“How do buttermilk biscuits and hummus end up in the same book in a way that makes sense?” says chef Alon Shaya (of New Orleans’ acclaimed Domenica, Pizza Domenica, and Shaya) of his struggles writing his first cookbook. Co-written with Tina Antolini Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel — available for pre-order now, and slated for release next March — is named for the chef’s James Beard Award-winning third restaurant, but is as much a memoir as a cookbook.
“It became really clear to me that I wanted the book to be in a narrative form,” Shaya says, “where I wasn’t also putting the best hits of Domenica or Shaya into a cookbook, but [so] I was really letting the stories dictate what the recipes would be.”
Shaya’s life story has taken him to Israel, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Italy — disparate places that each influenced his cooking and led him to open his namesake restaurant in 2015. That journey is reflected in the book’s collection of 26 short stories. “Each one of those stories talks about a different moment in my life... but the food is really the spine to the book,” Shaya says. Related recipes accompany each story.
“One of the early chapters is called ‘Fishing with my Father.’ After my mother and father divorced, I went years without seeing my father,” Shaya says. “And then after a reconciliation, he came back into my life. He would take me fishing, and he would pack these little turkey sandwiches. They would be on white bread with luncheon meat, in a Ziploc bag. We’d be sloshing around in a boat and water would get into the bag. The sandwiches would get really sloppy and wet and we’d be out in the middle of this marsh outside of Atlantic City and that would be all I would have to eat, this really shitty turkey sandwich. And I’d have to eat it while listening to my dad go back and try to give his side of the story, of the divorce, and of his life up to that point.”
“Some of the most miserable moments of my childhood were being on that boat. But then we would catch fish and then bring it home, and then he would take that fish, flour it, season it up, and then roast it in brown butter with some herbs in a pan and a squeeze of lemon juice,” Shaya says. “And I remember at the end of this really crappy day, of having to listen to my dad go over all these stories of why my parents weren’t together anymore, how it was all my mom’s fault, and how it was all my aunt’s fault... We would be sitting there picking the meat off these little fish that we caught and I remember feeling, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing, like I love this fish.’ Eating the fish was cathartic.”
That chapter of the book contains both a recipe for a turkey sandwich — “on crispy whole grain bread with sliced real turkey breast, avocado, and roasted peppers” — as well as one for fish roasted in brown butter with fresh bay leaves and lemon.
Another chapter relives Shaya’s high school experience and a teacher that saved his life. “She got me off the streets,” Shaya says. “I was selling drugs, doing drugs, stealing cars, and pretty much getting kicked out of every school and just really being a shitty kid. She saw that I had a talent for food and she became like a mother figure to me and helped me get into culinary school.” That teacher also saw to it that Shaya landed his first job in a restaurant; recipes from his early adult years follow.
“Story by story, all of this leads up to where I am today. I would have never opened Shaya if my travels and experiences hadn’t led me to confront myself,” the chef says. So yes, there are recipes for biscuits and hummus in the same book, but they accompany memories and personal revelations.
“As I was writing, all of this stuff started to come out, and it was a very emotional experience for me,” Shaya says. “But the book is tied together with these little moments of food, recipes of dishes, that changed my life in one way or another.”
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