When Chef Alon Shaya was fired from his namesake restaurant Shaya last fall by the Besh Restaurant Group, now renamed BRG Hospitality, it was only a few weeks before news broke about accusations of sexual misconduct by his boss, Chef John Besh, and allegations of sexual harassment within the company as a whole. Curiously, Chef Shaya was already building another restaurant in Denver, Colorado—to be named Safta after the Hebrew word for grandmother and opening later this summer. Since May 4, he’s now also operating Saba (“grandfather”) in the former Kenton’s space at the corner of Magazine Street and Nashville Avenue. Although Shaya the restaurant still bears his family name (the matter was settled out of court in April), Chef Shaya is in many ways rebuilding and reclaiming his idea of family, extending this concept to his team, which in large part came over from BRG. Adept at adopting former colleagues and grafting new ones onto his growing family tree, Chef Shaya is endeavoring to create a new restaurant culture of almost biblical proportions—based on respect and kindness for everyone.
So far his ideas are paying off. Bookings are already pushing up towards the end of Saba’s 90-day reservations window. OffBeat sat down with Chef Shaya to catch up and talk about how being a good boss can be very good business.
There are a lot of people working in here.
I’ve been working in the city for 15 years, you know, and through the years, I’ve met a lot of people. Especially with opening Shaya—we built an amazing team there—and the majority of them came along to open up Saba with me. Cara Peterson, who’s our Chef de Cuisine, she’s really the magic in the kitchen. She’s the one turning out all the amazing food here. Jessica Retif, who’s our General Manager, she’s incredible and she also has come along to get this open with us. Meredith [Dunbar] is our Director of Communications. Sean [Courtney, former GM of restaurant Shaya] is our Director of Operations. Zach Engel is our Culinary Director. We hired Suzi Darré, one of the few people we’ve hired from outside our former group of colleagues, and she’s our Director of People and Culture.
That’s an unusual title.
Yeah. She’s on our team to ensure that we’re living up to all of the promises that we’re making to our team members every day. She’s helping us with structure; she’s helping us with organization. She is really kind of this magnet for people, focused every day, one hundred percent of her time, making sure that Pomegranate Hospitality and Saba, and soon Safta, will live up to its values and mission statement and take care of our team members and put them first before everything else. We’ve scaled back on hours of operation [Saba is closed Mondays and Tuesdays] so everyone has time to train, time to sit down and eat together, some downtime to rest. I feel like that’s something we never put enough focus on in the past and we’re really making a hard effort to do that now.
When you say “we,” who are you talking about?
Me and the rest of the team here, working with me. This is new territory for a lot of us, saying, let’s throw away the old playbook and let’s build a business that’s team-oriented before anything else. Whether that’s health benefits we’re providing, or paid time off, or employee assistance programs—maybe they have a personal issue they need to handle outside of work—we provide that benefit for them, or counseling—substance abuse problems, depression…
Which can be common in this industry…
Common in every industry! People are people, and whether you’re talking about the hospitality industry or banking, you have to consider that everybody needs help outside of their inner circle. We have to be a village to take care of each other.
That seems like a good business strategy. Especially in a city where there are so many new restaurants opening, and the most talented, creative and capable people likely want to work somewhere where their work pays off and they’re appreciated and treated right.
Yeah, and a lot is about who we’re recruiting and how we’re recruiting them. We have nine values we set up for Pomegranate that include communication, accountability, respect, organization, education… They have to answer to all of those values in the recruitment process. We’re not necessarily looking at how much experience you have or how well you can cook a steak or bus a table, it’s more of—do you really believe in communication, and what have you done in the past to prove that? And when have you ever had to hold somebody accountable for something they did wrong, and how did you go about doing that, and what was the outcome? These are some of the questions we’re asking to make sure we’re finding the people that aren’t just here to cook or serve, but here to be part of our vision as a team.
And family, maybe?
We’re setting time aside to spend time together. We have a beautiful patio out here and eat lunch together every day and it’s been great.
Tell me about Safta. Why Denver?
My wife Emily and I really love spending time in Colorado. We’ve been going up once or twice a year to go fly-fishing or skiing, go visit friends. It’s been a happy getaway for us, so we figured—let’s open a restaurant there and become part of the community we love. We met up with a group called Zeppelin Development that fights for equality in the marketplace out there and invests in programs like Comal Kitchen, which is an incubator kitchen for immigrant women and Syrian refugee women that come and cook and share in the profits of that space. They were building a brand new hotel and reached out to see if we were interested, and for Emily and I, we felt like this could be a second home for us.
Opening a restaurant is intense. You’ve been part of openings in the past—not just Shaya, but Domenica and Pizza Domenica. But opening two restaurants at the same time…
It’s a few months apart. The whole thing is that when we opened Pomegranate Hospitality, we were able to create this team right off the bat. All of a sudden, we had eight executive members in our company that I really wanted to build a house for and make sure they’d be my team for many years. And now we need more than one restaurant to be able to afford our team. It comes down to—how can we afford to keep everyone on staff? In order to do that, we had to expand, and we plan to keep growing.
Still, sounds like an intense start.
Pomegranate Hospitality was created in October of last year. We had already had Denver in the works for a year and a half.
Who’s “we” in this case?
