Alon’s story has become the stuff of local legend. The Israeli-born chef was plucked out of a restaurant in St. Louis by legendary Louisiana chef John Besh. He was sent on a whirlwind cooking expedition through Italy, immersing himself in the local culinary traditions in order to return to New Orleans and head the kitchen at Besh’s latest concept, Domenica.
Obviously there’s more to the story. Thirty-six year old Shaya put in his time at the Culinary Institute of America, then worked several years in hotel restaurants in Las Vegas. He was wooed by Besh’s partner, Octavio Mantilla, to work in their flagship Restaurant August, and was eventually promoted to chef de cuisine at Besh Steak in the Harrah’s Hotel.
In 2009, the Roosevelt Hotel was searching for a restaurant anchor for its multi-million dollar post-Katrina renovation. Mantilla and Besh saw an opportunity to add an authentic Italian restaurant to the exploding New Orleans restaurant scene. They chose to send Shaya to Italy for a year because, as Chef Besh says, “Alon possesses passion, tenacity, love and respect for the guest in a combination that I have not seen in another.”
I first met Alon as he was floating the dining room at the newly opened Domenica. The restaurant’s concept combined hand-tossed brick-oven pizza with high-end toppings, house-aged charcuterie and cheese plates served with pillowy beignets, and house-made pastas like Squid Ink Tagliolini and Oxtail Ragu Stracci.
As Besh said, Alon made an immediate impression as someone who was put on this planet to please the guest. While the food at Domenica certainly turned heads, it was Alon that kept us coming back for more.
Over the subsequent five years Shaya racked up numerous accolades, including Esquire magazine’s “Chefs to Watch-2010,” “Chef of the Year-2012” from Eater New Orleans, New Orleans magazine’s “Chef of the Year-2012,” and being named finalist for Best Chef South by the prestigious James Beard Foundation 2012-2014.
Alon made a name for himself in the community as well, volunteering to make latkas for the Temple Sinai Hanukah bazaar, traveling with other top local chefs to Israel to raise money for at-risk children, and constantly supporting charities throughout the New Orleans area.
After five years at the helm at Domenica, Shaya, Mantilla and Besh decided it was time to expand their partnership. “Chef Phillip Mariano has been my rock at Domenica. We’d been working together side by side for six years. He deserved more and was ready to take over the kitchen at Domenica,” said Shaya. “Without the opportunity for me to grow, Phillip doesn’t have the opportunity to grow.”
The partners decided the time was right to open a second location. They renovated a space on Magazine Street into a more casual version of Domenica, serving the same delicious pizzas and a few of their popular appetizers. “Domenica was always really successful. We are busier today than the day we opened. We felt New Orleans could handle a little sister Uptown.”
Pizza Domenica was an instant success, and Alon credits that to “our team of chefs that motivated me to want to do this. They were all ready to grow, and I wanted to provide them with more opportunities.”
But the partners didn’t stop there. Less than a year later, the beautifully-renovated space built to Dominique’s on Magazine became available, and Shaya seized the opportunity to finally make his dream come true.
“I had this menu planned for years,” Shaya said. “I was motivated to push harder and do more because I had people that provided me the opportunity to do something else.”
For years, Alon had been doing traditional Jewish food at Domenica during the holidays. It was hugely popular, so expanding it to a full-fledged restaurant was the logical next step for him. But this wasn’t pizza. This was a completely new concept on the New Orleans restaurant scene.
“Israeli food isn’t something that people sit around on the couch and want,” Shaya said. “Middle Eastern food is something we can identify with. Everyone likes baba ganoush and kebabs. It wasn’t that weird. Seeing those things on the menu makes Shaya accessible. I just hoped people would try the other stuff.”
Alon’s reputation and his support team allowed him to take the risk. “We worked our butts off for six years to build a reputation and a name people could trust. We worked really hard on that. It gave us the opportunity to take a risk and see if we could cash in on some of that loyalty.”
So far, that loyalty has paid off: Shaya has been booked solid since the day it opened. “It’s not a big restaurant,” Alon said. “It’s only 60 seats inside and 40 on the patio, so it was important to be busy.”
Surprisingly, the food can be extremely affordable. “Israeli food is something I’ve always been passionate about. I wanted to do it in a way that I could offer it to a lot of people. I didn’t want to ostracize anyone who lives in this neighborhood by jacking the prices up.”
As Alon transitions himself from chef to multi-unit restaurateur, these are the kinds of decisions he’ll have to wrestle with. “We work on such small margins. But, to me, it’s worth it to have the best pita bread that people have ever put in their mouths or to have heirloom carrots from Covey Rise Farms rather than carrots from California that cost 1.5 times less.”
With two new restaurants opened in just over a year, it’s natural to wonder what’s next for this prodigious team. “I would like to continue to push forward and find talented people that are passionate about what they do and have them motivate me to give them opportunities. I really want my impact to be, not just creating a new restaurant that never existed before, but providing opportunities to talented people and seeing what that brings.”
But talented people are getting harder to come by. As a restaurateur myself, I have first-hand experience with the difficulty in finding good help in New Orleans. The number of restaurants has nearly doubled since Hurricane Katrina, and the population is still 20% lower.
While having the Besh brand behind him has obviously helped bring the cream of the crop, the increased competition for good help has Shaya worried. “With real estate prices going up and rents going up, there’s a huge issue all over the country of cooks and servers not being able to live close enough to the restaurant to make it worth their while to come work there.”
To combat this decrease in service industry professionals, Alon feels that, “we really need a good culinary school close to the city. NOCHI (New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute) is building a big facility on Lee Circle, which will be great. I’d love to see a major culinary school in New Orleans that will retain this culture of food and not morph into something else.”
For now, though, Alon doesn’t have to worry about getting good help. When I asked the affable bartender at Shaya how she liked working for Alon, she couldn’t help but gush. “He’s a great boss,” she said. “I came over from Pizza Domenica because I love working for him!”
During Jazz Fest, I brought friends to Shaya and we tried nearly everything on the menu. From the Lutenitsa and Labneh to the Ikra and Avocado Toast, each dish was spectacular in its simplicity and taste.
While Alon may have built his empire on authentic Italian staples, he’s now reaching his pinnacle by cooking food that he’s been around his whole life. Bringing that food to the masses in such a comfortable, yet sleek restaurant is what makes Shaya so spectacular.
My last question for Alon was, what would it be like to win the James Beard Award? His answer: “It would be the icing on the cake.”
Well, congratulations, Mr. Shaya. Now you can have your cake and eat it, too! –Shane Finkelstein
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