An interview with Alon Shaya, chef/owner of Domenica Restaurant in the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans

As a little boy in Philadelphia, Alon Shaya spent most of his time in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother, which instilled in him a passion for cooking. After training at the Culinary Institute of America, Alon interned at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, too young to gamble, but ready to take on the casino kitchens. In 2001, he opened Antonio’s Ristorante at Harrah’s Casino, St. Louis. There he met Octavio Mantilla, general manager and co-owner of Besh Restaurant Group, who lured him to New Orleans. As chef de cuisine at Besh Steak in Harrah’s Casino, New Orleans, Alon worked closely with Chef John Besh. In 2007 Louisiana Cookin’ showcased him on its cover and in a corresponding feature about five young “Chefs to Watch.” Alon and Chef Besh forged a partnership in 2008 and decided to open Domenica, a family-oriented, authentic Italian restaurant in New Orleans’ Historic Roosevelt Hotel.  Alon also played a line chef in a recurring role in HBO’s Treme.

Q: Domenica salutes the food of the Piedmont where you studied. I was amazed the first time I enjoyed your salumi plateau finding those amazing savory beignets.  I thought for sure they were playing off our famous beignets from Café du Monde but I was told they were authentically Italian.  Can you tell us about them? What area of Italy eats their salumi with deep fried savory donuts?!?  And do I want to know what you fry them in?

A: Those beignets are called Torta Fritta in the area around Parma located in the region of Emilia Romagna. Further south in Modena they are referred to as Gnoccho Frito. They are essentially fried dough, that are typically fried in strutto, or rendered pork fat. At Domenica, I fill a deep fryer full of pork fat and we reserve that one for torta fritta only. I’ve seen many recipes for it, but they always will contain a little grappa or vinegar in the recipe. That adds an acidic kick that blends well with the fatty salumi they are always served with. Some of my greatest memories of eating in Italy was sitting at long wooden tables with my adopted Italian family, drinking Lambrusco out of ramekins, and rubbing hot crispy torta fritta with soft gorgonzola cheese and topping them with silky culatello or prosciutto. They have now become a staple at Domenica. Some of our best customers stuff them with Tallegio and prosciutto and call them Italian hot pockets. Why not?

Q: I know you and John Besh are raising a lot of your produce and pork. Tell us about that operation and especially about Mangalitsa pig. What makes Mangalitsa so special?

A: As a whole our restaurant group has unofficially named the mangalitsa pig as our mascot. It is served in all of the BRG [Besh Restaurant Group] restaurants in some form or fashion. We use it many different ways at Domenica, especially for our salumi, porchetta and pizzas. The reason the pig is so amazing is in part to how the fat is developed in that breed. It is higher in Omega 9 fatty acids which results in the fat melting at a lower temperature, and in turn feels lighter on the palate then other types of pork fat. I boast that our cured meats made with mangalitsa melts on your tongue like room temperature butter would. Most people seem skeptical until they try it. My favorite way to eat it is to roast an entire shoulder in the oven, and right before I pull it out, I scoop the fat off the top with a spoon and eat in on ciabatta with a little sea salt. It’s my guilty pleasure.

Q: You’ve been a big supporter of the Alice Waters-inspired Edible Schoolyard NOLA at the Samuel J. Green school.  Tell us about your experiences with the students.

A: I have always been a fan of the Edible Schoolyard since I was introduced to it. I believe it can truly change the way children learn. Maybe most importantly, change the way children eat to help resolve some of the childhood obesity problems we are experiencing in the US. I’ve had the pleasure of discussing it in detail with Alice Waters and to see how passionate she is about the future of the program is inspiring to me. I become inspired to work more with the students and teach them recipes that they can use with the ingredients they grow.

I was asked to be a guest chef with a group of third graders one year in an Iron chef competition. We were given a secret ingredient of Quinoa. None of the students had ever heard of it, and I hadn’t cooked with it since I was in culinary school 12 years ago. So we had to prepare it with items we found at the market that day. It was summer so there were tomatoes and cucumbers everywhere. I tapped into my Israeli roots and we made Quinoa tabouli. The kids hadn’t heard of tabouli either, so they were very confused. But in the end it turned out so good, that I added it to Passover menu last year at Domenica. We all learned something that day.

Q: The whole district surrounding the Roosevelt is rich in history as you know.  As a Rumanian Jew with roots in Israel, you do an incredible Passover menu. I love your matzo ball soup, which to my mind rivals 2nd Avenue Deli’s. Are you aware that just a block away from the Roosevelt, the Orthodox Jewish quarter once dominated South Rampart Street? The Fertel Loan Office was on the next corner, Rampart and Common.  And that much of early jazz history was born there? [See my recent piece in Tikkun on “The Birth of Jazz and the Jews of South Rampart Street”] What are some of your favorite Roosevelt stories? 

A: I don’t have a lot of Roosevelt stories because of the 8 years I’ve lived in New Orleans, the Roosevelt had been closed for 5 of them due to Katrina. I’ve read a lot about the orthodox Jewish neighborhood surrounding the Roosevelt. I think that somehow the stars have aligned and it allows me to cook Israeli food at Domenica once in a while and get away with it. Our Passover menu has gotten so much attention and people have come from all over to try it during the holiday. I’ve had people call me from New York and say that their child is a first year student at Tulane and they have never been separated during Passover Seder. They ask if they can hold their family Seder at Domenica so they wouldn’t break family tradition. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about how one menu can impact someone’s life so significantly, which in turn may create new Roosevelt stories that will be told to the next generation.

Q: So, in parting, tell us what a Rumanian, Israeli, Philadelphian loves about New Orleans.

A: I love so many things about New Orleans. The food and music of course, but more importantly the people that have become my friends and family. I love how small the city is. It allows me to believe that I can actually make an impact if I stay true to my beliefs and craft. I have never felt so needed as I did in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. I felt like if I wasn’t here cooking for people, they may have not had access to a hot meal at all. That has created the loyalty that I have to the city. I feel like I would be doing something morally wrong if I left.

Q: Tell us about your experience on HBO’s Treme set. How did you come to be in Treme? Who sought you out? Did it involve a lot of time away from Domenica? Most important, is there a role for Alon Shaya in Season 3?

A: I was approached to be on the show because they wanted some experienced cooks from new orleans playing some of the roles. I was a little hesitant because I’ve never acted a day in my life. I was such a huge fan of the show that I jumped in and glad I did. Such amazing people involved in the project. Kim Dickens especially gave me acting tips and helped me not make a complete fool of myself. I really had a great time. It only involved a few sporadic days away from the restaurant so it wasnt too bad. I dont think I will be back on the show. One thing I know for sure is that I’m keeping my day job making pizzas for a living.

Q: Regarding the Treme narrative, you played a sous chef under a incredibly abusive, at least half-mad chef. I know that the Gordon Ramsey style chef de cuisine attitude is not the spirit that reigns in John Besh’s kitchens. But in your travels in Europe, in Las Vegas and elsewhere, have you served under chefs like that? Is there a place for that style in contemporary kitchens?

A: I have worked under maniac chefs in the past. I learned quickly its not what I want to be and would not expect my cooks to want to for with me if I was that way. Those days I believe are over. I think the best chefs these days are the ones who are true mentors and respect the people they work with. I believe if a cook respects and likes the chef they work for, their food will taste better.

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