Alon Shaya, at 32 years young, was one of two chefs that proposed to his girlfriend while in Israel (David Slater also proposed.  Both women said yes!).  Alon was born in Israel and moved to the United States when he was 4 years old.  Over the years he has returned a few times to Israel.  

Why did you want to become a chef?
I thought it would take me all over the world to meet interesting people and see new places. 

How did that work out for you?
I say thank goodness I chose to be a cook! It is working out better than I dreamed.

What influence does your Israeli background have on you? 
The last time I was in Israel was in 2003. It was the last time I got to sound with my grandmother before she passed away. Growing up I was able to come a few times to visit. Each time I return it feels that I am reconnecting to a life I never had. When I am on the streets I will smell something that will remind me of my grandfather and I feel such strong sensations with that. Who would ever think that the smell of cigarettes and body odor could evoke such a positive response? It only can happen like that when I am in Israel.

I am in admiration of so many people I am meeting on this trip, like the lone soldiers and like yourself - you made a choice to be in a place that I never really thought about living in.

This visit is so different than past visits - I am getting the chance to appreciate a side of Israel I never experienced - the hotels, restaurants and nightlife - it is all world class!

I can see very clearly that you and John have a very tight and meaningful relationship - can you tell me a bit about that?
I met John through a friend that was his business partner. Ever since that day John has been an incredible mentor - he got me to stop and say to myself, okay, slow down, let's see where this is going.

I worked for John for five years as the chef of his steakhouse. When I told him that I wanted to open an Italian restaurant he said okay, and off I went packing to Italy for a year. It was incredible to learn authentic cooking and meat curing from the families that were so welcoming.  When I came back we opened up Domenica and it has been a dream come true ever since.

How do you feel being back in Israel in the context of a chef?
So inspired because I get to stop (as John taught me to do) and to ask about dreams that I have not yet dreamed. I am meetings Americans here like the lone soldiers and like yourself that moved here because of dreams that you have. It is very inspiring to see.

For each of us this trip has been special in our own way. Some of us are religious Catholics - when we are at the religious sites I am mesmerized by watching the look in Jennifer and John's eyes - it is enough to show me how special this is for them.

I have had some pretty emotional experiences. Cooking at the promenade and army base events was so special. I feel like I can give back in a small way to a country that in some ways I feel that I abandoned.  Also, a friend of my mother’s, Esther, heard that I was going to be in Rosh Ha’ayin, so she came to the promenade opening and surprised me.  It was very emotional with tears and all because she has not seen me since I was 4 years old.  It was a strong reminder for me of my mother and grandmother.  The power that people have on me here is quite strong.

What were some of the foods that your grandmother cooked?
The last time I saw my grandmother was in Israel - we went to Monka together (in Jaffa) and had authentic Bulgarian food. She cooked a lot of that type of cuisine - tzatziki, burekas, lutinitza, spanakopita, chopped liver, kabobs. My grandmother would make feta cheese at the house. I am a manic depressive when it comes to food, I love it, I hate it.  I get a crazy craving for something but then I overindulge and hate it afterwards

Has the food on this trip influenced you? 
Yes, I want to take back a little bit of everything and incorporate it into my cooking.  My senses are incredibly heightened while here and I am noticing elements of food that I may not have noticed elsewhere.  For example, I ate a tomato dish where the leftover tomato juice at the end of the dish was swimming with the leftover olive oil, salt and pepper.  This “juice” was so delicious that I am trying to figure out how to serve it on its own. When writing a menu, I am thinking that people will laugh at me if I try to serve this because it is so simple, but I am so sure it can be just as delicious as any dish, so I just have to figure out how to market it the right way.

Another simple dish was at Abraxas North – a yogurty/sour cream dish with olive oil, sumac, salt and pepper. Again this is an example of a dish that is so simple yet so flavorful and satisfying.

Your Hebrew is pretty good – what is your favorite word to say?
Tapuach adama [potato] – I like the sound of that.  Also, charif [spicy].

Flourless Almond Cake with Figs, Orange and Honey

Makes a 10-inch Bundt cake

  • 2 tablespoons matzo meal
  • 2 cups almond flour (or finely ground almonds)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 6 whole eggs, whites and yolks separated
  • 6 tablespoons pure olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons orange zest
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Brush the inside of a 10-inch Bundt pan with olive oil and then dust the inside with matzo meal.

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

    In a mixing bowl, combine matzo meal, almond flour, 1/4 cup granulated sugar and brown sugar.

    In a separate bowl, combine egg yolks and another 1/4 cup granulated sugar; beat with a whip attachment until thick and fluffy, about 6 minutes. Drizzle in the olive oil. Once that is combined, add juices and zest.

    Fold dry ingredients into the egg-yolk mixture.

    In a separate bowl, whisk egg whites and salt to soft peaks. Slowly add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and keep beating until stiff peaks form.

    Fold the whipped egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. It should be a thick batter. Spoon into the prepared pan halfway up the sides.

    Bake 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

    When the cake comes out of the oven, brush it with honey syrup (below) and then sprinkle the nut mixture (below) all over the top. When cool, fill center with room temperature Fig Marmellata (below).

    Honey Syrup

    1/2 cup honey

  • 3 tablespoons Manischewitz wine
  • Pinch kosher salt
  • Pinch ground black pepper
  • In a saucepan over medium heat, combine honey, wine, salt and pepper and cook until honey begins to bubble. Remove from heat and set aside at room temperature.
  • Nut Topping
  • 1/4 cup roasted pistachios
  • 1/4 cup roasted hazelnuts
  • 1/4 cup roasted pine nuts
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • Zest of 1 orange
  • Place nuts, cinnamon, sugar and zest in food processor and pulse several times until all the nuts are coarsely chopped.

    Fig Marmellata

  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 3 cups Manischewitz wine
  • Zest and juice of 1 orange
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 cups dried figs cut into fourths
  • 2 cups dates, seeded, cut into fourths
  • Combine honey, wine, zests and juices, salt, figs and dates in a medium pot. Place on low heat until mixture thickens, about 30 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.

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