In the past year, chef Alon Shaya brought the flavors of his popular CBD restaurant Domenica to Uptown with Pizza Domenica, and he’s brought the flavors of his homeland, Israel, to New Orleans with his new restaurant Shaya. Now, he’s bringing home a coveted culinary honor after winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South, which was presented Monday night at a gala event in Chicago.
Shaya was the only New Orleans winner among the seven local names listed among finalists for the awards, which are often described as the Oscars of the American restaurant industry and are presented with great fanfare each spring.
“I’m so thankful to all the teachers I’ve had,” Shaya said from the podium at Chicago’s Civic Opera House. “I think all of us chefs know you don’t get to this point in our careers by ourselves. You need people with you all the way.”
In addition to thanking his wife, Emily, and his partners and staff at the Besh Restaurant Group, Shaya thanked the city of New Orleans for making him feel at home.
“I’m an Israeli who grew up in Philly and is cooking in New Orleans, and somehow that all comes together and tastes good,” he said.
Born in Tel Aviv and raised in Philadelphia, Shaya moved to New Orleans in 2003 and was chef de cuisine at Besh Steak in Harrah’s Casino before opening Domenica in 2009. Pizza Domenica opened last spring, followed by Shaya, his Israeli restaurant, in February.
The chef is no stranger to the James Beard Award process, having also picked up nominations for the Best Chef: South award in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Past local winners of the award include Emeril Lagasse, Frank Brigtsen and Susan Spicer, while last year Sue Zemanick, of Gautreau’s Restaurant, and Ryan Prewitt, of Peche Seafood Grill, shared the honor.
Other New Orleanians hoping for big awards Monday night included Donald Link, who has won multiple Beard Awards in the past. This year, he was a finalist for Outstanding Chef, the James Beard group’s highest honor, but it went to Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern in New York.
JoAnn Clevenger of Upperline was a finalist for Outstanding Restaurateur; that award went to Donnie Madia, of Chicago’s One Off Hospitality Group.
Also in the running for awards were Arnaud’s French 75, the bar at the landmark French Creole restaurant Arnaud’s, as a finalist for Outstanding Bar Program (it lost to the Violet Hour in Chicago), and the Besh Restaurant Group’s Restaurant August, a finalist for the award for Outstanding Service (which went to the Barn at Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee).
Two other New Orleans chefs were in the final running for the regional Best Chef: South award this year — Justin Devillier, of La Petite Grocery and Balise, and Slade Rushing, chef of the new Brennan’s Restaurant on Royal Street.
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the James Beard Awards, which are widely viewed as the top awards for the American restaurant industry. The roster of finalists was culled by the foundation’s Awards Committee from a list of some 35,000 nominees submitted by the public during an open-call last fall.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.