What’s cooking?: Q&A with Chef Zachary Engel



June 12, 2017

Zachary Engel (Tulane University ’10) is the chef de cuisine at Shaya Restaurant, a popular Israeli-southern restaurant in New Orleans. Fresh from winning the 2017 James Beard rising star award – the Oscars of the culinary industry – Engel sat down with Hillel News to talk about everything from his salad days at Hillel to his favorite Israeli recipes. Here are highlights from that conversation.

How did you get your start as a chef?

I started cooking part time at Tulane’s Hillel as a freshman for some extra cash and because I thought I wanted to cook for a living. Through generous members of the Jewish community I got connected to Alon Shaya before he opened Domenica in 2009. Only a couple weeks into the opening of the restaurant I knew I wanted to work in restaurants definitively.

How did your experience at Tulane Hillel shape you personally and professionally?

I got to make a lot of mistakes while cooking at Hillel and I learned a lot about how to properly execute food. I had to be really self-critical even knowing people were enjoying it and that the dishes could get better.

What were some of the recipes you made at Tulane Hillel?

I used to make a meatloaf that people loved but Israeli night with falafel and hummus and Israeli salad was the big hit every time. 

What’s your favorite Israeli recipe?

Hummus. It’s such a simple dish and it has everything in it that I love. Really good hummus has a balance of acidity, creaminess and fat.

What advice do you have for students trying to make food in dorm rooms?

My dorm didn’t really have a lot of kitchen space or pans and I certainly didn’t own any. As a professional cook I think there’s a lot of ways to cook more creatively based on how you’re limited. Something as simple as making a really good vinaigrette and mixing it with fresh veggies, cheese, nuts is always super filling and really healthy. 

Can you share a recipe for our students?

Halloumi with Strawberries, Pickled Chilies and Carob Molasses by Zachary Engel

Yield: 4 servings

¾ lb fresno chile peppers (or wax peppers)
2 sprigs oregano
8 cloves garlic
2 cups water
2 cups white distilled vinegar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
6 tablespoons sugar
16 oz halloumi cheese, cut into 4 pieces
3 cups canola oil
1 lb. strawberries
2 tablespoons carob molasses

Equipment needed: 1 large frying pan

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 F.
  2. Cut the stems off the top of the peppers with a small paring knife. Insert the paring knife into the pepper and scrape out all the seeds and pith into a large bowl. Discard the stems and seeds and place the peppers in a large container with a lid.
  3. On a cutting board, crush the garlic with the side of a knife. Place the garlic, oregano, water, vinegar, salt and 2 tablespoons of sugar in a medium sauce pot; bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let the pickling liquid sit for 3 – 5 minutes and then pour over the peppers. Let the pickled peppers cool until room temperature.
  4. With a small knife, remove the leaves and stems from the top of the strawberries. Place the strawberries in a shallow baking dish with the bottoms of the fruit facing up. Sprinkle the remaining 4 tablespoons of sugar on top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 30 minutes until the fruit is a dark garnet color. Keep the strawberries in the syrup and cool to room temperature.
  5. In the frying pan, heat the canola oil to approximately 400 F. Carefully, place the halloumi in the hot oil and cook until golden brown. Flip the cheese over with a long pair of tongs, as necessary. Remove from the pan and drain on a paper towel to catch any excess grease.
  6. To serve: Pour the strawberries and their syrup on the bottom of a plate and place the halloumi on top of the fruit. Chop the pickled chilies into large pieces and sprinkle approximately one pepper over the top. Drizzle ½ tablespoon of carob molasses over each portion.