At home with chef Alon Shaya: Like his food, his family’s renovated shotgun shows respect for the past | Entertainment/Life
When Emily Shaya told her dad about plans to expand the side-gallery shotgun house that she and award-winning chef Alon Shaya call home, her father insisted the updates would ruin it.
“That was always in my head: ‘Don’t ruin the house,’” she said of the Faubourg St. John home that she and Alon have owned since 2011. “Make sure it has the same feel and preserve it.”
Before the couple started the 10-month project in 2015, the house already had lots of charm — French doors that opened from the living room and front bedroom to the side gallery, 12-foot beadboard ceilings and original heart pine floors.
“We didn’t want the house to change, but we wanted more space,” Alon Shaya said, crediting friend and architect Lauren Hickman — she and Emily Shaya attended Tulane University together — with figuring out how “to make that happen and make it all feel like it’s all been here for a long time.”
The Shayas’ renovation brought the old and new together, adding all the modern comforts of a more open floorplan but also respecting the historic design of the house.
Hickman’s plans called for eliminating the walls that once closed off the dining room from the kitchen and adding a camelback, which now holds a primary bedroom suite, as well as a second bathroom and bedroom. Porches were incorporated into the design of both bedrooms to let in more natural light.
“We took the house apart,” Emily Shaya said, adding that they “reused many of the materials when we put the house back together.”
Those materials included the original wood ceilings and a clawfoot tub from the downstairs bath (now in the primary bathroom). The pocket doors originally in-between the first and second rooms now separate the living and dining rooms.
A treasure trove of heart-pine, tongue-and-groove wood found behind the downstairs’ ceilings and walls became the camelback’s flooring. Saving the wood extended the construction process, Emily Shaya said, but helped solve the challenge of “how we were going to connect the upstairs space with the downstairs.”
To further the connection, historically appropriate windows, doors and hardware for the camelback were found at Ricca’s Architectural Sales and The Bank Architectural Antiques. The couple also worked with Floorcrafters on the wood flooring.
Today, the house blends historic elements and clean lines. It is an oasis for the busy couple, who founded Pomegranate Hospitality in 2017 and own three restaurants: Saba (meaning grandfather in Hebrew) and the new Four Seasons Hotel’s Miss River in New Orleans, as well as Safta (meaning grandmother in Hebrew) in Denver. Alon Shaya’s modern takes on Israeli, Italian and Louisiana cuisine have garnered critical acclaim, including two James Beard Foundation awards.
The family, which includes their 6-month-old daughter, Ruth, and their dogs, Henry and Ceci (the Italian word for garbanzo bean), can relax on one of the porches or in the comfy chairs in the large dining room’s bay-shaped sitting area.
There’s also plenty of room within the home’s 2,200 square feet for their friends and family to feel comfortable, whether that’s during their Monday night red-beans-and-rice dinners, their holiday gatherings or their large parties for Jazz Fest.
The Shayas — both New Orleans transplants who met in 2007 at a mutual friend’s party — made an offer on the house the same day they toured it. They fell in love with its original details and its proximity to the historic thoroughfares of Esplanade and Ursulines avenues.
Believed to date to the 1890s, the shotgun’s façade includes classic Italianate elements: drop lap siding, corner quoins, fretwork, and milled brackets. Its two six-over-six pane windows are set above wood trim panels with louvered shutters on either side.
As part of their changes to the home, the couple removed a nonoriginal porch roof that had been constructed directly underneath the projecting roof eave. In its place, they put modern white flower boxes from CB2 that overflow with colorful blooms .
The couple love the way the Eastlake-style front door opens to the side gallery. At its end, a set of doors — one screened, the other matching the front door — serve as the entry to the dining room and kitchen.
Where there were once walls, the renovation created a wide cased opening between the dining room and the new kitchen, whose neutral shiplap walls mirror the shiplap added to the stairway walls and the camelback.
“Alon’s always cooking, so everybody’s stuck to the kitchen. Everyone gravitates there,” said Emily Shaya, Pomegranate Hospitality’s director of new projects.
A large Carrera marble, waterfall-edge island in the center of the room, as well as additional cabinets and countertops lining the surrounding walls, give plenty of room “to spread out and still stay very organized,” Alon Shaya said, adding that there’s a large farmhouse-style sink to pile dishes in “or purge a sack of crawfish.”
A BlueStar Platinum Series gas range and a Miele combination steam oven allow him to experiment. Copper light fixtures from School House Electric pick up the range’s copper color, as do the hues in the artwork on the hood vent. Created by New Orleans artist Alex Beard, the drawing of a pig was given to Alon Shaya for participating in the Emeril Lagasse Foundation’s first “Boudin, Bourbon & Beer” festival.
The deep blue cabinets (Benjamin Moore’s Washington Blue) help the kitchen “feel like its own space within the house,” Alon Shaya said, adding that he frequently tests recipes for the restaurants at home.
“Emily and I have joked that we’ve been together for 14 years, and I have not ever made the same meal for her twice. And I cook a lot for her,” he said.
But it’s Emily Shaya who does the cooking on Mondays, when the couple hosts a regular group of friends for red beans and rice. During the COVID-19 stay-at-home mandates, the couple kept the tradition going by leaving red beans on their front porch, making deliveries to friends’ homes, and holding one outdoor meal before Ruth’s birth.
Now, they’re back in the routine of hosting people in their home. “We call it our Cajun Shabbat,” Alon Shaya said.
When guests come over for red beans, they gather around the dining room’s farmhouse table and its accompanying bench, both from the restored historic home in Georgia where Emily Shaya grew up. Her parents fostered her love of antiques, often bringing her to auctions and markets when she was a child.
The couple also like pieces that “have a story and can be used,” Emily Shaya said, mentioning the serving pieces they’ve collected during their travels.
The other sideboard, inherited from Emily Shaya’s parents, holds the Krewe of Red Beans’ Bean Madness Championship trophy. Emily Shaya won it in 2019 for her recipe, which also has been featured in Southern Living magazine and made it onto the menu at Miss River.
There are stories tied to the couple’s artwork. In the dining room, pieces by New Orleans artist Simon Blake and Alabama artist Butch Anthony hang alongside a small, framed piece of pink floral wallpaper, which was found over the salvaged wood walls during the renovation. “Most of it would just disintegrate when you touched it,” Alon Shaya said.
Three paintings grouped together on one living room wall were painted by Alon Shaya’s grandmother, Matilda Gerassi. The most prized is a scene of Jaffa, the old city in Tel Aviv, Israel. “It’s a very special place for us because I proposed to Emily right there,” he said.
Nearby there’s a portrait of Emily Shaya’s grandmother, done by Francis Rodriguez. The New Orleans illustrator and textile artist also created the illustrations in Alon Shaya’s cookbook, “Shaya: An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel,” as well as portraits of the couple’s grandfathers at Saba and grandmothers in Safta.
A large-scale print of a Richard Sexton photograph — Emily Shaya scored it at an estate sale — hangs on the freestanding brick fireplace at the living room’s far end. It reminds the couple of the room’s layout pre-renovation.
Alon Shaya credits his wife with seeing the home’s potential and making it what it is today. “I think this house is so special to us because I feel like she’s really nurtured its build-out over time,” he said.
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Asked her father’s opinion of the house post-renovation, Emily Shaya quickly answered: “Now he loves it. We didn’t ruin it.”
This story was reported by The Preservation Resource Center, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve New Orleans’ historic architecture, neighborhoods and cultural identity. For information, visit prcno.org.
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