It took me far too long to do more than page through Alon Shaya’s cookbook, “Shaya.” It was published in 2018, and I’d looked through it when it first came out, but I didn’t do a deep dive until this week.

This is one of the best cookbooks I’ve read in a decade. That’s only in part because the recipes, the advice and notes are excellent. It’s mainly because Alon shares intensely personal stories throughout the book.

I read a lot of cookbooks, mostly for the ideas I get from them – different ingredient combinations or techniques applied in ways I hadn’t considered. Sometimes there’s a good story to go with the recipes. Most of the time, the “stories” behind each recipe are rote, “This dish reminds me of my (family member) who used to (do a thing) and that’s how I came to love (thing). Here is (family member’s) recipe for (food).” This is not that sort of cookbook.

This is a memoir with useful advice and great recipes. Again, It is one of the best cookbooks I’ve read in a decade and a great memoir as well.

Shaya’s written a fascinating story about growing up; food comes into it frequently. He was orbiting around food and cooking a long time before he crash-landed in a restaurant for the first time. It reminded me of Anthony Bourdain, and I don’t say that because of the saltier aspects; it’s the directness of it. Not a lot of wasted words.

It reminded me of Bourdain’s writing in that respect and in its honesty and self-reflection.

But how is it as a cookbook? I want to cook most of the recipes in it, and those I don’t want to cook, I don’t want to cook because I have too many other things going on to make hamantaschen.

The recipes are straightforward. The advice he gives in the “notes on cooking” is the sort of stuff that you’ll hear if you talk to a lot of chefs and ask them about cooking. It’s good advice on the importance of and sourcing certain ingredients, and a concise few pages on “techniques and equipment” that hits the important bits like what equipment you should have in the kitchen, the importance of keeping your knives sharp and having things in place before you start cooking.

I haven’t cooked many of the recipes in “Shaya.” I have made the fried eggplant with caramelized tomato and goat cheese, and it turned out well. I liked the reminder that tomato paste, cooked on low heat for a while, can be delicious.

I liked the advice to use Bulgarian yogurt to make labneh instead of Greek in the recipe for labneh with peppers and radishes. That recipe accompanies one for Yemeni Stewed Chicken, in which the whey you get when you drain Bulgarian yogurt to make labneh is used as the base marinade for the chicken. That’s synergy, people.

When I read a cookbook I’m interested in, I take notes on “post-its.” A lot of what I wrote has to do with the personal stories Alon conveys, including a couple that just say, “holy crap.” Some are of a more culinary nature, such as, “Beautiful. Good technique for caramelizing tomato paste,” or “labneh, and whey as a marinade in place of buttermilk.” The first relates to a recipe for the fried eggplant with caramelized tomato and goat cheese, which I cooked last night. The latter was in reference to the recipe for labneh, referenced previously.

Both of those recipes, like almost all of the others in the book, are clearly written and actually made to be cooked. I mention that because some cookbooks are, as I’ve said before, aspirational rather than practical. I recently picked up a cookbook by a chef named Gabriel Kreuther called “The Spirit of Alsasce.” It’s a beautiful book, but a good number of the recipes call for ingredients that I either cannot get, or which are prohibitively expensive for most of us. The vast majority of the recipes in “Shaya“, on the other hand, are accessible to anyone who loves to cook.

The book is not divided, as most are, into courses. Rather, each chapter has a theme, “Echoes of Israel,” “Arrested for the Munchies,” and “Day off for Dates” are examples; the last starts with a story about how Shaya met his wife, and each of the recipes features dates. If that sounds like a gimmick, it’s not.

I picked one recipe that I think illustrates what “Shaya” does well: pork and mushroom risotto. It’s made using ground pork, and includes flavorings like ground juniper berries, thyme, fresh mushrooms and red wine. It reminded me of dirty rice but made with arborio rice and using Italian method. It also includes advice on toasting the rice prior to cooking, for which Alon writes, “To do this, you need to cook it long enough that it starts to darken in color. Let your nose be your guide.” It’s an interesting twist on the classic technique, and good advice generally.  

I wish I’d given this book the time it deserves when it was first published, because it’s truly one of the best cookbooks. I have around 500 cookbooks in my collection, and “Shaya” is one of the best. I suggest you pick it up, both for the stories and the recipes.