Chef Alon Shaya’s namesake restaurant pays homage to his Israeli heritage, serving Middle Eastern fare in a city with a Cajun-dominated landscape.
In 2011, a journey to the Middle East helped Chef Alon Shaya rediscover his deep-seated culinary roots. The 37-year-old Shaya, who was already a celebrated chef partner of two Italian restaurants—Domenica and Pizza Domenica—in New Orleans’ thriving landscape, began to think about the cuisine of his childhood. While cooking for Israeli troops, Shaya thought about his mother and grandmother in the kitchen, and about the kind of cuisine his career always seemed to shy away from.
“I was all-in on Italian when I took the trip, but the experience made me realize Israeli food was a big part of me, and that I was hiding it for one reason or another,” says Shaya, who was born in Israel but grew up in Philadelphia.
The trip inspired the winner of the 2015 James Beard Award Best Chef: South to open his eponymous Shaya in February of last year. Already, the concept, which marries local ingredients with the flavors of Israel, including influences from the Middle East, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, North Africa, and Eastern Europe, has created quite a stir, despite its unlikely offerings in the Crescent City. At first, Chef Shaya wasn’t sure if Israeli fare would strike a chord with locals and tourists alike, especially considering that Cajun staples like jambalaya and gumbo flood restaurant menus from the French Quarter to the Garden District.
“I was really nervous in the beginning that no one would come, but I felt strongly if we made the best pita bread, kebabs, and hummus it would work,” Shaya says.
It worked so well that before the restaurant celebrated its sixth month, Esquire named Shaya America’s Best New Restaurant for 2015.
“It was crazy. We had to hire two full-time reservationists, and the momentum has continued to grow,” Shaya says.
Best-selling dishes at the 186-seat restaurant include Curried Fried Cauliflower Hummus with caramelized onions and cilantro for $12; Lamb Kebab with tomatoes, pine nuts, tahini, and cilantro for $16; Red Snapper Chraime with spicy tomato, tahini, basmati rice with herbs, and walnuts for $26; and Kibbeh Nayah, Two River Farms beef and lamb tartare, bulgur, walnuts, and Yemenite flatbread for $18.
Chef Shaya says the cuisine came naturally. “When I opened Shaya I was at peace more than ever before. I didn’t have to try so hard, and it comes through in the food.”
Shaya’s food costs run between 28 and 33 percent, with 28 percent the target. Beverage revenues average 40 percent of sales and offerings include a wide variety of hand-made craft cocktails featuring local produce such as pomegranate.
When the restaurant opened, Shaya already had a long relationship with restaurateur John Besh, the owner of 12 New Orleans concepts, including Domenica and Pizza Domenica. Before opening his two Italian restaurants, Shaya was cooking for Besh at Besh Steak in Harrah’s Casino. “I told John that my dream was to open an Italian restaurant, and I knew it was time to follow that dream,” Shaya says of his start.
“He offered to partner with me, and I took him up on it. John is an amazing guy and understands people have particular passions, and if they follow [their passions] good things will happen.”
Shaya also partners with Besh on his namesake restaurant, which is located on Magazine Street in a residential area of the Big Easy.
About 70 percent of Shaya’s diners are repeat customers with tickets averaging between $20 to $25 at lunch and $35 to $40 at dinner. “We get to see a lot of the same people over and over again, which I love,” Chef Shaya says. “It makes us feel part of the community.”
With an outdoor patio, dining room, and private dining room, the 4,000-square-foot restaurant, which is open seven days a week, often serves as many as 500 people a day with catering pushing that number to 1,000.
Shaya says the restaurant is doing four times its projections, and that necessary tweaks have been made to accommodate the demand. “I think in the beginning we were a little overzealous. The size of our catering menu was enormous, and we realized very quickly we had to adjust it down. We had to simplify things,” Chef Shaya explains.
Throughout his career, which began at the age of 13 as a dishwasher, Shaya has studied the industry and says he draws inspiration from other restaurateurs, such as Union Square Hospitality Group’s Danny Meyer.
“What I love about him is that hospitality is his No. 1 focus,” Shaya says. “He builds a great atmosphere for his staff, and I try to emulate that here.”
Shaya employs about 120 people, and among the three restaurants there are a total of about 300 staffers who often work shifts at one of the other properties.
“I manage the restaurants by putting passionate people in the right places and empowering them. From day one the staff was completely behind Shaya and understood what we were trying to do,” he says. “Everyone gets to do what they love, and I get to work with people who are smarter than I am.”