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Q&A: Slow Food Nations Headlining Chef Alon Shaya

The New Orleans chef and restaurateur talks about cooking with the ladies of Comal, red beans and rice, and exploring Denver.

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Denverites may not be familiar with Alon Shaya, the New Orleans chef and restaurateur behind Domenica, Pizza Domenica, and modern Israeli restaurant Shaya, but that’s about to change. The James Beard award-winning chef is a headliner at this week’s Slow Food Nations (SFN; July 14–16) here in Denver, where he’ll champion sustainability, community, and the importance of cooking from the heart. We caught up with him last month at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, where he dished on everything from SFN to preserving New Orleans’ food traditions.

Bonus: Read our list of nine can’t-miss events at Slow Food Nations.

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5280: How did you get involved with Slow Food?

AS: Richard McCarthy, the director of Slow Food, is from New Orleans. He started the Crescent City Farmers Market, and he and I have worked together for years. Then he went to Brooklyn to be the Slow Food director. This is going to be the first chance that we have to collaborate on this national stage for Slow Food. This is also the first time I get to meet Carlo Petrini [the founder of the international Slow Food movement], which is something I’m so excited about—I’m a huge fan.

As a headliner, what exactly is your role?

I’ll be cooking with Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters, which I’m super psyched about. Then I’m doing a red beans and rice cooking demo with my wife, Emily, and she’s the bean queen. We entertain at our house every Monday, she makes red beans and rice [for] all of our friends and family and people that come to that visit us in town. It’s become our tradition. It’s one of the things I look forward to every Monday. She makes a mean pot of red beans and rice.

What do you hope will come of your involvement with Slow Food Nations?

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I hope that it gets people to think about and celebrate their food more, the traditions behind it and what makes that specific food special. [For example], red beans and rice in New Orleans. We haven’t done anything to change that [dish] because we celebrate it. And if we can celebrate that in front of a few hundred people, then maybe we can influence somebody to also want to celebrate [the food of] a different culture in the same way.

Any other plans for your time in Denver?

I’m working out a plan to cook some Syrian food with the ladies at the Comal kitchen; that’s on my list for Friday. I’m going to show up early in the morning and cook with the ladies, learn some of their traditions and food, become inspired by that. I’m really inspired by Slavica [Park], the director there, and what she’s been able to accomplish for people, whether they’re coming from Mexico, Syria, or wherever. I think [Comal] reinserts the soul back into what this food is all about. It doesn’t seem like a concept. It doesn’t seem like something that someone wants to go and open 20 of them or whatever. It seems like something that really comes from the heart.

Have you ever spent any time in Denver?

I’ve been a few times. Mostly though, when I come to Colorado, I’m in the mountains somewhere and Denver’s usually the way in or the way out. [SFN] kind of puts a spotlight on the city… this is my chance to really immerse myself in it and check out different neighborhoods. The RiNo neighborhood looks really fun, I want to go eat there.

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Check out the full line-up of Slow Food Nations events here. 

Callie Sumlin, Associate Food Editor

Callie Sumlin creates stories for 5280's Eat & Drink section, manages the dining guide, and oversees 5280.com's digital food-related coverage and weekly e-newsletter, Table Talk.

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