Interviews New York National New Orleans
Middle Eastern Food Is Having a Moment. Two Star Chefs Explain Why
When Alon Shaya and Ayesha Nurdjaja met for the first time, their mutual admiration was easy to understand. At their respective restaurants, Shaya and Nurdjaja highlight two different perspectives of modern Middle Eastern cuisine. And both have something to say about what it means to cook Middle Eastern food in America today.
That meeting also paved the way for what is sure to be one of New York’s most anticipated chef collaborations this year. On April 12, Shaya will join Nurdjaja at her restaurant Shukette to prepare a one-night-only feast. Their timing couldn’t be better: Middle Eastern cooking in America is undergoing a rapid reimagining. “Middle Eastern American” may not yet be a term that’s easily parsed, like “Italian American,” but that day is fast approaching. And Nurdjaja and Shaya both are seated in the midst of this particular nexus.
Based in New Orleans, Shaya is a celebrated Israeli American chef and cookbook author. Together with his wife, Emily, he runs the popular restaurants Saba (grandfather in Hebrew) in New Orleans and Safta (grandmother) in Denver. Their bar in The Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans, Miss River, is Shaya’s tribute to Louisiana, where he has lived for over 20 years. He was born in Israel, however, and moved to Philadelphia as a child, before attending the Culinary Institute of America.
Initially, Shaya cooked Italian food, and his New Orleans career started at Besh Restaurant Group’s Domenica, with fresh pastas and wood-fired pizzas. But after a trip to Israel, Shaya found himself gravitating towards a more familiar Middle Eastern pantry. Eventually, he opened Shaya in New Orleans, a forum for a deeply personal menu of Israeli cuisine, and one that received the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant award in 2016, before Shaya himself moved on to open Saba.
Nurdjaja, a born and raised New Yorker, runs two successful restaurants in Manhattan. Shuka and Shukette are convivial, colorful spaces that channel the myriad flavors and abundant hospitality of various Middle Eastern cultures. Nurdjaja, who grew up in Brooklyn, is half Italian and half Indonesian — something she is quick to point out when her focus cuisine comes up.
At the same time, Nurdjaja is an earnest student of her chosen genre. While Israel has an outsize role in her cuisine, thanks in part to travel in the region, she draws inspiration from across the Middle East, with an eye to seasonality. Her work has earned her two Beard award nominations, and made Shukette one of the hardest reservations in New York.
Needless to say, their collaboration promises to be a celebration of Middle Eastern and Israeli cooking. But their perspectives are different: Nurdjaja is approaching it with the appreciation of a devoted fan, while Shaya is drawing on personal history for inspiration. Planned dishes like an everything boreka (as homage to a certain bagel) and za’atar fried chicken reflect that sense of appreciation for — but not strict adherence to — the region’s flavors.
In American restaurants, at least, Middle Eastern cuisine remains a nebulous label. It spans vast periods of time and space, from the ancient Levant to modern Mediterranean. In America, this lack of precision is partially driven by being far removed from the source. Mostly, though, history and geography have been shuffled together under the indistinct genre of “Middle Eastern” because claiming the provenance of basic dishes like hummus or shawarma without causing a food fight is impossible.
Instead of dwelling on labels, chefs on these shores have carried on. In New York, restaurants have embraced the genre since Mamoun’s began selling falafel-stuffed pita in 1971 (the founder is from Syria). Over the next fifty years, legacy names like Tanoreen, Taim, and Ilili added to the genre. Most recently, places like Zou Zou’s and Nurdjaja’s Shukette have brought the cuisine (or cuisines) to the forefront of dining fashion.
At the same time, greater specificity with Middle Eastern cuisine has begun to emerge, in New York and beyond. In addition to Shaya, Michael Solomonov in Philadelphia has grown to national prominence by appealing to his Israeli interpretation. And when Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani brought Miznon to New York in 2018, a flourish of Israeli restaurants followed suit. In 2022, Solomonov opened Laser Wolf in Brooklyn. Mesiba, a modern Israeli restaurant in Brooklyn, is weeks old. Meanwhile, Palestinian restaurants like Qanoon, Ayat, and Al Badawi have also opened, representing a different facet of the region’s cuisine.
