2015 Restaurant of the Year: Shaya

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For the second consecutive year, The Daily Meal recognizes a restaurant that made a lasting mark on American dining culture
Restaurant of the Year 2015

The interior of Shaya in New Orleans.

RESTAURANT OF THE YEAR: SHAYA

Shaya

Shaya / Facebook


How Shaya, which serves Israeli food, was born down on the bayou in New Orleans is a story indeed.

James Beard award-winning chef Alon Shaya immigrated to Philadelphia from Israel with his family at age four, but he maintained a connection to the country he barely remembered through the hummus, tabbouleh, and other Middle Eastern staples the matriarchs of his family continued to cook. After training at the Culinary Institute of America as an adult, he held the title of chef du cuisine at Besh Steak, working closely with acclaimed New Orleans-based chef John Besh.

Shaya served signature Creole soul food to Katrina relief workers after the hurricane hit New Orleans in 2005. In 2011, Shaya and Besh — along with Shaya’s future wife — visited Israel to cook kosher New Orleans fare for Israeli soldiers, returning to America with the concept of a New Orleans-based Israeli restaurant already percolating in their minds.

In February of this year, Shaya the restaurant became a reality.

Chef Shaya opened his eponymous restaurant in partnership with chef Besh, which is a testament to their longtime professional relationship, as besides beginning his cheffing career at Besh Steak, Shaya is also executive chef and partner with Besh at Domenica and Pizza Domenica. It also speaks to chef Besh’s love of collaboration and bringing outside-the-box restaurants to New Orleans, just as he did with chef Aarón Sánchez and their restaurant, Johnny Sanchez.

There was an immediate positive response from the press and local guests, and it’s easy to see why. New Orleans is known for its Creole and classically Southern soul food; at Shaya, guests can dig into soul food of a different flavor — food that’s unexpected in the region. There’s curry-fried cauliflower with caramelized onions and cilantro; avocado toast on rye bread with whitefish and pink peppercorns; and excellent falafel with cabbage salad and cucumber tzatziki.

These are not the dishes that would ever come to mind as must-tries in The Big Easy — until now. And that’s what makes Shaya so special: It’s a sleeper hit from two of America’s very best chefs, a delicious education of the American palate from masters who have demonstrated that they know it well. It’s their way of showing us that our patriotic tenet that in America, there is a place at the table for everyone, can be enacted directly through the food on the plate.

We spoke with the two James Beard Foundation-honored chefs about their decision to serve desert cuisine to a city surrounded by swampland, and what they have in store for us in the near future:

The Daily Meal: Did you consider opening a restaurant that specializes in Israeli cuisine in New Orleans a risk?
Chef John Besh: Certainly we questioned how we might message what Israeli cuisine is, especially since Israel herself is still in the process of defining it. A true melting pot cuisine with global influences is difficult to encapsulate in a sound bite. That said, if we offer incredible food, generous hospitality, and humility of heart, people would soon learn!

How has the response of the public and media to Shaya been in your experience?
Chef Alon Shaya: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. I'm so happy the people of New Orleans believed in what we were doing and came try it in the first place. We really love being a part of this community. The national media attention was completely unexpected, but it's great because it proves to the team that their hard work and passion is being recognized by so many people. We are making simple Israeli food like hummus and pita, but we try and make the best it can be. I'm glad the media and our community appreciate those efforts by our team.

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Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
Chef Alon Shaya: We have really been focusing on strengthening our foundation as a restaurant group. My director of operations, Shannon White, and I are now overseeing just under 300 employees between Shaya, Domenica, and PIZZA Domenica, and we've decided to focus solely on our staff and current operations so we can be strong for any future growth opportunities.