Israeli chefs win big at US culinary awards

James Beard foundation recognizes Shaya, Solomonov for restaurant, cookbook work.

Michael Solomonov (right) and Steven Cook (photo credit: KENT MILLER STUDIOS)
Michael Solomonov (right) and Steven Cook
(photo credit: KENT MILLER STUDIOS)
NEW YORK – Israeli cuisine won big this year at the James Beard Foundation awards, considered one of the most prestigious accolades in the American culinary world.
Israeli chefs took home both the Best New Restaurant and Book of the Year awards, handed out by the New York-based nonprofit.
Shaya restaurant in New Orleans, which offers a take on modern Israeli cuisine by chef and owner Alon Shaya, was awarded Best New Restaurant at the foundation’s gala in Chicago on Monday night.
“Who would have thought – hummus in New Orleans?!” said Shaya as he accepted the honor at the event, known as the “Oscars of food” in the culinary world. “What was everyone thinking?” The restaurant, which opened in February 2015, serves traditional Israeli dishes from shakshuka to falafel, hummus, sabich and lamb kebab, with Shaya’s own original twists and takes. The chicken schnitzel is served on sesame halla with harissa mayonnaise and shaved pickles; and the matzo ball soup includes slow-cooked duck, escarole and tender herbs.
The eatery has been pretty much booked solid since it opened its doors last year, and was named as one of the 50 best new restaurants in America by Bon Appétit magazine in August.
“Israeli food is finally coming across as something that people are excited about,” Shaya told JTA last year. “I think social media has played a big role in this, along with chefs like [Yotam] Ottolenghi who produce beautiful cookbooks.
This is not trendy food; it’s food that people are discovering for the first time but that has been cooked the same way for generations… “The food in Israel makes up a diverse mosaic: Bulgarian, Turkish, Moroccan, Greek. You can’t boil it down to just one thing. It is diverse, and it has evolved,” he said.
Last year, Shaya was named Best New Chef in the South by the James Beard Foundation for his work at Domenica, another restaurant in New Orleans that he co-owns.
Last week, at the cookbook awards announced ahead of the gala, Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook’s Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, won Cookbook of the Year as well as international cookbook of the year from the foundation.
In addition, Ottolenghi won in the Cooking From a Professional Point of View category for his cookbook NOPI, co-authored with Ramael Scully.
Ottolenghi’s 2012 Jerusalem had won him a 2013 James Beard Award for best international cookbook.
Zahav, named for Solomonov’s famed Philadelphia restaurant, was noted in a review by The Jerusalem Post last year for being “hearty and soulful and deeply personal.”
The Israeli-born, US-raised Solomonov wrote about his upbringing and culinary journey, as well as the heartbreaking loss of his brother during his IDF service, killed by a sniper along the Lebanese border in 2003.
Zahav is not a kosher eatery, but all the recipes in the book are: “I’ll leave it up to you to figure out how to disappoint your Jewish relatives,” he writes.
Though Solomonov grew up mostly in the US, his book effortlessly captures the modern Israeli palate, with flavors and traditions from the worlds of Iraqi, Moroccan, Persian, Yemenite, Romanian and Bulgarian cuisines.
“There’s a sad but true saying that Israelis are always prepared for two things: war and barbecue,” he writes at the start of a chapter on grilling.
Solomonov and Shaya have ties to each other, as well, cooking together at a kosher “Exploring Israel” event in the South Beach Food and Wine Festival in February – the first-ever kosher event in the festival’s history.
The pair also have led food tours in Israel for their fellow American chefs.
The James Beard Foundation, named for the prolific food writer and cookbook author, is a nonprofit that says its “mission is to celebrate, nurture and honor America’s diverse culinary heritage.”
JTA contributed to this report.