2015 was by all accounts a great year for New Orleans chef Alon Shaya. The year started off with a bang, with the highly-anticipated February opening of Shaya, a restaurant where he serves his native Israeli food. Then, in May, he took home the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South for his work at Domenica in New Orleans. Come July, Shaya landed a coveted position on Eater restaurant editor Bill Addison's 21 Best New Restaurants list, and later took home Eater's Restaurant of the Year award. "It was so fast," Shaya says, remembering the opening process just over a year later at Charleston Wine + Food. "I was surprised at the end how it all came together as well as it did."
Looking ahead, Shaya says he wants to focus on keeping his eponymous restaurant operating at an ever-improving level. But while he's not looking to expand Shaya, that doesn't mean he's done expanding his other concepts. As previously teased, Shaya is still very much interested in opening new locations of Pizza Domenica. Houston and Nashville are on the list, but while he confirms he's actively looking for spaces, a rep cuts in quickly to clarify that no leases have been signed yet.
But now, a look back at how Shaya — the chef and the restaurant — took 2015 by storm:
"I knew at that moment that I needed to be cooking Israeli food for more than just myself every once in a while."
On how he knew it was time to open a new restaurant:
"I was in Israel in 2011 for a trip where I cooked for Israeli troops and did a bunch of different dinners. I knew at that moment, when I was in Israel, that I needed to be cooking Israeli food for more than just myself every once in a while.
I started cooking [Israeli food] at Domenica, doing our holiday meals during Passover and Hanukkah. I started to put some of these things on the menu, like the roasted cauliflower, lamb bolognese with tahini, za'atar crostini, and different items that I thought reflected my Israeli roots — but also had some kind of Italian influence to it. Once I realized that the majority of the menu was becoming more and more Israeli, once we started calling hummus "ceci puree," I knew that it was time to open Shaya. I actually got with my business partner Octavio [Mantilla, of the Besh Restaurant Group], and we found a space and signed a lease. Shaya opened three months after that."
On why he opened Shaya before opening another Pizza Domenica as expected:
"We were almost about to sign a lease on another Pizza Domenica when Octavio said, 'Hey, check out this space on Magazine Street that's available.' When I walked in, I thought to myself, 'It's definitely not going to be a pizzeria because Pizza Domenica's five blocks away, but it would make a beautiful Israeli restaurant.' At that moment, that's when I decided I was going to open Shaya."
On pre-opening press:
"We were getting press, but I didn't really have much time to pay attention to any of it. We were really focused. We were in the kitchen 12, 14, 16 hours a day getting the restaurant open and getting the recipes tested. Even during that time, I had still obligations at Domenica and Pizza Domenica that kept me really busy."
On the benefits of a three-month opening process:
"I think the speed was good, because we didn't have time to overthink anything. It was just: 'Okay, we like that. Let's go. Let's try this recipe. Let's put this together. These glasses look great. Let's just put those on the table.' It wasn't like, 'We need the coolest red wine glass, man.' It was just 'get it done.'
Then we ran out of money. So we said, 'Okay, well, we can't put these really cool paintings on the wall because we can't afford them. Let's just put up these little shelves and put some flowers and candles up there.' That's a cheap way to make the place look nice. Now that's one of my favorite parts of the restaurant: at night when the restaurant's dim and you have all those candles flickering along the walls. Our flowers are changing with every season, and they're all foraged locally in the New Orleans area. That seasonality, the candles, and that simple décor is really what I love the most about it right now."
On opening night:
"I don't remember much. It's like a whirlwind."
On American food and Israeli food:
"I don't know what 'American Israeli' food is. I would compare Israel and America to each other in a way; they're both melting pots. They're both made up of immigrant cuisines that have, through the years, come together and found a way to be appealing to people, like fajitas or California rolls or pepperoni pizza. Those all came from other areas but are now what they are because of where they are. In Israel, it's Bulgarian, it's Hungarian, it's Greek, it's Yemenite, it's Lebanese. It's all these things that are coming together in this small country and creating the cuisine that you eat in Israel. What we're trying to do at Shaya is showcase that."
On what the success of Shaya reveals about New Orleans dining right now:
"It tells me that New Orleans is in a place unlike where it's ever been before, that the city is looking at change in a way that's positive and progressive. We have a lot of people moving to the city from other parts of the country, from LA and from New York. It's bringing up a lot more diversity in the city. That makes it easier for us to get the message across about what we cook and how we serve."
On the biggest challenge facing New Orleans restaurateurs today:
"Finding employees is a very hard thing for us to do. I think the biggest challenge to New Orleans restaurateurs, [if I were to give advice,] is to say: Take a chance on the people in your own backyard. Try to get people that are from New Orleans, to give them the opportunity to get into the kitchens and cook with us, teach them how to cook, and make sure that we're passing along the lessons that we've learned to the people in our community. I think that it's easy to say, 'I want to hire just whoever applies,' but more importantly, be a part of your community and keep bringing the people in the community up."
On whether Shaya will expand in its second year:
"No. We're going to focus on continuing to build our foundation and make things stronger."
On one year in at Shaya:
"It's just been a dream come true. I don't feel like we could have written it to be any more awesome than it is."