Thus the sum of modern Middle Eastern restaurants today — in New York and elsewhere — represents the cuisine not just in general terms, but in an increasingly individual way. This makes for a perfect backdrop for Shaya and Nurdjaja to cook together. Resy caught up with the two chefs to discuss this evolving landscape of Middle Eastern cooking and how food can be a bridge between communities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Resy: This is the first time you’ll be cooking together. How are you feeling ahead of the event?
Alon Shaya: I’m super excited to be with Ayesha and her team at Shukette. We had a wonderful meal there when we were last in New York. When she called and asked if we would consider doing a pop-up, it was really a no brainer.
Ayesha Nurdjaja: When I heard that Alon was interested, of course, I jumped on it. I’m very excited to do this collaboration. We both cook Middle Eastern food, but his flavor profiles are really good. There is such a depth that I find really interesting.
You do both cook Middle Eastern food, but quite differently. So how did you approach the collaboration?
Nurdjaja: We have sections on the menu at Shukette for the dips, the rip [bread], and the shuk. And then we have the ha’esh that comes from the grill. And accessories, which is all the sauces. And then of course, our infamous tahini soft serve. So, when Alon and I spoke, I said I would love to highlight one of your dishes in each of these categories.
Shaya: We picked a lot of recipes from my childhood and recipes that I have featured in my cookbook.
Both of your restaurants are variously described as Middle Eastern, Israeli, even Mediterranean. Why are there so many different labels, and which one best describes the food at your respective restaurant?
Nurdjaja: We never labeled Shukette as a specific cuisine only because I’m not Israeli. I’m half Italian, half Indonesian. I didn’t want someone to come in and say, ‘Hey, you’re not from Israel, you’re cooking Israeli food.’ It’s not that I shied away from one or the other, but truly I don’t cook any one of those cuisines. I do celebrate a lot of it. Whenever I go to those countries, I’m always wowed by the simplicity and depth. All through my travels, that convivial style of eating is really what got to me.
Shaya: I would describe my cuisine as Israeli cuisine. I was born in Israel and grew up eating a lot of this food from my mother and my grandmother, who taught me how to cook. I was four years old when we emigrated to America and I had a real identity crisis as a child. I worked hard to erase my Jewish and Israeli identity. When I was about 35 years old, I took a trip to Israel, and a light bulb went off. These are my people, this is my food, this is who I am. And these are my roots. That’s when everything started to really fall into place.
But of course, Israeli cuisine is a melting pot. It’s like saying American food. With Israeli food, you have this combination of cultures — of Palestinian and Arab, Jordanian, Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian. This food has been there for a very long time. Then you add in Turkish, Libyan, Yemeni, Polish, Russian, French, and German. All these different cuisines that came with the diaspora when Israel became a state and Jews started moving there from around Europe after World War II. And it’s evolving. I think that’s the beauty of it.
People have this weird stereotype about what ethnic food is and how they imagine it should be served, how it should be priced, and what kind of environment it should be in. I think it’s such a dated way of thinking about specific cultures and cuisines.— Alon Shaya
And of course, Ayesha is approaching the cuisine as an outsider, objectively speaking, collecting dishes from across the region. On the other hand, Alon is coming at it from within the culture. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
Nurdjaja: I come from an Italian background, where the celebration of food is 24/7. I had never visited another place that had that same zest for food. When I got to Israel, everything was about food. If you go into the shuk, it’s a celebration of food. The energy is palpable and the celebration of food was something that I was very drawn to. Having elements of Israeli cuisine on my menu is super exciting. And like Alon said, there’s definitely a Palestinian influence. And there’s definitely stuff that I’ve taken from my travels in Morocco, and being able to cook in people’s homes and learning the culture and the stories behind the food. You just have to honor the tradition. And now I get to give that to other people, it’s part of my story.
Shaya: To me, food has always been a way to build bridges, to create conversation, to gather around and break bread and talk about your differences and talk about your similarities. That is what I really love about it.
