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Alon Shaya On Shifting His Restaurant Focus From Food To Staff

Alon Shaya has been nominated for five James Beard Awards and has won two—Best Chef (southern region) in 2015, and best new restaurant in America in 2016. In 2017, he founded Pomegranate Hospitality as well as restaurants Saba in New Orleans and Safta in Denver. He also created the Shaya Barnett Foundation, which brings culinary education and resources to high schools.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the past four months uniquely challenging. But when things are at their toughest, I try to remember my entire life has been a set of challenges I’ve had to overcome. I don’t think that’s something unique to me, by the way. Pushing through setbacks is part of being human. And challenges also create opportunities to learn and grow into the people we want to be.

I grew up in a very poor immigrant family. We moved from Israel to Philadelphia when I was four years old, and my parents split up when I was five. My mom worked two jobs to keep food on our table, and my dad lived on the other side of town, so they weren’t usually around to guide me or to instill the right values.

To fill that void, I gravitated toward those who gave me attention, which—at that time—were drug dealers and kids who carried guns. I struggled with confidence and a sense of identity, and I acted out in angry and self-destructive ways. I smoked cigarettes and did other drugs, but I was a 6’1” teenager and adults mostly left me alone. Except the police. I remember sitting in court as a giant bong I’d made from an old pretzel container was brought in front of a judge as evidence against me.

As an immigrant kid, I was surrounded by people in my new country who felt comfortable here. They knew the music in America because their family had been here for years, if not for generations. They knew the sports teams. They had this shared history they were able to talk about. I was on the outside of that, but I didn’t want to be. I wanted to be more “normal,” so I tried to be more American and less Israeli. I felt like an outcast—like society didn’t give a shit about me and that there was no place for me within it. That’s a dangerous feeling for a kid to have.

Then a home economics teacher named Donna Barnett saved me. I wasn’t good at school—and that added to my feeling of worthlessness—but I enjoyed cooking and being around food. I knew home ec would be more fun than other classes, and I jumped at the chance to hold knives and meet girls, but I didn’t anticipate the most important lesson Donna would teach me—that I was worth something.

She took me under her wing and convinced the principal to send me to her class whenever I was in trouble. She showed me I was good at something, and I started getting in trouble on purpose just so I could learn to chop and peel and do whatever else Donna was working on.

She helped me get a job at her friend’s restaurant, and she made sure I had clean shirts to wear there. Most notably, Donna and a vocational tech teacher of mine, Seth Schram, helped me get into the Culinary Institute of America in New York after high school. Then they helped me find scholarship money so I could actually go.

And going to culinary school was, I think, the first definitive step away from my destructive childhood, and toward a life that was constructive for me and those around me. I’d later see I had a long way to go, but nothing would have been possible without mentors like Donna and Seth.

I moved to my adopted hometown of New Orleans in 2003 to manage the 24-hour buffet at Harrah’s casino. I was in my 20s, I was arrogant, and now I suddenly found myself managing 400 employees and a chocolate fountain that was always clogged.

I was still trying to find my way forward, and I was cooking in a way that was self-centered. I wanted to be innovative and groundbreaking, and I naively obsessed over cooking something that would catapult me into the outer space of chefdom.

But my understanding of the power of food—and the importance I saw in it—began to change in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Six days after the storm, as most of the city lay underwater, I went to a local Walmart that had been looted and nearly destroyed. The parking lot was a mix of New Orleanians who had been rescued from their homes and National Guard soldiers doing the rescuing.

I looked around the store and grabbed a crawfish pot, bags of rice and beans, and some bottles of water. I started making red beans and rice for whoever wanted a meal.

This wasn’t the most innovative or delicious food I’ve ever made. I didn’t have onions or peppers or meat or anything like that. But I remember that shared meal to this day because it reminded me that food isn’t just about innovation or taste or presentation. Food makes people happy. It’s why I first fell in love with cooking. And here I was in the middle of a crisis, and I saw the way this simple familiar unextraordinary meal brought comfort to those who were in a situation that was anything but familiar.

The experience helped me realize the value of food steeped in history and tradition, and helped me understand my value to others when I cooked it. And when I began to understand and appreciate New Orleans’ traditions, that’s when I fell in love with the city and its people. New Orleans taught me what it means to be part of a community, and as a boy from divorced parents who moved across the world at a young age, that’s something I had been desperate for my whole life.

Two years after the hurricane, I took my growing appreciation for culinary tradition on an eight-month trip to Italy. I wanted to learn the history of their food, and I got to watch hundreds of years of generational cooking come to life in Italy’s kitchens.

