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Alon Shaya on #MeToo, Weed Recipes and His Jewish Heritage

Is Alon Shaya cooking’s new socially conscious heir apparent?

In his new restaurants, Saba and Safta, he’s planning to pay competitive wages far and above the median average payscale of restaurant employees, and provide health benefits, continuing education, and mandatory cultural training on a regular basis.

In his new cookbook, Shaya, an ode to the transformative power of cooking, he meanders through New Orleans, Italy and Israel before settling on a cooking style that is all his own.

I spoke with Alon Shaya about the restaurant industry, why Gordon Ramsay is not a good role model for young chefs, and how he chose to write his cookbook.

I loved your cookbook. I read it with my little brother, who’s a chef, who just loved reading all the parts about your wild childhood.

That’s the cool part about the book — I think people will be able to relate to it in a lot of different ways and that’s what I was hoping for.

Do you have any advice for young, aspiring chefs?

The advice that I always give young aspiring chefs is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and you really have to love it and you get a lot further in life when treat people nicely. Don’t buy into the Gordon-Ramsay style of management.

This cookbook/memoir, I see it as crossing genres. Do you think it will be a trend in the restaurant industry, these cross-genre books?

You know, I’m not sure. For me, it was so personal that it was really the only way I knew how to write the book, because I had so many moving parts throughout my life that influenced my cooking. When I started writing the book, I didn’t know how to get gnocci and hummus and jumbalaya into one book, or how to get pita and pizza and malawach and buttermilk biscuits into one book. So I thought the best way to do it it would be to start at the beginning and let the stories create the recipes…For me, cooking always ties back into a memory or a story, and that’s how I try to find my creative side, through moments of my life. I think a lot of chefs work that way.

I noticed in your book that you had a recipe for green butter (cannabis-infused butter). Do you think that will become more common in cookbooks, as weed becomes legalized in more and more places?

I think that, obviously the world is moving towards that more. I put that recipe in there because it was very relevant to that story and also I see that, especially in America, people are starting to experiment with that a little bit more. If you live in Colorado or California or Washington State, that could be a great recipe to make.

Did you ever envision marijuana crossing over into fine dining? Going to a five-star restaurant and getting served something enhanced with THC?

Yeah, I definitely think that’s on its way.

So there’s been a massive cultural reckoning recently with the #MeToo movement, which has extended to the restaurant industry. Will you run your restaurants differently, in light of all this?

For me, it’s all we’ve been focusing on. The food and service has definitely been secondary to us at Pomegranate Hospitality to what we’ve been spending all our time on. We’re focusing solely on taking of our audience and our audience are our team members, first and foremost. We have a set of values that we’ve created for Pomegranate that will touch every moment within someone’s experience working for us, it’s going to be part of the recruitment process, you have to answer to empowerment, accountability, respect. Those are just a few of the values we’ve set but those will serve as the backbone to how we organize our team, grow our culture and how we treat each other. That’s more important than anything else. I mean, forget about the recipes or the type of glassware we have, we have to create a safe and comfortable work environment for people, and we’ve been focusing on nothing but that since we’ve built Pomegranate.

They say workers in the restaurant industry file more sexual harassment lawsuits than any other industry. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on what in the environment would contribute to that.

Well, it’s ingrained in so much of what people have experienced in restaurants and it’s extremely toxic to believe that that’s the way it has to be. When I said that advice for an aspiring chef is be nice and treat people with respect, that’s going to go much further than inventing the next pesto recipe. The way you treat people and the way you stand up for your colleagues, that’s very very important, and I think that whatever perception the restaurant industry has about this very militaristic, very male-dominated world, it’s been time for that to end for a long time and I’m glad people are starting to focus on that more and more.

So how does your Jewish heritage affect your cooking?

It’s part of the story, there’s no way to remove it or push it away. My entire life has been trying to understand how it fits into my style of cooking, to how I think about food. It’s taken time for me to get to that point and it’s going to continue to evolve. I continue to learn about it and explore it, and learn new things all the time.

What kind of foods are you cooking right now?

I do a lot of barbecue at home, Asian-inspired dishes that I love to experiment with, I make a lot of fresh salads…keep it simple and fresh, just like in the restaurant. Modern Israeli cooking, like in Saba and Safta. But when my friends come over, I’ll make a big pot of gumbo or jumbalaya.

Shira Feder is a writer for the Forward. You can reach her at [email protected]

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