Chef Alon Shaya: Philly’s Homegrown Pride

One teacher who cares can change the trajectory of a student’s life. Alon Shaya, an Israeli-American James Beard award-winning chef, credits his success to such a teacher. In his new cookbook, Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel, he thanks Donna Barnett for guiding him to his track to success.

Alon Shaya came to Philadelphia from Israel when he was a young boy. He grew up in a challenging family situation. Although he was surrounded by love, he did not experience the stability he longed for. Barnett saw the talent and potential within him. She helped Shaya blossom in her Home Economics class at Harriton High School. When it was time to graduate, she found a scholarship and encouraged him to attend culinary school.

Now, Shaya is a famous chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author. He retraces his steps from Israel, to the United States, Italy, and back to Israel in his book. His recipes reflect his love for his maternal grandparents. There are delicious foods from their native Bulgaria such as burekas, kebabs, and a variety of eggplant dishes. These are the staples he learned to cook as a boy while standing on a chair in the kitchen next to his grandmother and mother. Alon Shaya then shares some of the classic dishes he discovered while training in Italy, such as hand-made gnocchi, pizza, and semifreddo. Next, Shaya takes us to New Orleans, where he opened his first restaurant. Some of these recipes are treif (non-kosher), such as those with crab, Andouille pork sausage, shrimp, and bacon. Those of us who keep kosher may adapt by substituting kosher ingredients, or omitting some of the non-kosher elements. He ends the book by circling back to Israel. His newest recipes are infused with Israeli ingredients and flavors such as za’atar (oregano), preserved lemons, pomegranates, and muhammara (red peppers and walnuts).

In the end, despite his fragmented upbringing, Alon Shaya was able to find his way home. In this moving book, which is much more than a cookbook, he shares his journey with us.

Another Way of School Dining

— by Catherine Wuenschel, AIM Academy executive chef

Thanks to the Vetri Foundation‘s program, our school’s dinning room is no longer a cafeteria. Our new philosophy is to prepare family-style rustic food with good ingredients. Family-style seating, in which teachers and students eat together, has helped encourage a willingness to taste and discover new foods. Conversations around the table encourage manners, tasting, and engagement with both classmates and teachers.  

More after the jump.
Some of the different foods that are prepared have been requested by the students. Some examples are soba noodle salad, quinoa, tuna Nicoise, coconut-lemongrass fish, fresh rhubarb, and Jerusalem artichokes. Shellfish and pork do not enter the kitchen, out of respect for the students who do not eat them as part of their religious observance.  

A typical meal is as simple as chicken cacciatore with a green salad and a roasted parsnip dressing. Desserts mostly consist of fresh fruits that are both seasonal and globally available. These fruits are mostly baked into rustic dishes such as fruit cobblers and fruit crisps. This is in keeping with the guideline of more fruits and less sugary choices. No matter what is prepared, the cooks always remain married to the idea of using few, fresh ingredients and never using anything already processed.

My cooking comes from a depth of experiences, both internationally and throughout the country. Having grown up with the school lunch program in New England, I knew just how differently I wanted to make food for students. I was fortunate to learn even more when an opportunity to spend a year in Paris presented itself. I try to share my passion for fresh, good tasting, healthy foods through my menu designs and willingness to respond to student requests. For next year I plan to help create a curriculum-based program with student hands-on participation in making the food.

Gun Toting Teachers

There has been a lot of talk since the Newton massacre about arming teachers in the classroom. The NRA and Second Amendment advocates are strongly in support of the idea. Unfortunately there has been a lot of misrepresentation by some in the media that in Israel the school children’s classrooms are filled with gun toting teachers. They are not.

I’ve been in Israel dozens of times and accompanied my grandchildren to their elementary schools and high schools and not once did I see a teacher packing heat. There may be rare exceptions as in the case of disputed territories, but that does not negate the rule that teachers do not carry guns in the classroom. However there is an armed security guard at the gate of every school.
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