If you’re the sort of person that follows food trends, then you’ve likely noticed the uptick in Israeli cuisine in the United States over the past few years. To wit: Tahini is now in everything; shakshuka is a household word; and modern Israeli eateries such as Philadelphia’s Zahav and New Orleans’ Shaya are scooping up restaurant industry awards like artisan pita swiping up house-made hummus.
Now Denver is getting in on the action. James Beard Award-winning chef Alon Shaya (founder of the aforementioned Shaya), is bringing Safta to the forthcoming Source Hotel in RiNo.
The project marks a step forward for Shaya, who’s spent the past few months in a protracted split from his former employer, Besh Restaurant Group (which encompasses Shaya, Domenica, and Pizza Dominica; Shaya was executive chef at all three). The drama began around the time of Nola.com/the Times-Picayune’s bombshell investigation in which scores of current and former employees alleged that Besh Restaurant Group’s owners John Besh and Octavio Mantilla fostered a culture of sexual harassment. According to Shaya, he was fired for speaking to reporters about the restaurant group’s lack of human resources. After failed efforts to purchase his namesake restaurant and later to sue Besh Restaurant Group for the rights to his name, Shaya opted to go his own way, founding Pomegranate Hospitality in September. Denver’s Safta will be the fledgeling company’s first project, followed by Saba, a new concept in New Orleans which is also slated to open in the spring.
But Denver is more than just a breath of fresh mountain air for the embattled chef: “I’ve always had a love affair with Colorado,” Shaya says. “And I’ve always enjoyed Denver—the food scene, the beer programs. In the back of my head, Denver has always been somewhere I thought about.”
The seeds for Safta were planted last summer at Aspen’s Food & Wine Classic, where Shaya met the Zeppelins of Zeppelin Places, which include the Source, soon-to-come Zeppelin Station, and Taxi, to name a few. “They mentioned their project [the Source Hotel] in the up-and-coming RiNo neighborhood and that sparked my interest,” Shaya says.
A few weeks later, he found himself back in the Mile High City to judge the episode of Top Chef Colorado that took place at the Zeppelin’s Taxi eatery, Comal Heritage Food Incubator. “That really opened my eyes to the opportunities here,” Shaya says. ”So much so that I came back a few weeks later to cook with the team at Comal. I made tamales with Raymunda [Carreón] and hummus and lamb and yoghurt stew with the Syrian team. I really connected with everyone I met. There are just really good people here doing really good things.” Soon after, when Kyle Zeppelin [President of Zeppelin Places] and his team presented the opportunity at the Source Hotel, Shaya jumped on it.
While the Pomegranate Hospitality team is still firming up details for Safta, Shaya knows a few things for certain: “There will be a large wood-burning oven that will serve as the anchor of the kitchen. We’ll cook hot, steamy pita for everyone that comes to the restaurant, which will be served with various types of hummus, salads, and vegetable dishes to pass around the table and share. We’ll have lots of different veg preparations to complement the large format meats and fish. We also want to get to know the local community of artisans, bakers, and farmers that we can partner up with.”
Shaya has yet to embark upon the search for local talent to staff Safta, as for now he’s focusing on Pomegranate Hospitality’s great team: Culinary director Zachary Engel, a James Beard Award-winner himself, as well as Cara Peterson and Sean Courtney, both of whom have been part of the Shaya team since it opened. He’s also giving much thought to the type of culture he wants to cultivate at Pomegranate Hospitality: “We hired an amazing person named Suzi Darre as people and culture director,” Shaya says. “We’re looking to start with a blank canvas. Culture will be the keystone of everything we do, and we’re committed to having a positive impact on the people we work with. From there, everything trickles down—guests will be happy, and the community will feel the love.”
Bonus: If you can’t wait until Safta opens this spring to fulfill your hummus and pita craving, pre-order Shaya’s debut cookbook, Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel, which will be released on March 13.