Netconnect Speaker Alon Shaya on Company Culture

October 9, 2018

We spoke with Alon Shaya, acclaimed chef, restaurateur and keynote speaker for Netconnect 2019 who knows first-hand how tumultuous the human resources landscape can be in the restaurant industry.

In forming Pomegranate Hospitality, what shaped the formation of your company culture?

What shaped our company was a group of people who shared a mission to create a safe and comfortable work environment for our team members, and to put them first in every decision we make. We felt that our industry could do better, and we decided to throw out the old play book of how we organized our structure of providing hospitality to people. The customer is NOT always right, you CAN’T leave your personal problems at the door, our restaurant doesn’t need to be a stressful and chaotic place just because that’s the way it is. We wanted to break those perceptions and bring people together based on respect for each other, than worry about the guests and the food and the wine.

What do you see as prevailing HR-related downfalls within service industry culture, and how are you combating that?

First is that most companies don’t invest in hiring people that can focus on human resources for a restaurant. That is a big mistake and the start to many future problems.

It also has to start at the top and work its way down to every team member. The entire team needs to be bought in and not expect one person to handle it all. We make “people and culture” a major focus for all of our managers – they are also held accountable to living our values. It takes a village, and many times I have seen one bad apple that can influence the other apples and ruin the bunch. lt has to be all in or it will not work.

I see Safta has opened in Denver! How have you handled managing restaurants and staffs in two different areas of the country?

We hired a people and culture consultant that moved to Denver and oversees the operation there under the management of Suzi Darre who lives in New Orleans and oversees people and culture for our entire company. Suzi flies back and forth regularly to check on the teams and make sure we are living up to the promises we made to them when they were recruited onto our team.

What are some fun ways you engage with your employees in the workplace? As an Instagram follower, I envy the family meals!

Engaging team members doesn’t just happen by chance, it has to be structured and sustainable. We purposefully created our hours of operation so there is time and a place to engage. We close between lunch and dinner everyday so our team members have a chance t eat family meal together.

Once a week one of our team members hosts a lunch and learn and teaches their colleagues something they are passionate about. We’ve had lunch and learns about everything from existentialism in Southern literature to how to care for your indoor plants. We host events as a team, like summer BBQ with games and events to field trips to farms and producers of products we use. We also engage through regular check ups with the team to make sure we are providing them with the tools they need and living up to our values.

Speaking of meals, do you have a recipe you can share with us today for a group?

Hummus and Pita! (See full recipe below)

But first:

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Classic Hummus

Yield: About 2 Cups

Ingredients:

  • 3 quarts water, divided
  • 3 teaspoons baking soda, divided
  • 1 ½ cups dried chickpeas
  • 7 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
  • ¼ cup raw tahini
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 ½ teaspoons Morton kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon cumin
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 tablespoons hot water
  • ¾ cup Prepared Tahini (recipe below), optional
  • ¼ cup lightly packed fresh parsley leaves, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper

Instructions:
1. In a large bowl, combine 1 ½ quarts water and ½ teaspoon baking soda; add the chickpeas and soak overnight.
2. Heat the oven to 400F. Drain the chickpeas and toss with 2 teaspoons baking soda, then spread in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and roast until the beans have visibly dried, 10 minutes or so.
3. Move the chickpeas to a large sieve or colander; with cold water running over the chickpeas, start roughing them up with your hands to loosen the skins. You can grab a small handful and briskly run them between your palms or pinch them between your fingers (don’t worry about removing and discarding the skins yet). The more you do now, the more will come off during cooking, so take some time here. It’s good to be thorough—this is like giving them a deep tissue massage to loosen everything up.
4. Once again, combine 1 ½ quarts water with ½ teaspoon baking soda in your pot. Add the chickpeas and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium. With a small sieve or slotted spoon, skim away the foam and loose skins from the top of the water and discard. It may be helpful for you to reserve the discarded skins in a bowl to track your progress; with enough persistence, you’re aiming to have about ¾ cup of skins alone.
5. Every couple of minutes during the cooking process, strain away the skins by plunging your sieve deep into the pot and giving a good stir, then using the sieve to catch the swirling skins like you would fish for minnows. It’s okay to beat them up a little against the side of the pot to speed this along. Repeat this process as much as you have the patience to do until the chickpeas are just becoming tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
6. When the chickpeas are still sort of “al dente,” give them one last skim to trap any skins, then add the garlic. Cook for another 25 to 30 minutes, until the beans are super-creamy. Drain and let sit in strainer for a few minutes so any extra moisture can evaporate.
7. Combine the chickpeas in a food processor with the tahini, lemon juice, salt, and cumin. Process for several minutes, until the mixture is incredibly smooth. With the machine still going, stream in the canola oil, hot water, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Let it rip—there’s no way to over-process this stuff and you want it to be light as air.
8. Serve the hummus completely at room temperature. I like to spread it in a wide, shallow bowl, where I can smear it up the sides and show off the filling. Use the back of your spoon to make a well in the center and fill it with prepared tahini if you’re using it. Drizzle the last 3 tablespoons olive oil and scatter the parsley and Aleppo on top.

