Read this cookbook: “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel” by Alon Shaya with Tina Antolini (Alfred A. Knopf, $35)
By Wendell Brock
He was a troubled Philadelphia kid with an unusual name, a hot temper and a knack for for smoking weed and getting arrested.
His parents had moved from Israel when he was 5, leaving him with memories of his grandmother’s lutenitsa (red bell pepper and eggplant stew) and borekas (stuffed puff pastries).
It wasn’t until 2015, at age 36, that Alon Shaya opened his namesake New Orleans restaurant, where the hummus, falafel and baba ganoush of his homeland was celebrated and validated: In 2016, just a year after winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef South for his cooking at the Italian restaurant Domenica, Shaya’s eponymous restaurant picked up a James Beard Award for America’s Best New Restaurant.
Not bad for a kid who once flubbed a cooking show-and-tell in second grade and later suggested the Jewish Culture Club at his culinary school have a pig roast. (Gasp!)
Before he could achieve stardom, Shaya discovered his passion for cooking in a home-economics class during his freshman year of high school. Later, after nearly getting kicked out of the Culinary Institute of America for slashing a classmate’s tires, he completed an externship at a group of casino restaurants in Las Vegas. Eventually, Shaya struck up a partnership with New Orleans chef John Besh; met his future wife, Emily; and left them both behind to work in a series of restaurants in Italy.
Now, in this absorbing, adrenalin rush of a memoir that reads like a screenplay waiting to happen, Shaya chronicles his zigzagging adventures in food.
Written with the Peabody- and James Beard Award-winning public-radio journalist Tina Antolini, “Shaya” also describes the chef’s story as a sequence of recipes: the Pan-Fried Whole Fish with Brown Butter he made with his father; the lamb kibbeh inspired by a job in a butcher shop during his teen years; the Roasted Marrow Bones with Gremolata and Brioche he perfected in Vegas; the red beans and rice he cooked to feed victims of Hurricane Katrina; the pizzas and pastas he learned in Italy; and, finally, the contemporary food of Israel that spoke to his soul and completed the cycle (Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Whipped Feta, Tahini Chicken Salad, Moroccan Carrot Salad and so on).
A real and genuinely affecting page-turner, “Shaya” is that rare cookbook in which the stories are as exhilarating as the food.
The chef’s account of his Katrina experience, including a scary episode in which he ran out of gas while traveling with Besh, is gripping. So, too, are the tales from his time in Italy, where he worked in a dysfunctional restaurant for no pay; discovered “a real live nonna” who educated him in rustic Italian cuisine; and mastered the art of the pie with Parma pizzaiolo Vincenzo De Santis.
Late last year, shortly before the New Orleans Times-Picayune broke news of sexual-harassment allegations against Besh, Shaya divested himself from his old boss. Today, he’s no longer affiliated with any of the restaurants they ran together (including his celebrated namesake establishment, Shaya). Instead, he’s started his own restaurant group. None of these latest developments are described in the book; nor could they have been, given the timing.
Beautifully written, smartly structured and honest to the core, “Shaya” is one of the most mesmerizing food books of the year—all the more poignant given the recent twists and turns of fate for this deeply talented chef.
And so the odyssey of Alon Shaya continues: brilliant, flawed, unfinished.
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta-based food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).