I remember watching a chef’s six-year-old kid standing up on a milk crate, peeling potatoes. Scene after scene like this showed me what it meant to be proud of your traditions and to be confident in who you are. But I wasn’t ready to internalize that lesson yet, because when I returned to New Orleans, I opened an Italian restaurant. I even got a Vespa and a man purse! I was a 30-year-old man trying to somehow turn myself into an Italian chef.

But I’m not Italian, obviously. I’m Israeli-American—though I spent a lot of my life trying to forget that fact. Even in my late 30s, I was hesitant to cook Israeli food, because it felt like a step backwards in my being accepted as American.

Americans love Italian food, though. So do I! So that’s what I cooked. I gained confidence and pride as a chef and in my skills, but I wasn’t proud of my own history.

Then I went to Israel in 2011, and that’s really when the lightbulb clicked. It was a special trip. My wife Emily and I got engaged there. But, also, as I heard people speak Hebrew, it felt like I was somehow connected to my grandparents—my Saba and Safta—and that they were encouraging me to explore and to be proud of who I was and where I was from.

So that’s what I did. I started asking my mom and dad questions about our past that I had never asked before. I began introducing elements of Israeli cooking into the menu at my Italian restaurant. In 2015, I opened an Israeli restaurant. And I published my cookbook, which allowed me to really dig deep into my history and what it meant to my cooking. I was finally able to realize and show that I am proud of who I am and where I come from.

It was a rewarding time for me in many regards, but I had one more challenge still to come. I now knew who I was, but I still needed the confidence to act on what I believed in. I needed the confidence and conviction to bring my values to life.

For most of my 30s, I valued creating delicious food and providing a great customer experience at a restaurant that was groundbreaking and memorable. I couldn’t imagine anything more important, and wouldn’t let anything get in the way of that goal.

I’m ashamed of it now, but when things went wrong I mimicked the examples of other chefs I’d seen—those who often acted like assholes in the kitchen. As a kid who spent much of his childhood being torn down, that’s how I thought it had to be. I wasn’t secure enough to treat people the way I believed they should be treated.

So I left my old restaurant group in 2017 to start Pomegranate Hospitality, and it was an opportunity to act on the belief that there are more important things to running a restaurant than the food and the customer’s experience. Those are important, of course, but today my focus is on my employees and the experience they have working at my restaurants. I want my employees to feel empowered to pursue their dreams. I want them to feel that working at my restaurants helps them achieve their goals. And we want people to love being at work with us.

That’s one of many reasons COVID has been so challenging. When we temporarily closed our doors, we had to tell team members we love that they didn’t have a job to return to tomorrow. That was heartbreaking, and I constantly wonder if we could have kept more people on the team. At the time, though, it was impossible to predict what would happen next.

Emily and I wanted to do our part for a city that has given us so much. When we decided to temporarily close Saba, we filled the time by cooking and delivering 3,500 meals to frontline hospital and nursing home workers so they’d be fed and nourished while they saved New Orleanians’ lives.

Even in these unpredictable times, we work daily to make sure our values dictate our actions. When we laid off employees, we helped them navigate each step of unemployment so they’d more quickly receive benefits. In New Orleans, we worked with our landlord to expand outdoor seating so we could safely serve more customers and hire many team members back. And, as we did, we continued to make sure they’d have a robust benefits package—including health insurance.

We created a prix fixe menu for dinner so our servers could benefit from the tips of a full meal instead of having guests take up a table for a snack. We also added a four percent kitchen appreciation fee to each check, which goes to our cooks and dishwashers who are historically non-tipped employees.

We’re in uncharted territory now, and these steps and others are all part of taking care of our employees so they have the money and security to take care of their families and pursue their dreams. Those are the values we have as a business, and they’re the values I have as an individual.

It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve finally had the confidence and courage to act on those values. That’s why, along with my old teachers Donna and Seth, I created the Shaya Barnett Foundation in 2016 to provide culinary education and resources to high school students, and it’s why I love cooking in city schools with children and young adults. I want to share my stories and my passion for food with them. I want to help inspire others to follow their dreams just like Donna and Seth did for me, and I want these kids to understand that you don’t need to get straight As in English, math, and history to be worth something greater to this world.

It’s taken a lifetime of learning, but I’ve come a long way from that angry child in an unfamiliar country, and that chef who prioritized food above all else. But I’m grateful for the challenges that taught me to value myself and to value others. Now more than ever, I think the world needs that.