Emily Shaya, who founded Pomegranate Hospitality with her husband, chef/restaurateur Alon Shaya, wasn’t born in New Orleans, but she’s embraced the food and culture of the town she’s called home since moving there for college in 2002. As director of new projects for Pomegranate, Emily helps run the company’s restaurants — Safta in Denver and Saba in New Orleans — comparing herself to a center fielder: not the star of the team, but the player who does a little of everything. She’s not a professional chef, but her cooking recently won an award, thanks to her dedication to learning the traditional cuisine of New Orleans.
Emily grew up in Georgia but attended Tulane University in New Orleans. “Hurricane Katrina hit my senior year of college, so it changed my whole destiny,” she recalls. Her goal was to pursue a career in real estate development, and some of her first jobs in the business were helping to build affordable housing in the aftermath of the storm. That was in 2005, but in 2009, she switched focus because of the recession, going back to business school for a concentration in entrepreneurship and strategy. Not long after, she met Alon, and the two eventually formed their own restaurant company.
“After I moved here, I made a commitment to adopt New Orleans traditions,” she says. One of the iconic dishes she chose was red beans and rice, traditionally served on Mondays in households throughout the Crescent City.
For the Shayas, food and community are intertwined. In New Orleans, Emily found out about the Krewe of Red Beans, the group that has put on the Red Beans Parade the Monday before Mardi Gras every year since 2008. Three years ago, the Krewe launched Bean Madness, a bracket-style cooking tournament that raises money for nonprofit organizations. Emily knew she had to compete, both to bring her red beans and rice recipe to a larger audience and to help out with the cause.
Thirty-two teams competed in Bean Madness over six rounds, she recalls. The teams, many organized around professional chefs, set up head-to-head tastings at locations around the city, and residents were able to fill out online brackets in exchange for a $5 donation. The event raised more than $6,000 — and Emily came out on top, taking home the “Legume D’or” trophy.
“She made more than sixty gallons of red beans,” Alon notes.
Even before the competition, Emily was perfecting her recipe for Monday-night red bean and rice dinners at the Shayas’ New Orleans home, as well as at other fundraisers around town. “We’ve sold beans for charity events, and also served beans after hurricanes and tornadoes” for people displaced from their homes, she says.
What started out as a desire to embrace the culture of her adopted city turned into a long-term commitment to the community. The same kind of commitment can be seen at Pomegranate, where Emily upholds equality as one of the cornerstones of the company’s culture: The 165 employees working at the two restaurants are treated as equals by the owners, to help ensure that their concerns are addressed and their safety as individuals protected, she explains. Sometimes that means fun exercises like lunch-and-learns presented by team members, but it also includes access to free counseling for those experiencing work or personal difficulties.
“The entire team helped us put together our core values. It was a collaborative effort,” Emily says.
Emily plans to share her red beans and rice with Denver this summer, at Monday pop-up dinners inside the Source Hotel & Market Hall (3330 Brighton Boulevard, where Safta is located). The first is scheduled from 4:30 to 9 p.m. on Monday, July 29, at the Safta takeout counter. For $15, you’ll get sides of cornbread and salad along with rice and beans loaded with shredded pork and andouille sausage, a filling, comforting meal — especially for those who grew up with the tradition.
In the meantime, here’s Emily Shaya’s red beans and rice recipe, adapted from her husband’s cookbook, Shaya , with notes about her preferences. One of the key ingredients is Tabasco sauce, which has just the right vinegary tang, she says. While a few secrets have been left out (she has the Legume D’or trophy to defend, after all), that just gives you leeway to perfect your own technique.
2 pounds dried red beans, soaked overnight (Emily recommends Camellia brand)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces bacon, chopped
2 yellow onions, divided
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 dried bay leaves, divided
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 large smoked ham hock, or shank (or New Orleans-style pickled pork, if you can find it)
11/2 quarts chicken stock (Emily recommends making your own)
1 pound smoked mild andouille sausage
4 teaspoons Morton kosher salt, divided
4 teaspoons Tabasco sauce, plus more for serving
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 pound jasmine rice
3 cups water, or more as needed
1 bunch scallions, sliced
1. Drain the beans and set them aside.
2. Warm the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the bacon, and cook, stirring occasionally to break it up, for 6 to 8 minutes, until it’s golden.
3. Chop one of the onions. When most of the bacon’s fat has rendered, add the onion to the pot, along with the celery, bell pepper and one of the bay leaves, stirring well to coat everything with the fat.
4. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and the celery and bell pepper just start to soften. Stir in the paprika and cayenne, allowing the spices to toast for a minute or so.
5. Add the beans, ham hock and stock. Increase the heat to high to bring everything to a boil, then skim any foam from the top of the pot, reduce the heat to low and cover with the lid. Let it cook, low and slow, for at least three hours, until the beans are falling apart. It’s not a soup, but there should be enough broth so that you see some movement in the pot; top it off with more stock if you need to.
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6. Fish the ham hock out of the pot, pull all the meat off the bone, give it a rough chop and add it back to the pot; slice the sausage about 1/4 inch thick and add that, too. Season with 2 teaspoons salt, Tabasco and sugar. (Yes, sugar, which might seem odd, but it gets all the ingredients to play together nicely.) Continue to cook, covered, over low heat, for at least another half-hour, until it all starts to pull together. At this point, if you prefer, you can leave it alone for a couple of hours, returning just to stir occasionally.
7. While that happens, make the rice: First, chop the other onion. Combine the canola oil and butter with the other bay leaf in a separate pot over medium heat. Once the butter melts, add the onion and remaining 2 teaspoons salt.
8. As soon as the onion is translucent, stir in the rice. Defer to the package instructions for a water ratio; for 1 pound (about 2 cups) of jasmine rice, I add 3 cups of water. Increase the heat to high and bring to a simmer; then decrease the heat to low, cover, and cook for another 15 minutes or so, until the rice is tender.
9. Remove the rice from the heat and let it rest for ten minutes with the lid on, then fluff it with a fork. Remove and discard the bay leaves from both pots. Serve red beans over a scoop of rice, and sprinkle with scallions.