F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Domenica, New Orleans
Experience: Antonio’s, St. Louis; Besh Steak, New Orleans
Education: Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY
A long-time culinary accomplice to chef John Besh, Alon Shaya is so much a part of the New Orleans cultural fabric he even enjoyed a small role on HBO’s Treme. But the chef got his culinary start much farther north. Although born near Tel Aviv, Shaya was raised in Philadelphia from the age of four. He began cooking as a child, pinching the corners of traditional Jewish hamantaschen cookies and folding spinach-and-feta–stuffed bourekas alongside his mother. Though Domenica is an Italian restaurant, the menu is highly personal, integrating classic New Orleans ingredients and the flavors and traditions of his Israeli-Jewish heritage.
As Shaya finalized the details of his 2012 Hanukkah menu—one of several annual nods to the Jewish holidays at Domenica—the chef sat down with Food & Wine to talk goat meat, hot sauce and the bitter mastery of a great Negroni.
What recipe are you most famous for?
I would say I’m most known for the whole head of roasted cauliflower that we do at Domenica. We have this beautiful wood-burning oven that we use to cook our pizzas, and we can also fit multiple heads of cauliflower in there. They char up beautifully, and we serve them with a whipped goat feta and a sprinkle of dried chili. It’s one of our best-selling items, we go through a couple hundred heads of cauliflower a week.
What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
Definitely the octopus carpaccio. When I was living in Italy, my girlfriend (she’s now my wife) would come out and visit me. One time we drove out to the beaches in Tuscany. This was in the middle of the summer, and every restaurant was serving octopus carpaccio. It was just poached octopus that was chilled and sliced thin, usually with just a little bit of vinaigrette. I have vivid memories of being with the person I love, on the beach and eating this dish that was so good and so mesmerizing. When I came back to New Orleans, I put it on the Domenica menu and it became one of our signature dishes. We slow-poach octopus, roll it into the shape of a log, chill it down and slice it thin. Then we do a preserved lemon vinaigrette, plus a salad of arugula, shaved fennel and citrus.
Another dish would be my goat shakshuka. We buy goat from a local farmer out in Mississippi and slow-roast the shoulder. We make a fresh tomato sauce and put it in a cast iron pan with the goat and all of these beautiful vegetables. We crack an egg right into the middle of the pan and put it in the pizza oven until the white is just set and the yolk is still nice and liquidy. The dish taps into my Israeli roots but it also really incorporates things I love about the South, like the great vegetables we get down here.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
My favorite isn’t really a cookbook—but it is a food book. It’s called Eating in Italy, by Faith Willinger. It breaks down the places to go in Northern Italy for local, traditional, badass food. When I lived in Italy it was really my bible. The book led me to a restaurant called La Dogana, in a town called Camaiore. It became one of my favorite places and I never would have found it if it wasn’t for that book.
What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
Preseasoning your meat before you cook it is really important. All the meat we cook at Domenica gets seasoned a day in advance with herbs and salt. The extra time helps the flavors really work their way down through the meat.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Really good extra-virgin olive oil. I finish sauces with it to add a really beautiful balance and an awesome mouthfeel. Olive oil changes the texture of a sauce, makes it rich and helps spread flavors around inside your mouth really nicely. I use a brand called Flag. It was one of the original Sicilian olive oils that came to New Orleans during the big Italian immigration here in the late 1800s.
Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
Sriracha chile sauce. I really love spicy foods and I use it on everything. I put it on grilled meats, in mac and cheese, or stir it into a curry to add a beautiful spicy pepper flavor. It is kind of like my ketchup.
What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
I would say E. I love eggs and I love the magical opportunities of a roasted eggplant. I’m sure that there’s a lot more E out there, but over the past year of my life I’ve found myself adding eggs and eggplant to my menus more and more often.
You’re planning a budget-friendly food trip—where would you go and why?
I would go to Lafayette, Louisiana. There’s such a strong food culture in Lafayette: étouffée and gumbo and jambalaya and boudin and cracklings and oysters and crawfish. And it’s always supercheap. Once in a while my wife and I will take a ride out to Lafayette—it’s just a couple of hours away from New Orleans. We’ll get a room for 80 bucks a night, and we will spend all of our time eating this awesome Southern food. There is a restaurant called Shucks that makes just the best damn bread pudding that I’ve ever had in my life. And a place called Best Stop, just outside Lafayette, makes a boudin that will blow your mind.
If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack filled with supplies, what would you bring?
I wouldn’t take a backpack, I would take my Big Green Egg barbecue. It’s on wheels so I would load it full of all my equipment and food. I’d take my customized bottle of Tabasco, the spicy guacamole that I buy from a local Mexican grocery store near my house, and some dog food because I would be bringing my two dogs with me and they would need to eat.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I would say that people will be talking about goat meat more in this country. Goat is the number one consumed protein in the entire world and we haven’t caught on in America just yet. We’ve been so rich as a country, we’ve raised beef and pigs and huge storehouses full of chickens. We’ve never had to eat goat. As our culinary awareness grows, goat will become part of [our diet].
What is your go-to cocktail? How about wine and beer?
I love a really good Negroni. I like that balance of bitterness and sweetness. And I love all Italian wines. They have an acidic component but they aren’t dense, chewy or woody.
Do you have a favorite app?
I use this app called Kitchen Calculator Pro. I like to measure all of my ingredients in grams when I cook, so it helps me translate ounces to grams quickly. I also like the Chefs Feed app. It profiles chefs in different cities and asks them about their favorite places to eat, where they go late night or on their days off.