Chef Alon Shaya's Serves Up A Blend Of Italian And Jewish Flavors At His Passover Seder

Traditional Passover dishes have a bad rap for erring on the side of bland, but you will hardly find anyone willing to call out their grandmother's cooking. So we turned to an expert on Middle Eastern and Sephardic cuisine, chef Alon Shaya, for some flavorful recipes using freshly ground spices, homemade matzo balls, and other ingredients that won't leave anyone griping.

When chef Shaya moved to New Orleans in 2003 to open Besh Steak, he was welcomed into the Jewish community there, even invited into a local couple's home for Passover. Then, he turned around and shared the same kindness with the people of New Orleans, starting his own Passover Seder tradition at Domenica, and now, Shaya.

The New York Times reported in 2011 — when chef Shaya began serving a Passover menu at his restaurant — that, "the number of restaurants serving Passover meals had risen to more than 50 nationwide."

Shaya is a Jewish chef at the helm of an Italian restaurant (Domenica and Pizza Domenica), and the mix of culture is reflected in his Seder menu. He says, "I would look at old Roman and Venetian dishes to cook. There were large Jewish populations in those cities, so I would cook things that they ate back in the day in Italy." Dishes like Carciofi Alla Giudea, crispy fried artichokes with cured bresaola (an air-dried beef), can be found on the dinner menu, fusing the two cultures. "Sometimes I would break tradition and do a Matzo ball wedding soup, with lemon, beans and escarole. This is a classic Italian soup that I would add Matzo balls to instead of meatballs," said Shaya.

There are restrictions to what you can cook with on holy days, among them many legumes, leavened breads, and dairy.  "We can't use flour or butter, so I would make an almond cake, using almond flour instead of wheat flour, and once baked, would soak the cake in a syrup made from an Italian dessert wine called Passito di Pantellaria. We would serve it with zabaione and pistachios," said Shaya.

Among Shaya's favorite dishes to cook for his Seder menu is the classic Matzo Ball Soup. Shaya says, "I try and make a broth that reminds me of Vietnamese pho. I love the warm spices and burned onion flavor that comes along with it. Then, I'll confit duck legs and flake the tender meat into the soup. I also really love making short ribs with beautiful spring vegetables like potatoes, artichokes, and heirloom carrots. A brisket is great, but short ribs are better!"

While Shaya tries to tie the thematically Jewish food with the Italian restaurant setting together, he also relies on his own taste memories to guide his cooking. "My mom made a mean charoset. She did it in a Sephardic style, with dates and figs. I now always make mine that way today. I'll usually make 5 times what I need, because it lasts a month or so in the fridge, and goes great with ricotta and ciabatta crostini once Passover is over," says Shaya.

Check out this year's menu for Shaya's now famous Passover Seder at his restaurant Shaya, and three of his favorite Passover recipes to make at your own meal below:

Shaya Passover Seder Menu
"This year at Shaya we are having some fun. I wanted to make an edible Seder plate – we are looking to each component that makes up a Seder plate as being a separate small plate." — Alon Shaya

Wood-Fired Matzo With Sea Salt

Freshly Grated Horseradish, Red and White!

My Grandmother's Charoset With Hazelnuts and Figs

Yemenite Eggs With Crispy Chicken Gribenes and Herbs

Bitter Greens With Roasted Pepper Muhammarra

Smoked Lamb Ribs

Tabouleh With Preserved Lemon

Want to try a recipe?

Matzo Brei

Alon Shaya's interpretation of the Passover classic, matzo brei, uses orange blossom water and is topped with a rosewater-fudge sauce.

For the Matzo Brei recipe, click here.

Matzo Ball Soup

Duck fat gives these matzo balls a richness, and the homemade stock for the soup makes this classic wholesome matzo ball soup recipe a cut above the rest.

For the Matzo Ball Soup recipe, click here.

Pomegranate and Almond Tabbouleh

This simply dressed recipe for Tabbouleh grain salad from Alon Shaya is a delicious and healthy addition to your table for Passover or any other special occasion.

For the Pomegranate and Almond Tabbouleh recipe, click here.