I talked to several New Orleans residents while prepping for our AFAR Experiences event this May, and time and time again, I heard a tone in their voice that I can only describe as in-loveness: New Orleanians, whether native or transplant, are in love with their city. All made a very conscious choice to stay in or move to the city post-Katrina and help rebuild. More than a decade later, New Orleans is in a full-on renaissance—and the people who live there absolutely want to be in on it.
Chef Alon Shaya is one such person. The James Beard award–winner is the mind behind the game-changing Shaya, nominated for a James Beard Best New Restaurant award this year. He moved to the city in 2003, two years before the storm hit, and never left.
“Once Katrina hit, the city really changed—of course,” he says. “I changed. It made me very loyal to the city because I felt like I had a reason to be here. I knew that if I stayed and kept cooking, I could truly make a difference. I could provide people with comfort. So I stayed, and I fell in love with this place even more.”
In 2009, Alon opened Domenica with chef John Besh, followed by Pizza Domenica in 2014 and, most recently, Shaya, an Israeli restaurant that pays homage to his own heritage.
He shared with AFAR his take on what’s happening in New Orleans’ food world right now:
What’s been the biggest change, food-wise, since the storm? “Katrina pressed a reset button in everyone’s mind. The city is much more open-minded: Young chefs are now cooking Chinese food or Caribbean food. And, of course, Shaya is an Israeli restaurant. Five years ago that wouldn’t have worked in this city. But today it does, and it’s really refreshing to see not only locals embracing it but also tourists, who traditionally would only want to eat classic New Orleans cuisine.”
How did Katrina affect the city’s classic culinary identity? “Young chefs are embracing good Cajun and Creole cooking now, which is important. The city was built on that kind of food, and it’s not going anywhere. You have chefs like Steven Stryjewski, who opened Cochon right after the storm, and Isaac Toups, who opened a restaurant called Toups’ Meatery. He’s a Cajun through-and-through, and he’s making cracklin’s on Top Chef now. You’re seeing restaurants that were landmarks pre-Katrina, like Emeril’s, that are still thriving every day, and restaurants like Brennan’s that are getting multi-million dollar renovations and still serving crab meat with eggs. So there’s still a really strong sense of culinary identity in Nola. But, at the same time, we have a lot of hipster coffee shops opening, which is awesome. I was at one this morning.”
What’s your favorite of the new restaurants? “The Vietnamese cuisine in the city has really blossomed since the storm. One of my favorites is Lilly’s Café on Magazine Street; they make a great spicy shrimp pho. I love Compère Lapin and what Nina Compton has been doing for the city in the year and a half or so that she’s been here. She’s cooking beautiful, creative food embedded in her St. Lucien background. And I like to eat boiled crawfish at Bevi Seafood Co. The chef, Justin LeBlanc, does a great po’ boy too.”
What about the old-guard restaurants? “My wife and I love Mosca’s, which is this old-school Italian restaurant 35 minutes from town. They have a jukebox in the dining room. An Italian family has been running it for generations.”
Tell us about your neighborhood. “We live in Bayou St. John, just west of the French Quarter. It’s near City Park, which is nice and big and close to the art museum. My wife and I play tennis there. The neighborhood is just a five-minute drive to everywhere, but it’s outside the downtown hustle and bustle. And it has a great community of people—everyone’s very quirky, they enjoy outdoor festivals, volunteers will go out and paint benches.”
Where do you like to eat near home? “We live just a few blocks from a place called Pagoda Café. It’s this pagoda-shaped building that’s only 20-by-20 feet. It’s so small, but they make amazing coffee. They also make great breakfast pastries and sandwiches and salads. It’s run by an Australian guy, Dan. You know how Australian coffee shops are famous for serving great food? He brought that culture to this little building.”
Are you more of a sweet or savory guy? “Definitely savory. A soft shell crab po’ boy is my favorite—I love the one they make at Parkway Bakery and Tavern.”
You’re making the food for the AFAR Experiences finale dinner—any hints as to what we’ll be eating? “The party will be centered around this huge crawfish boil. We’re going to Breaux Bridge in the heart of Cajun country, where all the crawfish farms are, to pick up the crawfish. We’re going to get the biggest and the baddest crawfish and boil them with spices and lemons and smoked sausage and whole cloves of garlic and all these beautiful vegetables. We’ll serve ’em on a big table covered in newspaper, which is the way you should eat crawfish. And we’ll serve really, really cold beer. There’s no better way to spend a hot day in New Orleans.”
Beer with crawfish?? “Abita Brewery makes a strawberry lager every year during crawfish season using Louisiana strawberries. It’s so good. Abita strawberry beer and hot spicy boiled crawfish is one of the best combinations ever.”
Any Israeli food? “While we locals can easily down 5-7 pounds of crawfish per person, we understand that not everybody wants to do that. So we’ll serve food from Shaya restaurant, too: fresh-whipped hummus with pickles and harissa and hard-boiled eggs; Israeli salad with tomatoes and cucumbers and za’atar; chilled yogurt soup with dill and walnuts. And wood-fired pita, of course.”
AFAR Experiences New Orleans took place May 18–20 2016. Learn more here.