Zachary Engel is the executive chef at Shaya, an award-winning New Orleans joint serving modern Israeli food. 2017 has been a big year for Engel, winning James Beard “Rising Star Chef of The Year“, being named to Forbes “30 Under 30” list, and taking the helm at Shaya, the restaurant he helped start. We sat down with Chef Engel to talk about the story so far.
Congratulations on winning the James Beard Foundation’s award for Rising Star of the Year! Did you have any expectations going into the night?
I honestly didn’t think I was going to win. I was just going to Chicago for a nice weekend away. I was pretty cool up until they announced Outstanding Pastry Chef. I knew Rising Star was next. Then my stomach started to churn. They called my name and I couldn’t believe it. I’m still a little astounded by it.
The James Beard Foundation released a video before the awards highlighting you and the award you were nominated for. In that video you said if you won you would pop bottles all over Chicago. Did you, in fact, pop bottles all over Chicago?
I definitely did. My parents flew up and I got to hang with them all night. Champagne just seemed appropriate for the occasion.
What led you to start working with Israeli cuisine? Did your family cook a lot at home growing up?
My dad is a rabbi and he and my mom lived in Israel for a few years while he was in the early years of his education. They brought us to Israel as kids and, when I decided I wanted to cook, I thought about my strongest food memories – traditional Jewish dishes at home for the holidays and my first trip to Israel. My dad cooked Israeli dishes at home from time to time like kebabs and Israeli salad. My mom isn’t a very good cook, but a great baker.
It sounds like that time in Israel really influenced your career. What happened on that trip?
My sister and I were 7 or 8 and my brother was 3 or 4. We flew from New York to Tel Aviv and slept the whole time. When we got off the plane, I remember we were screaming our heads off on the way to the hotel. We were jet lagged, starving, and being little jerks to my parents. When we got to the hotel, my dad just up and left; walked right out of the hotel room without saying a word. Ten minutes later he was back with falafel sandwiches, Orange Fanta and fries. That was the first bite I ever ate in Israel and I just remember us kids going from over-stimulated to satiated and purring with glee. That was the moment I started to really enjoy eating. So we ate EVERYTHING that whole trip. Shawarma, Laffa, labneh, borekas, Israeli breakfast spreads in the hotels, and fruits and nuts in the markets. We went to a kibbutz, a farming commune in the middle of the dessert, that my parents used to work at when they were kids and we ate Pomelo fresh off the trees in the orchard.
You had a good stint at Michelin-starred Madrona Manor. How was working in a Michelin level kitchen? Do you prefer to be outside of that environment? What did you learn during that time about yourself?
I loved working for Jesse Mallgren. That’s a special place. It’s under the radar and all the pressure was on us to be better. We had to be disciplined and execute because we weren’t under a microscope like the rest of the Bay Area. I loved working at that level and I think I really thrive in that environment. I’ve done a few high-volume restaurants but that’s a beast that you tame every single day. Bringing that sense of urgency into a small-dining-room, extensive-tasting-menu setting you can really excel. My wife and I lived out there together. We had no friends and no family. The cooking aspect of my life was all about technique, precision and seasonality, but it was only a part of me that I discovered. I also learned about being a partner to my wife. Everything we did was together. I had to put another human being before me, which I had never done before. I still try to find that balance now and it’s still a lot of work.
What dish that you’ve created has made you most proud?
Shipka peppers. On my last trip to Israel in April 2016 I went to the Shuk Levinski in the Florentine neighborhood and tried these pickled hot banana peppers stuffed with goat cheese and packed in oil and oregano. When I got back I got a farmer to grow banana peppers for us to harvest in the summer and we pickle and stuff them with whipped goat cheese and cover them in olive oil and aleppo pepper. It’s one of our all-time most popular dishes. We’re not reinventing the wheel at Shaya. We just aim to bring the experience people have in Israel all the way to New Orleans.
What do you think allowed Shaya to be a success in New Orleans. Was there anyone else in the city trying to push out Israeli Cuisine?
There’s a sizable Lebanese community all over Louisiana, and New Orleans, specifically, has a small but mighty Jewish community. We have quite a few Middle Eastern restaurants that are very popular. Demographics aside, the food at Shaya tells a story of not one young country, but a history of many cultures. It’s fresh and vegetable-centric with healthy fats. It’s safe to say that Alon and myself and all of our staff put an incredible amount of energy into making it the best experience possible and we all care deeply about our vision. I don’t think there’s one thing that allowed Shaya to be successful – just that sometimes everything is working for you and not against you and you just have to enjoy it and keep at it.
What are some things you like to do outside of the kitchen?
I like to spend as much time as possible with my infant daughter, Margalit. She keeps me leveled and focused on what I’m working for. I like to eat at all the restaurants in New Orleans. Eating still brings me incredible joy and doing it with my wife or a large group is still the most fun I can have.
How is it being a chef and a father?
It’s a tough balance. Anyone would tell you that. I work hard every single day so that at one point, when she’s old enough, I can get a better balance and she’ll remember me being around for the important things. I liked to think I was really motivated before to excel at my job and have a profitable and esteemed business, but that was all selfishly so. Now I have a person to provide for and I’m even more motivated and hungry to keep getting better.
Where would you suggest people visiting New Orleans eat outside of Shaya?
I love Compere Lapin. Nina Compton is a badass and her food is beautiful and flawlessly executed alongside warm hospitality. I’d say ask someone what their neighborhood po-boy spot is. I live uptown so I go to Guy’s on Magazine St. Really my advice is to ask any New Orleanian what their favorite thing is and get exactly that.
(All dish photos courtesy of @ShayaResaurant on Instagram, cover image credit Todd A. Price, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)