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Because food connects us all, Yahoo Life is serving up a heaping plateful of table talk with people who are passionate about what's on their menu in Deglazed, a series about food.
Regardless of where he goes or where he's come from, Alon Shaya has created a map of his personal journey through menus. As a young boy from Israel growing up on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pa., food has always been a guiding light for the Top Chef Season 15 judge, as well as a way to connect to his past, present and future.
"Food has always just played a really huge role," he says. "It was a big thing in our house — our days were always centered around food."
"We have so many [food traditions] because I was born in Israel," he adds. "My mom and my grandmother cooked a lot of food from Israel and my grandmother is Bulgarian, so she cooked a lot of Bulgarian dishes."
The 43-year-old author of part memoir, part cookbook Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel says he grew up in the kitchen, but the moments he recalls most vividly are centered around holiday traditions.
"One of my favorite moments was during Hanukkah every year," Shaya shares. "You make jelly donuts — Sufganiyah — and for any kid, it's a highlight. My mom had this jelly gun and I would sit there and squeeze the jelly into the donuts and spend all day in the kitchen with her."
Shaya, who currently resides in New Orleans, La. and owns hospitality and restaurant consulting business Pomegranate Hospitality, says this love of traditions built around food has remained a constant in his life. He hopes to pass his passion for food on to friends and family, and to his daughter, Ruth. In fact, Shaya and his wife, Emily, have blended their rich culture with the history of their new hometown to build a brand new tradition for their family.
“We call it our 'Cajun Shabbat' and we do it every Monday night," Shaya tells Yahoo Life. "It's when my wife cooks a big pot of red beans and rice and we invite a bunch of friends over, have wine and catch up on the last week."
Shabbat, the day of rest and peace in the Jewish faith, typically takes place weekly from sundown on Friday evening to sunset on Saturday. Shaya says this merging of culture is something that's turned Monday into a day to look forward to: one that's built around not only his Jewish roots but also the food culture in New Orleans.
"Monday is the day that red beans and rice are traditionally served in Louisiana … Monday was wash day, so that's when all the laundry was hand-washed back in the day," the chef explains. "People were busy all day long scrubbing clothes, so they didn't have a lot of time to stand over a pot and cook. The thing about red beans is you can put them on early and let them go and eight or nine hours later, you have a great pot of red beans."
Aside from menus at home, Shaya's time in Louisiana has also shaped the menus of his restaurants across the country. Shaya spoke with Yahoo Life on behalf of his most recent work with the Vidalia Onion Committee, where he created a special menu for this year's Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Ky. based around the sweet onions and horse races.
"I'm working with them to make some recipes for the Derby," he says,"things I think are fun to have while watching the horse race."
"Gumbo is one of them," Shaya continues. "With gumbo, if you make it with a really dark roux, it can sometimes have some bitter notes because the flour is cooked for so long, but I add a whole lot of Vidalia onions to the dish and they really sweeten it up so it balances that bitterness in a really great way.”
A good, rich roux — a mixture of white wheat flour and cooking fat that is cooked down then used to thicken and flavor dishes like gumbo — is a staple in Louisiana cooking. As a self-proclaimed proud New Orleanian, Shaya says this aromatic Creole stew has become the perfect celebration dish.
"That's something I really love for parties, just a huge pot of gumbo," he says. "Everyone can come up and grab a ladle and put it on top of some rice or potato salad — which is another thing a lot of people don't know about — potato salad with gumbo. It's kind of a Western Louisiana thing."
"We're doing a potato salad to go along with the gumbo with a lot of Vidalia onions in it," he explains. "So when you ladle that gumbo you can put a scoop of potato salad in it and it gets really creamy and delicious."
Although many cultures and cuisines inspire him, Shaya says the chef who most inspires him to keep cooking is the same one who helped him get started on his culinary journey.
"I would say the cook I admire most is Donna Barnett, my former home economics teacher," Shaya shares. "I feel she has single-handedly used food to make a huge difference in people's lives when they needed it the most, so she's always been my main inspiration."
Shaya says his home economics teacher became a mentor to him in high school, a time where he needed "direction in life." It was Barnett who helped him apply for culinary school and land his first job in a fine dining restaurant. "She saw I had a lot of talent and passion for cooking," he says. "She's remained a huge part of my life — she's always been like a mother to me."
The pair launched the Shaya Barnett Foundation in 2016 to provide resources and culinary education to high school students in an effort to provide them with the same opportunities and experiences that helped shape Shaya's success in the kitchen.
"We started our foundation to try to help make a difference in people's lives the way she made a difference in my life," Shaya says of his continued work with Barnett, which began when he was a youth in Philadelphia.
So, as a Philadelphia native, where does Shaya, a two-time James Beard Award-winner, go for the perfect Philly cheesesteak? "Dalessandro's is my favorite cheesesteak," he says. "It's located in North Philly and that's where I go."
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