories are those about his grandmother, his safta. Even after he and his family moved to the US, she remained a pivotal and grounding force in his life. He talks about the feeling of comfort he got from arriving home as a young boy, opening the front door of his house to the smell of her roasting peppers and eggplant over the burners of the stove. That smell alone told him his grandparents were visiting, and “for the next month, I would get the feeling of family and closeness that, at that point in my life, I didn’t otherwise have.”
The roasted vegetables would go into his safta’s lutenitsa, which is a luscious blend of charred and peeled eggplant and sweet peppers, along with tomatoes, herbs and spices. He told me this is the most important recipe in his book and, indeed, in his life. It’s his madeleine, his touchstone, and it’s with this recipe, the very first in the book, that he sees his journey to find himself come full circle on the last page of the last story of the book (no spoilers here!), which ends with the opening of his famously award-winning New Orleans restaurant, also called Shaya.
The recipes in Shaya are an amalgam of his Israeli, Bulgarian and Romanian heritage, as well as Shaya’s time cooking in Italy and New Orleans. Recipes for dishes such as chicken liver with celery and dates, za’atar fried chicken, sweet tahini borekas, both buttermilk biscuits and pita and za’atar chimichurri and dates underscore this variety of influences.
This book delivers more than the expected recipes for hummus (excellent), whole roasted cauliflower (stunning) and shakshouka. Shaya’s stories along with the accompanying whimsical illustrations, done by New Orleans artist Frances Rodriguez, bring life to the eclectic collection of recipes that might otherwise seem unconnected.
Indeed, though the division of the recipes into the story-driven chapters can sometimes feel contrived, go with it. There are sometimes clues in the illustrations and the stories themselves. And as an assist to those who plan to cook his through the recipes, there is a listing of recipes, by category, at the back of the book, in addition to an index.
Despite the poignant close to the final story of the book, Alon Shaya is no longer affiliated with the restaurant Shaya. As he told me, “the journey continues,” with his new venture, Pomegranate Hospitality, through which he will open two new modern Israeli restaurants in the next few months. One will also be in New Orleans, and the other in Denver, and they will be called, most appropriately, Saba and Safta.