James Beard Awards: Israeli immigrant opened ‘Best New Restaurant’ in the U.S.
Friday, June 24, 2016
Alon Shaya, who was born in Israel, is no stranger to the James Beard Foundation Awards (often called the ‘Oscars’ of the culinary scene). Shaya’s been a nominee multiple times, and in 2015, he won the award for Best Chef in the South. This year, his eponymous New Orleans restaurant, Shaya, which opened in 2015, won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in the United States.
He was born in Jaffa, Israel, near Tel Aviv, but Shaya’s family moved to Philadelphia when he was four years old. According to Food & Wine, Shaya developed his interest in cooking at a young age, “pinching the corners of traditional Jewish hamantaschen cookies and folding spinach-and-feta stuffed bourekas alongside his mother.”
Despite his love for cooking, Shaya, as a child, tried to resist his Israeli heritage and struggled to assimilate. In an interview with GoNOLA, he even admits to throwing away or trading the traditional Middle Eastern foods his mother sent with him to school for sloppy joes or tater tots. Shaya had trouble learning English; his new teachers classmates struggled to pronounce his name, often Americanizing it to “Alan.”
Shaya’s new (and now, award-winning) restaurant represents a completion of his immigration circle. After years as a top chef, both at the Italian restaurant Domenica and in several John Besh establishments, Shaya has returned to his Middle Eastern roots. Inspired by his Israeli roots and the food he grew up eating at home, Shaya’s menu offers a modern interpretation of Middle Eastern cuisine.
The roots of culinary tradition in the U.S. are linked inextricably to the places from which we, as a population, have come. Without the variety of old food traditions and fresh culinary perspectives that we enjoy because of immigration, food variety in the United States would be awfully narrow. And much less flavorful.