The Sabra Who Cooks Cajun

Sabra – a prickly pear found in Israel; tough on the outside and sweet on the inside. Native born Israelis are called Sabras because their personalities match the fruit.

I was invited by Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in New Orleans to write a travel feature about “The Road Home,” the city-wide effort to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina by bringing dispersed residents back and urging tourists to visit the Big Easy. Harrah’s had opened their new hotel in September of 2006, six months late due to the disaster. Our press trip group had just settled down to dinner at Besh Steakhouse, the signature restaurant at Harrah’s Casino, when a tall young man dressed in whites came to the table to say hello. Imagine my surprise when we were introduced to Alon Shaya, the Chef de Cuisine. I blurted out “Mah shlomcha” and a million dollar grin spread across his face. Of course, the reply was “B-seder” and, within those few seconds, the ageless bond of Jews meeting in unexpected places transformed the occasion.

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Alon Shaya, Chef de Cuisine

Alon’s Jewish migration is a classic story of the Diaspora. His mother’s parents were originally from Bulgaria. They were part of a large Sephardic community that emigrated from Spain and Greece before the Ottoman Empire ruled the region. Fortunately, Bulgaria was a bastion of Righteous Gentiles during the nazi terror. His family survived the “final solution” and in the 1940’s moved to Palestine. Alon’s mother was born there. His father was born in Transylvania in Romania and escaped the Communists when he was in his twenties. In Romania, he had been a champion sharp shooter and, upon arriving in Israel in the early 70’s, he joined the Israeli Army. His parents met through a mutual friend.

Alon and his sister Anit were born in Bat Yam on the Mediterranean, south of Tel Aviv. When he was four, his family immigrated to the United States. As a small child, he spent a lot of time with his is savta and emmah in their kitchen in Philadelphia. Some of his earliest food memories are of a Bulgarian dish made by his grandmother with roasted red pepper, eggplant, tomatoes and garlic made spicy with fresh chilis. Alon remembers the fresh smell when he came home from school. By the age of 12, his strong work ethic had already kicked in and Alon had two after-school jobs, one at a local bakery and the other at a butcher shop.

In high school Alon excelled in his home economics class and got his first restaurant job washing 350 sheet pans a night. He quickly moved up to salad preparation and then onto the “hot line.” During his senior year at Harriton High School, he spent mornings cooking in a course offered by the Center for Technical Studies, a vocational school in Philadelphia. It was a turning point for him. Alon recalls that “there were two other males in the class, there only to meet girls.” Alon was there for the cooking. His instructor recognized his early talent and allowed Alon to have his own cooking station. Her belief in him inspired Alon’s early dedication to his craft. Their relationship led to his first restaurant job. His teacher knew the owner of a fine dining spot and recommended him as prep cook. Today, Alon finds time to visit her whenever in Philadelphia and even goes to her classroom to speak to the students.

After graduation, Alon headed to Hyde Park, New York, to the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) for a two year program. This period allowed him “to learn who he was as a person” and gave him confidence in a new environment where he could meet others with the same passion as his. For the first time he made real friends who were also good influences. At 19, while at the CIA, Alon landed an internship at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. There he worked in every one of the 18 food outlets, learning a variety of venues from the coffee shop to banquets to fine dining.

When he graduated from the CIA, Alon was offered a job back at the Rio, which by then had been purchased by Harrah’s. Alon was particularly interested in the pairing of food and wine. So, during his three year stint there, he added a certified sommelier badge to his CV. In 2001, Alon was transferred and opened Antonio’s Ristorante at Harrah’s Casino in St. Louis. The restaurant was a big success in a city passionate about Italian food. Side note: I grew up in St. Louis and it features some of the best Italian restaurants in the country. Alon’s real love was fine dining and he soon had the opportunity to move back to New Orleans to work with a native son who was “born on the bayou,” John Besh. Award winning Chef Besh had become quite famous in the Crescent City’s restaurant scene with his steak house and he was opening a second location in Harrah’s Casino, just blocks from the Mississippi River and the French Quarter. The very talented Alon Shaya was his first round draft choice to be Chef de Cuisine.

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The restaurant, which seats 150, is a quiet island inside the bustling casino. It features an open exhibition kitchen and its walls are splashed with Cajun George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog artwork.

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Painting by George Rodrigue in Besh Steakhouse

Besh’s “From the Farm” section of the menu features seven or eight beef items, but their 38 oz. “Cowboy Steak” really caught my attention. Along with aged ribeyes, NY strips and filets, they serve the freshest local seafood “From the Gulf.” Their appetizers and soups reflect Alon’s focus on regional and Cajun fare. The Besh Barbequed Shrimp is a signature item. The bread pudding with whiskey ice cream is mandatory for dessert. As you might surmise, this is not a traditional steak house. Drawing on his eclectic background while integrating the influences of New Orleans and Louisiana, Alon reprints the menu daily to reflect what is in the local markets. Alon also challenges and inspires his staff of 16 cooks to find artisan farmers producing great products, thereby supporting their homegrown efforts and insuring the use of the finest ingredients. Besh is now raising its own chickens, pigs, rabbits, vegetables and various herbs. A typical day at the restaurant starts at 6 AM with prep time and ends at 1 AM, when the last cook leaves after the dinner service. Alon usually works an 80 hour week. He loves his career, his relationship with his crew and living in New Orleans. At this point he’s married to his job and, given his grueling schedule, it is very difficult for him to have much of a social life. His success has others taking note. The magazine, Louisiana Cookin’ named Alon one of its 2007 award winners in their 6th. annual Chefs to Watch edition.

Alon’s heart has been captured by the pulse of the city, its people and culture. In fact, he’s purchased a home and feels a great loyalty to New Orleans since the storm. Alon “loves the fact that you can walk down the street and ask anyone how to make gumbo, and they will know.” Now, that’s a clue to how integral food is to the city. Alon’s focus on regional and Cajun fare is a natural evolution. He feels that the people of Louisiana, more than any other place in the country, put love into preparing their food. Every time he makes a good gumbo he says “not too bad for a Jewish boy from Israel and Philadelphia.” Echoes of the past and who he is are in the food.

I had originally thought that my story would be about New Orleans, but a dinner at an outstanding restaurant with a chance meeting turned the locale into the backdrop for an account about a talented Jewish Chef. There’s more to be written about the trip; New Orleans is an important city struggling to repair itself. For now, “The Sabra Who Cooks Cajun,” is Part One of the tale.

Happy and safe travels….

Howard Hian

Websites of interest:

www.road2La.org
www.harrahs.com (select New Orleans and look for the restaurant tab)
www.georgerodrigue.com/biography.swf
www.Travels-with-Hian.com

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