Do you notice a difference in how Middle Eastern cooking is presented in America versus the actual cuisines as they exist in Israel or beyond? How do the two expressions differ?
Shaya: You see a lot more mixing of cultures here [in America], a lot of creative spins. And it’s a little bit more buttoned up. In Israel, you get to see the roots of a lot of these dishes and a more casual, rustic way of cooking it and presenting it. When I go to Israel, it’s more of a singular approach and singular view of a specific dish or of a specific cuisine. There’s no right or wrong. Both are great approaches. It just depends on who you are and what you want to offer.
Do you think public perception of Middle Eastern food in America has shifted over time?
Nurdjaja: When I opened Shuka, soon to be seven years ago, Middle Eastern food wasn’t the popular cuisine it is now. We were really taking a leap of faith, if you will. I do think people are changing, they are educating themselves. Trends in food have a negative connotation, but sometimes it’s a good thing. People are seeing tahini, pomegranate molasses. I’ve always believed in the power of food. Where something seems so threatening, you notice that it’s two people breaking bread together and bringing their cultures to the table and learning about each other.
Shaya: People have this weird stereotype about what ethnic food is and how they imagine it should be served, how it should be priced, and what kind of environment it should be in. I think it’s such a dated way of thinking about specific cultures and cuisines. I think anybody that has a story to tell should be able to tell that story in whichever way they want. And if they do a good job telling it and the food is delicious, then it should be celebrated.
As people learn more, does that give you greater freedom as a chef or do you find that customers still have expectations of what Middle Eastern cuisine is supposed to look like and taste like?
Nurdjaja: I don’t really feel the constraints of that. I love hummus, so I wanted it on my menu. I also think that I’ve used the inspiration from traditional dishes to be able to express myself. People are always wanting to critique whether it’s traditional or not. I’m not trying to bastardize someone else’s cuisine at all. In fact, I’m learning from it and I’m trying to evolve it in my own sense. There are definitely people that come in, and they’re like, this is not how to make it. It might not be of your taste, and I totally respect that. But come with an open heart and at least give it a try. That’s the beauty of being in New York, people are more open to it.
Shaya: I agree. I think the more we can collaborate, the more we can understand who we all are, and the more we can share our stories together no matter where we come from. Whether or not we’re cooking a cuisine of where we were born or where we weren’t. I think it’s all about perspective.
Nurdjaja: I feel very lucky to be where I am, I feel very lucky to be embraced by different communities from all over. For the most part, the comments have been positive. And for small-minded people, you have to leave a small space for them, or none at all.
What about you, Alon? Do you feel boxed in by traditions or expectations?
Shaya: I do not feel boxed in at all. If anything, we can just keep reaching and keep going. But it really does come down to what your customers want. For Ayesha and her team, it’s so great that she gets to cook the things that she wants and the guests will show up and be taken on a journey. Whereas, if you’re cooking for a very specific group of people that might be expecting hummus on the menu, the smart business decision is to keep the hummus on the menu.
We all struggle with this as chefs; we’re creative. We always want to cook something different. But when we go out to eat, I guarantee you we’re going into the same restaurants and ordering the same dish all the time, because we crave it. You have to see both sides to make it work.
Considering how far Middle Eastern food has come in America, both in its diversity and its specificity, what is the outlook? How do you see the cuisine continuing to evolve?
Nurdjaja: I think the future is really strong. I think that more people have the ability to tell their stories, there’s more opportunity for funding and development, and there are organizations that are trying to give people a platform. I feel like the future is bright. And I’m very excited about that.
Shaya: Now, you can really go and appreciate a lot of different cuisines, and not only just from one country, but like a specific place in that country. That’s what we’re trying to do with the food that I grew up with. And that, I think, is a really beautiful thing.
Mahira Rivers is a restaurant critic and writer based in New York, and Resy’s dining columnist. In addition to spending five years as an anonymous inspector for The Michelin Guides, her writing has been published in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Food & Wine, GQ and elsewhere, and recognized by the James Beard Foundation. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.