Central Montco Technical High School Director Seth Schram calls the success of culinary program graduate Alon Shaya “unparalleled” and the 1997 CHTHS alum’s invitation to be guest speaker at Culinary Institute of America’s most recent commencement, “a major honor for both Alon and the school.”
Foodies will recognize Shaya’s name without further prompts. In short, he runs the highly-regarded Saba and Safta restaurants – in New Orleans and Denver, respectively – authored the well-received “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel” and has soared to celebrity chef status in the 22 years since he honed his skills in the teaching kitchens at Plymouth Township-based CMTHS before graduating from the prestigious CIA in 1999.
The invitation to return to CIA – the alma mater of prominent chefs and food world personalities as diverse as the late Anthony Bourdain and Paul Bocuse – as a commencement speaker?
Yet another impressive fold in Shaya’s already-impressive toque, says Schram, himself a 1991 CIA grad.
When Shaya attended CMTHS in the mid-1990s, Schram was a teacher in its culinary program. Shaya, who’d emigrated here from Israel with his mother and sister when he was four, was a student at Harriton High School in Bryn Mawr and better known as a discipline problem and hell-raiser than a culinary virtuoso. Fortunately, the troubled teen found a champion in Harriton home economics teacher Donna Barnett, who recognized the considerable cooking talents he’d begun developing years before as a young kid in a single parent household and steered him toward CMTHS’s culinary program.
In Plymouth, Schram and fellow teacher-chef Alan Nesensohn also recognized Shaya’s talents and helped him refine the gastronomic sensibilities he traced to his grandmother and TV cooking shows presided over by A-list chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme.
Shaya’s local mentors helped him navigate the CIA application and enrollment process, and following his CIA graduation, he headed to Las Vegas and an internship at the Rio Hotel and Casino. Two years later, Shaya relocated to New Orleans and eventually opened the city’s Domenica, Pizza Domenica and Shaya eateries – the latter, winner of the 2016 James Beard Award for this country’s Best New Restaurant – as part of John Besh Restaurant Group.
Along the way, he spent a year in Italy, participated in a culinary exchange to his native Israel and continued to create the signature repertoire that fuses those Italian, Israeli and NOLA perspectives and earned him the James Beard Best Chef South title in 2015.
After splitting with the Besh organization, Shaya formed his own Pomegranate Hospitality and continues to rack up awards. But Schram says his former student has never forgotten his roots. As the CMTHS chief noted when Shaya returned to the school for an in-house cooking demo last fall:
“It was clear, while (Shaya) was here, he just loved working with food. You combine talent with patience, positive energy … the ability to have a goal and work toward it, stick with it … Alon had -- has -- all of that. And with all his success, he’s never forgotten where he came from. He’s extremely down-to-earth and treats everybody like family … the way he’d like to be treated, I’d say. He’s remained grounded despite all his success. Very much who he was then, he is now.”
Shaya’s invitation to Schram and 1999 CMTHS Culinary grad Jarrett Young -- a 2001 CIA grad who belongs to the Plymouth school’s current Culinary faculty -- to accompany him to Hyde Park, N.Y., for CIA’s Oct. 20 commencement was “amazing … another reminder of the wonderful things that are happening here (at CMTHS).”
“Alon’s story is pretty awesome, and this was such an honor for him and for us, to have one of our former students achieve what he’s achieve and at such a young age,” Schram says. “The fact that he invited me and Jarrett to be there with him for this unbelievable honor … to share that experience is pretty mind-blowing and tells you a lot about who Alon really is. We’re all so happy for him.”
During the Hyde Park festivities, Shaya’s guests got to meet international culinary luminaries like Eric Ripert and Jose Andres.
“And that was awesome, incredible … pick a word,” Schram say. “The whole weekend … everyone we got to meet, every part of it, exceeded every expectation I might have had. But even with everything that went on, all the amazing people we ate with and talked to, Alon … listening to his incredible speech was the highlight.”