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Culture Watch: What’s an Italian Seder?

Chef Alon Shaya

Chef Alon Shaya has found a niche in New Orleans’ culinary world. He has done so not only by offering authentic dishes in his Italian restaurant, Domenica in the Roosevelt Hotel, but also by offering traditional holiday meals in a unique way. For the past couple of years he has created tasting menus that feature the traditions of St. Joseph’s Day and Christmas, Hannukah and Easter. This week it’s a kosher-style tasting meal for Passover, the Jewish eight-day holy observance of the exodus from Egypt that began last night with the traditional Seder meal. For many Jews, Seder has become a one-night family and friends’ meal of traditional and symbolic dishes; for others, more observant, it extends to two nights. But, whether Passover is celebrated at one or two Seders, the dietary requirements for the entire eight-day period are many, most notably the eating of matzah instead of leavened bread.

Shaya, who was born in Israel, grew up in Philadelphia. He went to the Culinary Institute of America immediately after graduating from high school, then on to Las Vegas to work. Recruited to New Orleans, he hooked up with John Besh and together they opened Domenica. The rest, as they say, is history.

What is most interesting about the Passover tasting menu is Shaya’s focus not just on Italian Jewish dishes, but also on Sephardic dishes. Sephardim are the descendants of Jewish inhabitants of Spain and Portugal, who were driven out by the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and the Portuguese in 1497. These groups found their ways to Jewish communities in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, mixing and adapting their cuisine to their new homes. Some emigrated again, moving on to Latin America and the Caribbean, following their Spanish-speaking roots. It was that group of Sephardim who first came to New Orleans in the early 1800s, later to be eclipsed by the larger group of European Jews who settled here, as they did throughout America, in the early 19th century.

“My mother’s parents were Sephardic,” Shaya explains. “They were exiled out of Spain and went to Sofia in Bulgaria. That’s how they dodged the Holocaust because Sofia protected the Jews.”

Shaya’s family then went to Israel, all the while speaking Hebrew, Bulgarian and Ladino, the ancient Spanish-based language of Sephardic Jews. They took their traditional dishes with them. Some of them are featured with Italian dishes on his Seder menu: wood-fired matzoh with sea salt; matzoh ball soup, Italian “wedding style”; and spiced lamb dish utilizing a number of North African spices, for example.

So, if you’re Jewish and interested in the exotic tastes from this special group of people, or if you’re not and just want to eat really, really, well, you have until April 25 to check out Shaya’s Passover meal. It is served family style at the table and is offered daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. at a prix-fixe of $55 per person with tax, tip and beverage additional.

For recipes and menus from the meal, check out this Times-Picayune feature by food writer Judy Walker.


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