Prepared Tahini

Yield: About 3 Cups

Ingredients:

  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 ½ cups raw tahini
  • 1 teaspoon Morton kosher salt
  • ¼ cups ice water, plus more as needed

Instructions:
1. Combine the lemon juice and garlic in a non-reactive bowl; set it aside for 30 minutes to steep.
2. Meanwhile, whip the tahini with a stand mixer or electric mixer on high speed for about 10 minutes, until it’s glossy and light like cake batter. It’s nearly impossible to over-whip it, so feel free to spend a little time here.
3. Strain the lemon juice. Decrease the mixer’s speed to medium and add the juice and salt; the tahini will seize up at first, but don’t freak out! Keep whipping it at medium speed and it will incorporate.
4. When the tahini has a uniformly tacky, almost fudgy consistency, add the ice water, about ¼ cup at a time, and increase the speed to high. At first, the sauce may seize up again and look almost curdled, but keep adding the ice water, whipping well between each addition. It will smooth itself out and should look like a thick mousse. Every tahini is different; if, after you’ve added all the water, it’s still too thick, keep adding it by the tablespoon until it lightens up.
5. Prepared tahini will stay good for about 2 days in the fridge. If you’re making it in advance, let it warm up just slightly on the counter and whip in 1 to 2 tablespoons ice water to restore some of its lightness.

Dough

Yield: Enough for 8 Pitas

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ cups warm water
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil, plus more for your bowl
  • 1 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 4 cups bread flour (480 grams), plus more as needed
  • ¼ cup all-purpose or bread flour (30 grams)
  • 3 ½ teaspoons Morton kosher salt

Instructions:
1. Combine the water, canola oil, and yeast in a large mixing bowl (if you have a stand mixer, use that bowl) and let sit for 5 minutes.
2. Add the bread flour. If you have a stand mixer, fit it with the dough hook and knead on low speed for 3 minutes, until a dough starts to form. Pause occasionally to scrape down the sides and bottom if the flour is clinging to the bowl. If you’re making the dough without a stand mixer, start by stirring with a wooden spoon and then use your hands to knead it in the bowl until the flour incorporates. Loosely cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a dish towel and let rest for 30 minutes.
3. Add the remaining ¼ cup flour along with the salt and continue to knead, in your stand mixer or by hand in your mixing bowl, until a smooth ball forms. The dough will be pretty tacky, but if it’s so sticky that you can’t work with it, add more bread flour, 2 tablespoons at a time.
4. Transfer the dough to a clean, non-floured work surface and roll it into a ball. Lightly wipe the inside of a large bowl with canola oil and place the dough inside, flipping it once or twice to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel and let the dough rise at a warm room temperature for 1 hour.
5. After 1 hour, the dough will be stretchy but very soft. Leaving it inside the bowl, pull both sides over the center. Rotate the bowl a quarter-turn and do this one more time, then flip the whole mound of dough upside-down and cover. Let rise for 1 hour.
6. Repeat this series of folds one more time, then tightly cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight or up to 2 days. The longer the dough refrigerates, the more flavor it will have. After this rise, it’s ready to be shaped either pita; bear in mind that, once it’s shaped, it will need more time for a final rise, so plan ahead.

Pita

Yield: 8 Pitas

Ingredients:

  • Canola oil for the pan
  • 1 recipe Dough (recipe above)
  • All-purpose flour for dusting

Instructions:
1. Wipe a bit of oil on a large baking sheet. Dump the dough onto a clean, dry counter and use a bench scraper or sharp knife to cut it into 8 equal pieces; make clean, decisive cuts rather than a sawing motion so you don’t deflate all the air inside.
2. Work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest loosely covered with a towel so it doesn’t dry out. Cup your hand around the dough with your fingertips and the heel of your hand steady on the counter, almost like you’re holding an air hockey paddle. Roll it in brisk, small circles, creating tension with the counter top that pulls the dough into a smoother, more taut ball.
3. Space each round of dough a few inches apart, seam side down, on the sheet and roll to lightly coat in oil. Tightly cover the sheet with plastic wrap so the dough doesn’t dry out and let them rise at room temperature for 2 to 4 more hours, until they’re pillowy.
4. Meanwhile, set a baking stone on the center rack of your oven and turn on the broiler. You’re emulating a 700-degree wood-burning oven, so you need to give the stone a good long while to preheat before you bake.
5. When the dough is ready, lightly flour a work surface and use a bench scraper or thin metal spatula to coax one piece into your palm; be sure you don’t manhandle it or you’ll force out the pockets of air that formed while it rose. Dust a little more flour on the top of the dough and onto your rolling pin.
6. With firm, even pressure, briskly roll the dough a few times along its length. Flip it upside-down, rotate it a quarter-turn, and roll it the same way, keeping it as round as possible. Repeat, dusting a little extra flour as needed, until it’s about 6 inches across.
7. This next part happens fast and furiously, so make sure you have no distractions. Screaming children and natural disasters will have to wait. Use tongs or a good oven mitt to partially pull out the oven rack with the baking stone. Carefully pick up the pita, drape it over your palm, and slap it down onto the stone like you’re giving it a high-five (just be careful not to physically touch the hot stone!). Set a timer for 1 minute and close the oven. Broilers vary in strength but all are quite hot, so don’t turn your back on the oven or the pita may burn. Check on it—it should puff up and build in color, with some beautiful blistered spots. If it’s still pale, close the oven and let it keep baking for 30-second intervals.
8. Use tongs to flip the pita and let it finish baking with the oven door cracked so you can watch it finish. Pull it out when the second side is as pretty as the first; this can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes depending on your broiler.
9. Bake off the rest of the dough this way; as you get the hang of it, feel free to bake two pita at a time. Serve these hot or at room temperature.