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Emily Shaya is director of new projects for Pomegranate Hospitality. At its first restaurant, Saba, portraits of chef Alon Shaya's grandfather are on display by the front door. The word saba is Hebrew for grandfather.

While college basketball fans were fixated on baskets last night, a different kind of championship competition was swirling around bowls of red beans and rice in New Orleans.

Home cooking prevailed in the end, with Emily Shaya winning the Bean Madness crown after a city-wide red beans tournament that culminated Monday at the Bywater restaurant Capulet.

With a recipe based on local tradition and refined over the years in her own kitchen, her beans beat out competitor Sammy’s Food Service and Deli in the championship round. It was Shaya’s first outing in Bean Madness, an annual competition now in its third year.

“I’ve been cooking beans for friends and family and a few charity events, so I wanted to see how I’d stack up against the big leagues,” Shaya said. “Everyone makes them in this city, everyone eats them, so there can be so many different beans in a competition like this.”

To get to Monday’s championship, Shaya and Sammy’s had to advance through a roster that included contenders from around New Orleans, from corner joints to food trucks to chef-led restaurants.

Run by the Carnival groups Krewe of Red Beans and Krewe of Dead Beans, the event doubles as a fundraiser for community service nonprofits and has become a uniquely interactive way to celebrate the humble but vital dish around New Orleans.

Bean Madness stands apart from the endless internet-based “best of” contests because winners were picked by people who actually taste the competing dishes, and vote for a winner in a blind tasting format. The 32 contenders that started Bean Madness this year were whittled down during a series of head-to-head tastings at venues around town, including shops, a farmers market and a block party.

Shaya is part of a restaurant family. Her husband is the chef Alon Shaya, and their company Pomegranate Hospitality runs the local modern Israeli restaurant Saba and its sibling Safta in Denver. She also runs the event rental company Prêt a Fêtê.

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Emily Shaya and Alon Shaya prepared red beans at home in New Orleans (left). Her red beans recipe is traditional with personal touches.

Alon Shaya’s contribution to the recipe was mainly logistical, coaching the home cook on how to expand her normal recipe to the large batches needed for the Bean Madness competition rounds.

Emily Shaya grew up in small town Georgia, where butter beans were a more common dish than red beans and rice. Her own approach to the New Orleans classic started by soaking in the local style.

“I started learning from the traditions of people cooking around me and then adding my own touches to it,” she said.

One key is a stock she makes beforehand using chicken wings and chicken feet or, sometimes, pig feet. A smoked ham shank from the grocery store goes in the beans too.

Such deep-set flavor may have been key to advancing through the tournament-style Bean Madness contest, where contenders have to make an impression on voters with just a few bites.

During Monday's event, Shaya was awarded the event’s “Legume d’Or” trophy and crowned champion after earning 85 votes to Sammy’s 60. Her own winning tally matched points scored by Virginia in its 85-77 win over Texas Tech in that other championship held last night in Minnesota.


Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.