Return to his Roots

Less than six months after opening, Shaya was named The Best new Restaurant in America by Esquire magazine.
Less than six months after opening, Shaya was named The Best new Restaurant in America by Esquire magazine. Stephen Young

Chef Alon Shaya’s namesake restaurant pays homage to his Israeli heritage, serving Middle Eastern fare in a city with a Cajun-dominated landscape.

Owner: Alon Shaya
Location: New Orleans
Description: Israeli cuisine served by the 2015 winner of the James Beard Best Chef: South award.
Opened: February 2015

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.


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