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The Tulane Hullabaloo

Tulane grad earns James Beard nomination for work at Shaya

Shaya is located on Magazine Street. Engel's work at the Israeli restaurant earned him a nomination for a James Beard Rising Star award.

Emily Carmichael | Senior Staff Photographer

Shaya is located on Magazine Street. Engel's work at the Israeli restaurant earned him a nomination for a James Beard Rising Star award.

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As a Tulane undergraduate, Zachary Engel got his first cooking job at The Goldie and Morris Mintz Center for Jewish Life. Seven years after graduating, his work as Shaya’s Chef de Cuisine earned him a James Beard Rising Star nomination.

Often referred to as “the Oscars of the food world,” the James Beard Foundation Awards gives the Rising Star award to a chef younger than 30 years old who the foundation describes as “likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come.”

Engel earned a Rising Star award nomination for his work at the Israeli restaurant Shaya, which won the James Beard Award for best new restaurant in 2016. Engel, who graduated in 2010 with a business degree, credits his work ethic for the success and recognition he has gained as a chef.

He said he got his first insight into the hard work of a chef while cooking Wednesday and Friday night dinners at Hillel.

“It was bringing people together literally with food and with cooking,” Tulane Hillel Executive Directive and Rabbi Yonah Schiller said. “… That was Zach’s baby. He ran that. He created it. He determined what the menus would be.”

When Engel started cooking at Hillel, it did not occupy the yellow home on Broadway Street that it does today. According to Schiller, the Hillel of Engler’s time looked “worse” than the Sigma Chi fraternity house next door.

In that building, Engel said he had little structure and could cook whatever he wanted. Those two meals a week gave Engel his first experiences getting his hands dirty in a kitchen, doing everything from his own food preparation to washing his own dishes.

“I made things and sometimes it would be really poorly executed, but people loved it,” Engel said. “It was a good first experience into having to do everything yourself. A lot of the time restaurants seem super glamorous on the outside and the chef’s life seems super glamorous, [but] it’s truly a lot of hard work.”

From Hillel, Engel got a job at Domenica, where he first worked with Alon Shaya, and later went on to work at restaurants around the world from Philadelphia to Israel to California. He returned to the home of his alma mater with the intent to open an Israeli restaurant. Instead, Alon Shaya hired Engel, and they opened Shaya together.

In his work at Shaya, Engel, the son of a rabbi, serves every meal with wood-fired pita bread which customers can adorn with anything from curried cauliflower hummus to baba ganoush and ikra, a paddlefish caviar spread with shallots. Engel said he hopes to tell stories through his food, especially the stories of Israeli and immigrant cultures told through the communal act of eating.

“There’s a lot of not clear information about the history of modern-day Israel and where people came from … Through the food you can tell historically what did people in Gaza cooking and why are they cooking it and how has that impacted what they’re cooking in a falafel shop in Tel-Aviv,” Engel said. “… It’s a melting pot, and it’s a beautiful thing, and it’s not necessarily having to do with political strife.”

Outside of his culinary experience at Hillel, Engel’s educational experiences at Tulane have also impacted his career as a chef. Engel said he has taken what he learned in his business major, namely marketing and financial decision making, and applied it to running a restaurant.

“Cooking is so much about focus and self-sacrifice and drive,” Engel said. “You have to want it every day and you have to enjoy the mundane simple things to help you get really good at it, and I love that stuff. I like working with my hands. I like the pace of the kitchen … There’s a daily accomplishment that comes with a lot of hard work, and the result is people are happy.”

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Student newspaper serving Tulane University, Uptown New Orleans
Tulane grad earns James Beard nomination for work at Shaya