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I first encountered the food of Alon Shaya at an ostensibly Italian restaurant in a restored 1890s hotel in New Orleans’s central business district, in the form of a whole roasted cauliflower, served like a steamship round, with a demilune-shaped steak knife. I went back the next night for that dish and others that showed mastery of not just the pizza Shaya had practiced during several months in Italy, but also the Israeli food of which that whole roasted cauliflower is a well-known showpiece.
Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel, written with Tina Antolini, traces Shaya’s emotional and culinary journey from Philadelphia, where he was a child of divorced Israeli immigrants, poor and out of place on the edge of a ritzy neighborhood (school friends would pick him up in Rolls-Royces for beachside weekends). He mostly encountered trouble, often with the law. But Shaya also found solace and vocation in cooking—an activity he had begun when his Bulgarian and Romanian grandparents would visit for a month at a time and provide the sense of family structure he lacked.
Because the book follows the contours of his development as a cook and a man, readers looking for a straightforward excursion into the Israeli food that took hold in the hands of Yotam Ottolenghi and Michael Solomonov, another Israeli-by-way-of-Philadelphia chef, will have to go along for the ride, stopping for the recipes on the way. You’ll find the salads and homey dishes Shaya made sure to record on what he knew would be his last visit to his Romanian grandmother; read about him starting a Jewish culture club at the Culinary Institute of America, not realizing how his fellow students would react when he suggested a festive whole roast pig (what Jewish identity he had, he’d learned mostly from Seinfeld reruns); and learn his version of red beans and rice as part of his bonding with his adopted city of New Orleans before and after Katrina. (Fans of Solomonov’s Zahav, with its redefining recipe for tahini, will be glad to know he’s back with Israeli Soul, which focuses on street food, with a five-minute hummus and many kinds of bread, including pita and Jerusalem bagels.)