Emily and I. Denver was already in construction when Pomegranate was created. The reason we named the company Pomegranate Hospitality is because a pomegranate has 613 seeds. Every pomegranate does.
Wait… 613 exactly?
Yes, and they’re all equal in size and all provide sustenance to the fruit to survive. In a biblical sense, a pomegranate is a symbol of good deeds, representing the 613 commandments in the Torah—it’s often just the top 10 we focus on [laughs]. So I wanted to start this company with many great deeds, and many great intentions. I thought that if we opened two restaurants they could be the grandparents of our company and we can look to these restaurants for guidance and experience and comfort and a way to feel protected as we continue to grow.
You chose to name Saba after grandfather and Safta after grandmother. So you’re sort of restructuring a family tree?
We are, in a sense. I’m so blessed and honored to have so many people around me now that I look up to and trust. Together as a team, we’ve accomplished a lot already and we’re just getting started.
How is the menu different here compared to Shaya? It’s an Israeli concept as well, of course, but how will it be different?
It’s different already—lots of classics; my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes that are very dear to me. We have a coal grill in the kitchen where we’re cooking things on skewers, and that’s representative of Israeli street food—everything from kebabs to getting these big beautiful shrimp and marinating them in shawarma spices, and grilling them over coals. We have a crab and mint and snow pea hummus that everyone is going crazy for and our pita bread is made with fresh-milled flour from Bellegarde Bakery. We’ll also be using pastrami for our brunch that Blue Oak BBQ is going to be smoking for us. They’re the best! They’re amazing. And Piccola Gelateria is doing all of our gelatos and sorbettos. We’re involving the community and the people we think are doing great work and are artisans. There are no borders for us. We can have fun and we can be a team. We’re making decisions together. I’m a lucky guy.
Sounds like a great start.
And it’s just a start. It’s going to take a lot of work and we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to fall and have to get back up. But we’ve made a commitment to each other that we’re going to support each other—it’s a marriage. It’s important to surround yourself with people that we know have great intentions. Whether people make mistakes or not, that’s one thing, but knowing that people’s hearts are in the right place, that’s essential in moving forward.
You seem to have recruited quite a few capable women.
We’re majority female, from a management and employment standpoint. We have 56 employees and I think 36 of them are female. I mainly know this because we hired Suzi who’s got all of these great stats. She’ll also go, ‘Hey, it’s Ian’s birthday in the kitchen—here are some paper hats and let’s bring him a cupcake with a candle in it and let’s all sing “Happy Birthday.”’ Little things like that that I’ve never been great at doing on my own. I’ve never put enough attention on doing that.
You and Emily must have had some discussions as well regarding women’s roles, treatment and opportunities in the hospitality industry, right?
There are no words to describe how amazing she has been in starting Pomegranate Hospitality with me. She’s a die-hard feminist and just a great person who thinks big picture and makes sure we’re looking at everything at once. I’m leaning on her a lot, and I wouldn’t be able to do this without her. Everything we’ve just talked about, she’s been a part of these conversations. All of us discuss these things non-stop.
I thought it was curious that you were fired from Shaya just weeks before the allegations of sexual harassment in the Besh Restaurant Group blew up in The Times-Picayune. Were those events linked?
I’ve had my sights set on growing past BRG for a very long time and everybody’s known that. I feel the way forward is for us to really be able to feel like we can take control of our own futures and that’s something I’ve always believed in. The timing worked out the way it did.
You recently settled the lawsuit regarding BRG keeping the name Shaya for the James Beard Award–winning restaurant that you helped build that now will continue to bear your family name. Maybe you can’t talk about it, but did you understand why they wanted to keep your name? Why not change it?
I’ll let someone else answer that question for you. Shaya is my last name. Shaya is my family name, and that’s not going away. We have a really strong focus on our future success with Pomegranate and Saba and Safta and it’s all about being a company that puts our team first.
Have you thought about any possible impact in the future that it might have for you and Saba and Safta to have your family name still associated with Shaya? Some people will surely understand that Shaya Restaurant isn’t you anymore, while some probably won’t?
All we can do is move forward. Onward and forward.
Tell me about your grandfather.
He was amazing. Born in Bulgaria, moved to Israel in 1948, fought in the War of Independence. Drove a taxi, owned a hardware store. Crashed every car he ever drove.
His fault, or someone else’s?
All his fault. He was just full of life—always full of incredible energy all the way until the end. He was a huge influence in my life. He helped me learn the lessons of humility.
What about your grandmother?
Her name was Matilda. She was a pharmacist and an amazing chef. Her sense of empathy and willingness to take care of people, whether it was through medicine or through food made me fall in love with my sense of hospitality.
One of the things that makes New Orleans stand out as a hospitality city on a national or international scale, in my mind, is how customers and servers and bartenders relate to each other in a more human-to-human way. That’s not always the case, of course, but especially not elsewhere, where I sometimes feel as if the aloofness or rudeness of the staff somehow is supposed to be a testament to the superiority of the establishment.
Aggressive hospitality, that’s what I call it. I hope it’s a fad. Meanwhile, our team is amazing about making connections, especially since this is such a neighborhood spot. The people who live in this neighborhood want to be acknowledged and get good value from us and we don’t want to lose sight of that, ever.