“Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel” by Alon Shaya— Survival and Discovery

Shaya, Alon. “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel”, Knopf, 2018.

Survival and Discovery

Amos Lassen

“Shaya” is a moving, deeply personal journey of survival and discovery; the story of the evolution of a cuisine and “of the transformative power and magic of food and cooking. This is no ordinary cookbook. It is a memoir of a culinary sensibility that begins in Israel and makes its way from the U.S.A. (Philadelphia) to Italy (Milan and Bergamo), back to Israel (Jerusalem) and then comes together in the American South, in the heart of New Orleans. It’s a book about how food saved the author’s life and how Shaya’s cuisine from his native Israel with a Creole New Orleans touch came became the basis of award-winning New Orleans restaurants that were ranked by Esquire, Bon Appétit, and others as the best new restaurants in the United States.

     These are stories of place, of people, and of the food that connects them; “a memoir of one man’s culinary sensibility guiding his personal and professional decisions, punctuating every memory, choice, every turning point in his life.” The book contains full-color photographs and illustrations that follow all of the flavors Shaya has tried, places he’s traveled, things he’s experienced and lessons he’s learned. There are more than one hundred recipes–from Roasted Chicken with Harissa to Speckled Trout with Tahini and Pine Nuts; Crab Cakes with Preserved Lemon Aioli; Roasted Cast-Iron Ribeye; Marinated Soft Cheese with Herbs and Spices; Buttermilk Biscuits; and Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Whipped Feta.

This is a candid, compelling ‘autobiography’ about his culinary sensibility and how he found his way to becoming an award-winning chef. Shaya writes of identity, memory, and the power that food holds in our lives.

Shaya shares a story of not only recipes, but the path that led him to success in New Orleans. It is not only recipes and a personal narrative in this book, but the story of the magnetic and “gumbo” quality of Israelis varied cultures and faiths; and Shaya’s Israeli, Romanian, Bulgarian strands of heritage that have been his muse.

Section One: ECHOES OF ISRAEL begins with “My Grandmother’s Pepper and Eggplants” and tells the story of her influences on him and has five recipes for items such as Lutenitsa (peppers and eggplants); Watermelon and Feta Salad with Harissa; and Bulgarian Lamb Kebabs. At age five, he moved from Israel to Philadelphia to join his father, and then to Narberth, as his parents separated. A month-long visit from his mother’s Bulgarian-Israeli parents brought with them the smells of affection of family unity. His grandmother, a pharmacist before escaping to Israel in 1948, took care for him, and he would cook with her and learn to use the C-clamp kitchen grinder. There are four recipes that recall a story of second grade show-and-tell, bullying, and a failed cooking demonstration. In (3) Solo Hamantashen remind Alon of his first solo cooking adventure and a sense of independence at the age of nine. Recipes includes ones for Peach and Mascarpone Hamantashen; Israeli Salad; Schmaltzy Potatoes; Bulgarian Leek Patties; Labneh; and Yemenite (marinaded) Stewed Chicken. In (4) Fishing With My Father, Chef Shaya writes the dates with his Romanian/Hungarian born father, bowling or fishing, that were redeemed when they cooked the fish they caught. Recipes include those for pan-fried fish; turkey sandwiches that are so much better than those of his youth; Hungarian Paprikash; and Tarragon Dumplings.

In Section Two: REBELLION AND REDEMPTION, Shaya writes of his first job at thirteen, at a butcher shop. He told them he was 16. Recipes include those for Kibbeh Nayeh; Malawach; Spicy Scallop Rolls; Yogurt Pound Cake with Cardamon-Lemon Syrup; and Blueberry Rugelach. The recipes recall his teenage job at a bakery in contrast to his home-life that was a life of weed, vandalism, shoplifting, drug dealers, and chasing trouble. A recipe for… Shakshuka came out of an arrest and then the realization that he knew very little about Jewish food.

In Section Three: FINDING HOME IN THE SOUTH, recipes include ones for Roasted Speckled Trout, Crab Cakes with preserved Lemon Aioli, Israeli Couscous, Red Beans and Rice, Buttermilk Biscuits (in Chapter 16: Manischewitz for Willie Mae), Za’atar Fried Chicken, Date Pancakes with Rose Tahini, Smoked Chicken with Harissa, Schmaltzy Cornbread with Gribenes, and Banana Bread with Carob Molasses Butter.

In Section Four, Chef Shaya ventures to Italy in “AN ITALIAN SOJOURN.” Here he shares stories and recipes for Slow-Roasted Lamb Shoulder, Spiced Couscous, Tortelli d’Erbetta, Fresh Pasta, Blackberry Torta della Nonna, Chocolate Hazelnut Semifreddo, Pizza Enzo, Pita, Sea Bass Cartoccio, Piemontese style Bagna Cauda (hot bath/dip), Chocolate Espresso Cookies, and more. In Section Five: HOMECOMING, readers are greeted with Sous Vide Turkey, Brussels Sprout Salad, Smoked Goat Tacos, Curried Sweet Potato and Leek Pie, Charoset, (reluctantly), Whole Roasted Cauliflower, Tahini Chicken Salad, Moroccan Carrot Salad, Matbucha (in Chapter 26: An Israeli Restaurant in New Orleans), Muhammmara, Avocado Toast with Smoked Whitefish, and more.

Shaya opened his namesake restaurant in New Orleans in 2015, which won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant the following year. Shaya now opening two new restaurants: Saba, in New Orleans, and Safta, in Denver.

The book incorporates traditional cookbook elements—recipes are paired with gorgeous photos, notes on cooking, and tips for spice stocking. Shaya shares 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 was food. As a young adult, cooking turned his life around when he began working in kitchens at Las Vegas casinos. He stopped getting in trouble with the police for drugs and theft, or spending time with the wrong crowds. The stories of Shaya’s childhood and upbringing are filled with simple Israeli recipes such as his Israeli salad, Bright Green Falafel, shakshuka, and his wonderful pitas. Also included are American-influenced recipes from his childhood. The 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.

Shaya explains how inspired he is by his Jewish and Israeli roots through recipes and stories. He also shares Italian, Southern American, Bulgarian, and Romanian recipes into his book. He has created delicious and vibrant cuisine that is accessible in kitchens everywhere.


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