I see that your mother is from Egypt and father from Poland. Were you a first generation American? Do you have brothers/sisters and do they love cooking as well?
Yes, I am a first generation American. I have two younger siblings: my sister Rachel who is three years younger, and my brother Ezra who is eight years younger. I can definitely say that while Ezra enjoys eating (albeit, he is a very picky eater) he'll cook when there's nobody around who can. My sister is much more comfortable in the kitchen and has been much more proactive about cooking on her own.
Where were you born and brought up?
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, in what is now known as the Madison neighborhood. Growing up, it had a largely Ashkenazi presence but in the last 10-15 years or so, a distinctly Sephardic community has developed.
Would you share some additional information on your mother's favorite traditional Middle Eastern/Sephardic dishes -
It's really anything that does not take too many steps to prepare! Recurring dishes that I know she truly enjoys are her Bamya dish - a tangy tomato sauce braised baby okra, as well as her Bangar - thinly sliced and steamed red beets in their own juice. Sometimes, the Bangar comes out like jam it's so good! My mom, when she's really feeling up to it though, will make a giant pot of Melokhia - a soup whose origins can be traced back to Ancient Egypt and has since become widely-adopted throughout the rest of the Arab Middle Eastern world.
Did you enjoy your experience on Chopped?
I had such an amazingly good time on the show! Truly from beginning to end the whole experience: from the filming of my background at the JCC of Manhattan all the way through the actual competition itself and even interacting with the judges.
Did you agree with the Judge’s decision when you were CHOPPED?
It's hard to say whether I agree or disagree with the judges' decision. There is so much subjectivity surrounding food - probably more so than any other art form because it draws on so many personal preferences. I have to say that I deeply respect my other competitors. I think all four of us are talented and devoted to our crafts, and I cannot imagine their decision was an easy one to make. Someone needed to get chopped, unfortunately it was me. However, I would have loved to have made it at least to the second round!!
What is your most popular food or menu when preparing for clients?
Two of my clients’ favorites are my Champignon en Croûte (Mushroom tartar on a crostini), Champignon Farcis (stuffed wild mushroom caps).
Would you be willing to share 3 kitchen tricks/tips?
Hmmm....well I'm not sure if these count as tricks or tips, but I think to run any kitchen efficiently, it's in the planning. Do all your mise en place (pre-preparation) well and cleanly, and make sure that the order in which you prepare your dishes makes sense (things that take longest to roast or bake unattended should be prepared first so that while they're cooking, you can move on to your next dish).
I have one tip I learned on bulk cutting cherry or grape tomatoes in half. Take two plastic quart-container lids. Place on counter, top-side down, and fit as many of the cherry or grape tomatoes as will fit on the over-turned surface. Then, take the other lid and place it on top and gingerly press down to keep the tomatoes in place. Then, with a knife that is sharp and long enough, slice through the tomatoes that are being held in between the two container lids. Instant tomato halves!
Do you only offer kosher catering? Would you consider out of town clients?
I primarily offer kosher catering. I would certainly consider out of town clients, and are willing to travel with clients and cook for them!
Who are your favorite TV chefs? or favorite chefs in general?
I have a deep respect for Jacques Pépin. I remember watching him on our local PBS TV station growing up. This of course played a very large role in my decision to go to the French Culinary Institute where he is one of the deans. On Food Network I love watching Giada De Laurentiis - she's informing and dynamic, Paula Deen for her unapologetic use of rich ingredients, Masaharu Morimoto for his discipline and genius, and Alton Brown because I'm also a big food nerd and love watching him make the science of food cool!
What are your career goals?
Overall, I feel deeply committed to a number of things. First and foremost, it is my personal and professional goal to expand the kosher palate. By that, I mean I want to show people of all cultural backgrounds, but primarily those in the United States, that kosher food isn't just brisket and matzah ball soup. That kosher food is really a guideline for how to prepare food and not the actual food itself.
With that in mind, I feel that I am in a good position to be able to look at recipes that are very un-kosher in their traditional preparation, but with some creativity and resourcefulness, I can do a whole conversion on it to create a reasonable if not perfect facsimile of the original dish. I also find myself doing a lot of cooking classes, both private and group, as well as cooking demonstrations.
Koshereye is thrilled to welcome Chef Shaya to our recipe conversion team!