Tuesday, June 7, 2011

All Alon the Watchtower

Chef Alon Shaya heads up the kitchen at Domenica in the Roosevelt Hotel. He is also an actor who has received critical acclaim for his role in Treme as the dans le merde grill cook. A native of Israel, Alon spent a year in Italy before opening Domenica with his partner Chef John Besh. 20ish questions on the clock.

I was really young when I got into cooking. My mom worked two jobs, so I became in charge of cooking for the family in 1st grade. Always looked at cooking as necessity...to do my part to help the family.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, I went to work for Jean Louis Palladin in Las Vegas. Spent three years out there working in a variety of restaurants inside the Rio Hotel. Then worked in an Italian place in St. Louis where Octavio (Manilla) worked. Then, came to New Orleans and worked at Besh Steakhouse.

The idea for a John and I to do an Italian place came about before Katrina. I had always cooked Italian food and it was my dream to open an Italian restaurant. John also had passion as he had visited often while training in Europe. So, Katrina hits and all that, took us a few years to get Besh Steakhouse back on track. Then time came for me to go to Italy and so off I went for a year. Knowing we would open Domenica when I came back. Originally we wanted to do a real family focused place with spaghetti and meatballs and the like, but then when Roosevelt had an opening we refined the idea.

First stop in Italy, was in Bergamo. Marc Vetri flew to Italy with me and took me to the family in Bergamo that he had worked with. Bergamo lives very much in the past and culinararily they never really had much of an identity and borrowed from many other regions. Then after a few months I went to Parma, where I worked from 6 am til 3 learning how to make salamis and then from 3 til midnight in the family's restaurant. I stayed in Parma for 7 months and that family became my second family. Then I went to Bussetto for a few months.

On my days off I would explore restaurants, or other villages or towns, or we would all just gather and eat. Sunday's were the time when family and food came together, and I wanted my restaurant to have a similar vibe. What is so interesting about Italy is that in many things like style, architecture, technology they are fashion forward. But in cooking, they are all about preserving the past. For instance, you will go into someone's modern kitchen and they make lasagna bolognese. In some ways the interior of Domenica reflects that.

Anolini filled with nutmeg, Parmagianno Reggiano, and mortadella is a textbook dish from Parma. The Bolzano pizza represents my time spent in the Alto Adige, where you get lots of smoked meats, specifically pork. That pizza has roasted pork shoulder, fennel, bacon and fontina cheese. The panna cotta on our menu is the recipe from a panna cotta I had in the Piedmote which was just the best panna cotta I'd ever had. The culatello is from Bussetto.

The anolini is traditionally served in broth in Parma. When we did that here people did not like it, they found it very underwhelming. So now we serve those anolini with tomato sauce and people love them. Another example is there is a Venetian dish of fish in a sour sauce with pickeld veggies. I love it, but I think I was the only person. So we try to stick to simpler, which I find always translates to be best.

Peaches are coming in soon as well as blueberries. So thinking of putting those peaches on a pizza with gorgonzola cheese. Watermelon and goat cheese salad will soon go back on the menu. And in summer we start pickling things. There will be fried artichokes and asparagus, prosciutto with melon. We try and take a micro-seasonal approach to cooking here. That is how the Italians cook as well.

My culinary approach is not to do much inventing. I pull from my time in Italy where regions have had the same dishes for centuries. These dishes never change and are unique to each region. Our menu is based off of first what is seasonal and then doing the best you can with that ingredient. I like taking those old dishes from Italy and introducing them to New Orleans. For instance, octopus carpaccio is a snack on the beaches south of Liguria. Or the passover meals. I love doing those meals. In fact, many of our guests for those meals were Catholic priests who wanted to eat these foods they had studied in the Old Testament.

I don't like not having as much time to spend with my girlfriend. She is awesome, graduated from Tulane a few years ago and is originally from Georgia. She spends time with her family back in Georgia and being a head chef means many times I can't go with her because it is NOWFE or Mardi Gras or Easter or whatever.

My favorite part of being a chef is mentoring young cooks or disadvantaged people jobs that lead to careers in the food world. Angel, one of our cooks, came from Cafe Reconcile and she has become such an integral part of our team that I can't imagine our kitchen without her.

I really like making pizzas. Working with with the wood burning oven (at right) and the dough is more akin to dealing with people than cooking. The dough is alive and each day it needs to be treated differently.

The wood burning oven is my favorite kitchen tool. You can do everything in there from breads, sardines, roast goat, spinach and ricotta crespelle, you name it, I would like to cook it in that oven.

The Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking which is 1,000 pages long and all in Italian has references to every Italian dish. Marc Vetri's cookbook, il Viaggio. Salumi, another 1,000 page behemoth that I use all the time for salumi making. And then my mom sends me all these Jews in Italy books which chronicle the food of Jews in Italy. Reading those always makes me fall back in love with being Israeli.

I'd love to cook and eat with Mario Batali for obvious reasons. Marc Vetri who has been a big influence on me. Jean Louis Palladin, who although he is dead, first saw me as a poor fish cook and I 'd love to show him what I've accomplished. And Watch Chupal, a Thai chef from Vegas I worked with. I haven't cooked for him in at least a decade and I'd like to do so again.

I don't like crazy fusion. Cooks are bastardizing culture when they combine traditions. That and the trend of trying too hard. They just end up screwing it up.

Parma. I spent so much time in Parma that I am really drawn to that regions' style of cooking. Parma swears it is the best region in Italy. The people never get tired of prosciutto or Parmagianno cheese. I love the fact that these people live off of these ingredients. You know here in America, you have success with a restaurant and everyone asks, "What is your next restaurant?" In Parma, and Italy on the whole, a family has one restaurant, and everyone works there, they aren't opening any more restaurants. I plan on Domenica being a restaurant I have for the rest of my life.

I love Vietnamese food. I go all over. Dong Phuong for the pork pastries and banh mi. Ba mien for squid. 9 Roses for the BBQ grills. Kim Son for fish. Tan Dinh for shrimp in house sauce with pickled veg and rice.

No. Uh oh. No music in my kitchen.

Love that I don't feel like this is a job. This is my livelihood. Making people happy through food. It is a good calling to have.

No, never worked in the front of the house. But have always had a strong connection with customer experience. I never want to lose touch with their experience because their experience influences what happens in the kitchen. The back of the house works so hard, I need to insure that translates to a great experience in the front of the house.

After work, I love going home, hanging out with girlfriend and dog, having a glass of wine. In general, during my time off I don't go out on the town, I much prefer to spend time with the people I love.

No comments: