• Empty Tomb of Jesus

    Inside the large room under the rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre sits Jesus’s Empty Tomb. The tomb is enclosed by a 19th-century shrine called the Aedicula. The Aedicule has two rooms, the first holding the Angel’s Stone, which is believed to be a fragment of the large stone that sealed the tomb; the second is the tomb of Jesus. Vistors can wait in line to walk thru the tomb.

    Being in this room was really a surreal experience for me. I know that there is debate about the exact locations of the tomb but as a Christian just being in the vicinity was a moving experience for me. 

  • Jesus Stone of Anointing

    The top of the cave where Jesus was buried was sheared off to expose the interior, and a church was built around it to enclose the tomb. This site is now the Holy Sepulchre Church.

    In 2016, the first restoration effort in over two hundred years started taking place inside the church by the National Technical Institute of Athens. The historic tomb where he is said to have been ‘rested’ and his body anointed was opened for the first time since at least 1555 AD and scientists were given 60 hours of access before it was resealed.

    The marble burial slab many Christians believe once held the body of Jesus Christ has been uncovered by scientists for the first time in centuries when the tomb was unsealed.

    Christian tradition says Christ’s body was laid on a slab cut from a limestone cave after his crucifixion by the Romans and washed.

    The burial slab was enclosed in a structure known as the Edicule – a word derived from the Latin term aedicule meaning ‘little house’.

    An ornate structure with hanging oil lamps, columns and oversize candlesticks, the Edicule was erected above the spot where Christian tradition says Jesus’ body was anointed, wrapped in cloth and buried before his resurrection. 

    The tomb has now been resealed and may not be reopened for hundreds, or possibly thousands, of years. 

    We were very lucky to arrive and see this soon after the restoration efforts.

  • Walled Off Hotel

    The Walled Off Hotel is a boutique hotel designed by anonymous artist Banksy alongside other creatives and notable academic Dr. David Grindon.

    Established in March 2017, and initially set out to only be a temporary exhibition, the hotel has since attracted nearly 140,000 visitors, in part because of its location opposite the Israeli West Bank Barrier. Banky’s artwork can be seen all over the inside of the hotel as well as outside on the wall.

    While the reaction to the hotel as a work of art and social intervention has been mixed, especially given its location and subject matter. Critics have argued that such a building profits of tragedy, and is a case of war tourism. Evidence has suggested that the hotel has brought more tourism to areas of the West Bank, in turn raising awareness of the realities of those affected by the conflict.

    The hotel is considered to be a key piece of social commentary on the conditions of those affected by the Israeli-Palestine Conflict and the historical impacts of territorial colonialism within the region.

    I had heard about the hotel before the trip and as a long time Banksy fan wanted to check it out. After our group did a tour of the wall art we stopped in at the hotel and it was a fantastic experience with so much artwork inside. This stop actually was probably the highlight of my entire trip and I am still always in search of Banksy artwork all over the world as he continues to highlight social injustice issues.

  • Bethlehem

    Bethlehem is the biblical birthplace of Jesus and it’s a major pilgrimage destination of those of Christian faith and other religious beliefs. Since at least the 2nd century AD people have believed that the place where the Church of the Nativity now stands is where Jesus was born. One particular cave, over which the first Church was built, is traditionally believed to be the Birthplace itself. 

    It has also been the push and pull of war. After the Six-Day War of 1967, it was part of the Israeli-occupied territory of the West Bank, Bethlehem came under control of the Palestinian Authority in the wake of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. 

    Obviously, after making the long trip to Israel the site of Jesus’ birth was on my must-see locations list. In order to get to Bethlehem, you must pass thru the Israeli Security Border at a wall and enter the West Bank. The process is not difficult but you must have your passport.

    Once across the wall you can visit the holy sites in the city. It was a very busy time when we visited because it was very close to the Christmas Season. They were even having a large Christmas concert and gathering outside the church the evening that we arrived. There was a massive Christmas tree decorated for the events leading up to the holiday.

    There were huge bus loads and crowds of people at the Church. We waited a long time with some of the rudest tourists I have ever encountered. One lady was pushing so hard she almost made me fall down the stone steps that you take to the cave to see the place of Nativity. It was so weird to me to be at such a holy place and see the rudest behavior.

