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Photograph by Rush Jagoe

Q&A: Alon Shaya

The chef dishes on how Slow Food Nations inspired Safta, Denver's first modern Israeli restaurant.

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How is it that an Israeli-born chef reared in Philadelphia is opening his first restaurant outside of New Orleans in the heart of RiNo? Alon Shaya, a James Beard Foundation Award winner, Big Easy restaurateur, and owner of forthcoming Safta—opening in the Source Hotel this summer—shares his Colorado courtship, which begins in Meeker, swings through Aspen, and ends in Denver at last year’s Slow Food Nations festival.

Photo courtesy of Gabrielle Geiselman-Milone

5280: Why did you choose Denver for Safta?
Alon Shaya: My wife, Emily, and I come to Colorado every year to go fly-fishing with friends near Meeker. It’s our happy place. Denver was always a part of that trip, and we had fun checking out the food markets and going out to eat in the city. Then, last June, I came back for the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and met Kyle Zeppelin. He told me about the hotel, and after some research, I discovered that he’s concerned about the same issues I am: How do you make real estate accessible? How do you reinvest in your community in a way that’s meaningful?

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How did last year’s Slow Food Nations festival play into your decision?
I was so impressed by the support the Denver culinary community gave to the event, and seeing the bounty at the Union Station Farmers Market was very impactful. I also got to spend time with the Syrian women who work at Comal [Heritage Food Incubator] and continued to fall in love with what they stand for. I was already serious about bringing Safta to Denver, but when I spent more time with those women and the Zeppelins and saw their commitment to their community, Emily and I realized it was a no-brainer.

What can Denverites look forward to at Safta?
It’s going to be a warm, inviting restaurant where people will want to come and have fun. I want to break down borders, not create them, so Safta will be open all day—breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks. We hope to see old ladies eating matzo ball soup alongside young people eating kebabs and Persian rice. We’ll have to-go food items in the market hall, and the dining room and patio will be casual and welcoming for everything from an anniversary dinner to a quick meal of hummus and pita bread.

How will the slow food ethos play out there?
We’re discussing partnerships with as many local artisans as we can, from Commonwealth Coffee to Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen—I think Joshua Pollack makes the best bagels in the country. We hope Bill Espiricueta, the chef at Smök [also in the Source Hotel], will make us pastrami too.

Where can we find you at this year’s Slow Food Nations event?
I’m doing a book signing [for Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel] in Larimer Square on July 14.

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