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Zachary Engel started cooking back in 2009 in what he says was a quick attempt to make some “extra beer money in College”. Last night, the Jewish American chef joined the likes of David Chang and Grant Achatz when he was awarded the James Beard Rising Star Award, sponsored by S.Pellegrino.
Engel is the Chef De Cusine at the Shay restaurant in New Orleans alongside his mentor Alon Shaya. There he cooks up modern Israeli cuisine in a one of the city’s most exciting new restaurants. (In 2016 they were the James Beard Best New Restaurant winners).
“It’s absolutely surreal,” he said, just after winning the prestigious award, “I’m up against all of these other talented chefs, it doesn’t make any sense: Israeli food in New Orleans?”
“I think that the James Beard Foundation is either making a statement or kind of throwing the gauntlet down at me to follow through. I hope that is the case.”
It might not have made sense at the time, but just after the announcement of Engel’s win, Michael Solomonov, a former mentor and fellow Israeli focused cook, was named Outstanding Chef of the year. Maybe the JBF really were making a statement, but also - and I prefer this idea - maybe the modern take on Israeli cuisine in the US right now is just that good. Having eaten at Zahav I can happily attest to it’s deliciousness, and whatever the JBF's intentions, the latest Rising Star is taking it as a gauntlet truly laid.
“I would like to build an empire with the epicentre in New Orleans, where we are cooking Jewish Israeli food for everyone all over America and we bring that understanding of what it is out into the world. I don’t understand how that’s going to happen but if we are just talking about the impact then let’s take this and rewrite the book on what peoples’ understanding is on this kind of food.”
What we are seeing in the U.S, and Engel is just a part of this, is a generational shift - young Jewish chefs starting to look back at their heritage with pride and a zest for discovery. This opens a whole new world of spice, fermentation, pickling, processing and presenting.
“I think Jews for a long time in America settled into these pockets where we had to adapt to local culture and adapt to American food to fit in and feel welcome,” explained Engel during the champagne aftermath of the win. “Now there’s this generation of cooks all coming up and we want to express our heritage, because that’s what great chefs do. Now we all want to do it.. it takes a while to understand that this is where we came from and we have to celebrate it.”
“I would just like to see it happen everywhere, we are in New Orleans, but I want everyone to be able to taste it. We, all of us, can be ambassadors for this new type of cuisine and style of cooking, a new generation of cooks that understand a different mindset of cooking that isn’t European. We can develop a different approach to food: using spices, using more vegetables and greens. It’s an exciting time in American cuisine.”