    Once you reach the bottom of the stone stairs you can see the ornate display where the birthplace is located. You do not get much time as there are guards moving everyone along to keep the line moving. I was so glad to be able to see it but it was definitely not the experience I had envisioned.

  • Interview: Charlie Daniels

    Charlie Daniels is an icon in country music and I have been a fan since childhood. My Dad and my grandparents took me to see The Charlie Daniels Band growing up in Tennessee many times. As an adult I have seen Charlie several times over the past few years and he still puts on one of the most dynamic shows in the business. 

    I have always been nothing but impressed with Charlie and how he is the truest professional when it comes to music and performing. I was able to cover Charlie’s 80th Birthday Celebration is Nashville at a sold-out show at Bridgestone Arena where generations of fans came together along with an all-star lineup of musicians who wanted to pay tribute to the man and the music. One thing that stood out to me that day is how much Charlie respected the media. He sat in a press conference for over two hours as each guest performer of the night did a Q&A with him and the press. It was amazing to see someone have so much respect for their fellow musicians and the guests attending the party in his honor.

    For Memorial Day, I could not think of a better person to interview than Charlie. He is one of the biggest supporters of Veterans in the United States. He was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service award for his support of military personnel. He has performed for our troops from Guantanamo Bay to Bosnia, Kuwait, South Korea, and repeated trips to Iraq for Stars for Stripes as well as visiting troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Korea.

    Charlie Daniels serves as the Chairman of the Journey Home Project. The Journey Home Project’s mission is to connect donors to veterans’ organizations that do the most good. Cutbacks to veterans’ services from the federal government, combined with an increase in wartime active personnel has put a strain on health care, education and job opportunities for veterans.

    It was an honor to catch up with Charlie and talk about the Journey Home Project, life on the road, Bob Dylan and a new fiction book in the works.

    Are there any favorite off the beaten path travel destinations that you would recommend after touring the past six decades?

    Quite a few of them actually. Of course, I have been traveling for a living for a long time. I haven’t been everywhere but I have been to every state in the union. In fact I have worked in every state in the union. The four corners area of Colorado is one of my very favorites. It is not completely undiscovered but there are parts the public hasn’t gotten around to yet. I like the southern states. I am a southerner. I can come up with some place I really enjoy going to in most of the states in America.

    I want to talk about the Journey Home Project. Can you tell us a little bit about what you guys are doing during the coronavirus crisis?

    Journey Home is an organization put together to help our veterans. We have found during this pandemic the veterans are out of a job like everyone else is. The veteran population is so proud. They have to be really in need to ask for anything. They just don’t like to do it. 

    During this pandemic there are veterans that are literally so broke, they don’t have money to pay their rent. They don’t have money to buy food. A lot of them have kids. It is a bad situation. We are not just doing it during the pandemic, we have been around a few years and been doing it full time. The need is great right now so we are trying to help out as much as we can.

    If people want to help out and donate should they go to the Journey Home Project website?

    Yes, www.journeyhomeproject.org. They can go there and find out who we are and what we do. I don’t think I have ever seen this much real need among the vets in the time we have been doing this. Then you stop and figure I have never seen a time like this for that matter. This is a truly unique time. I have been around this earth for 83 years and never seen anything like it. 

    The whole world is shut down and we are dealing with something we know nothing about. We have to start from scratch with it. There was really nothing else to do but close the country down until we have a handle on it and find out what it was and what can be done about it or what caused it. People are out of work. The government was trying to help with the programs they had going. It took a while to get that out and some people didn’t qualify and it was this and that. All of a sudden you have a bunch of folks including veterans out of work and needing help. We try to be there for them as much as we can.

    What do you miss most about being out on the road?

    Just being out on the road. We are always out this time of year. We started out the 14th of March when we started the tour in Huntsville Alabama and then going down to Lake Charles, Louisiana. We did the show in Huntsville and right after that they started falling like dominoes, people started closing. It was just all of a sudden something we have been doing for many years at this time of year is no longer happening. Masses of people can’t get together for concerts. It is a very strange feeling actually not being on the road during the summer. We are always on the road in the summertime.

    I am ok at home right now. I live in this patch of woods and it is hard to get me out of them when I am at home anyway. It is where I want to be. I have no complaints as far as the quarantining is concerned. I live on a ranch and have plenty of room to get outside to get fresh air.  We are not actually isolated but we don’t have anyone that lives really close to us. We are kind of on our own here and have a lot of privacy. I don’t really have a problem staying home; it is not nearly as bad for me staying at home with the conditions I have. I feel for the people in the big cities that are jammed up in the little apartments and can’t go nowhere. 

    People have idiot governors telling them they will put them in jail for going swimming or something. We don’t have that to put up with that here (in Tennessee.) We have a sensible governor, good Christian guy. He is doing his best to get the state open. In the meantime, he is not being dumb about it. We get along. I don’t really have complaints staying at home. It has not really hurt me that bad to be honest except not being able to work. That is the part that bothers me.

    Have you been able to work on any new music while being at home?

    I am working on a book right now trying to get it finished and put the finishing touches on it. I am working on music too. I haven’t really got full time into the music yet. I have been putting quite a few hours in on the book. It is a fictional book and it is almost finished. I probably have another two days on it. Once I finish it up I will start full time on music.

    I didn’t realize you were a fiction writer.

    Well I have not released that much. I released a book of fictional short stories. Most of my writings, I did some essays. I did an autobiography called Never Look at the Empty Seats and I did an inspirational book called Let’s Make the Day Count, but this is a totally different enterprise. I have been working on it a long time. It is not a new project. I have worked on it for a number of years and it has gone through several different phases. I about have a handle on what I want it to be. As soon as I finish it, I am ready to go to work on some new music.

    You use Twitter a lot. Has it helped stay in contact with your fans during this time?

    Yes, I have been using social media for a long time, several years. It is not new to me. It is not anywhere close to being new to me, but it is still exciting to me. I have certain things I do every day. I put up a bible verse. I put up a prayer. I put up wise little sayings the good Lord helps me put together. I am constantly writing how I feel about things. I do a soapbox every week. It can be on anything. It may be humorous. It may be political. It may be about America. It might be complaining about something or bragging about something, whatever I am feeling about. I deal with a lot of current topics.

    “Devil Went Down to Georgia” just celebrated 40 years. Do you ever get tired of playing it?

    No not at all. It is what people want to hear. What people want to hear is what I get paid to do and my whole career is based on. I never get tired of it. We do a lot of the old songs; it is what people come to hear you for. They don’t come to hear your new stuff. They will tolerate your new stuff. They come to hear the stuff they hear on the radio and you owe it to the people to play the songs for them because that’s what they paid their money for. We always do our hits. We build our show around those and add in our new music as it fits. No, I never get tired of playing them. I love playing the old songs.

    We have lost a lot of amazing musicians. One is Kenny Rogers. I wanted to ask if you had any fond Kenny Rogers memories.

    Kenny and I didn’t travel in the same circles a lot. We worked together. We knew each other. We had done a show or two together. We are not bands that were asked to get packaged together that much. We are not what you ordinarily think of as a package. We are a more raucous type band, a little more on the rowdy side. I love Kenny’s music but we didn’t work together a lot.

    Bob Dylan celebrated a birthday this week. You have talked about how he changed your life. Can you tell us how that happened?

    I’d be happy to. In 1969, Bob came to Nashville to do an album called Nashville Skyline, a lot of people think that was the first album he did here but it was the third one he had done. John Wesley Harding and Blonde on Blonde had been recorded here. I came to town in 1967. My friend Bob Johnston, his producer brought me to town to try to do something in Nashville. Bob Dylan was coming to town to do Nashville Skyline and he had been using the same musicians to play on the album, every album. He like the players he had so he used the same players. 

    When he went to book the sessions for Nashville Skyline, the guitar player they used throughout the years was unavailable. He was already booked on another session. Bob Johnston asked if I would want to play on one of the Dylan sessions until the other guitar player got back. I said I’d be glad to. I was much more excited than that, believe me, that was not my reaction at all. My reaction was wanting to jump through the roof or something. 

    I went in and played and at the end of the session I was packing up my gear to leave and Bob Dylan asked Bob Johnston where I was going. Bob Johnston said I was leaving and he had another guitar player coming in. Bob Dylan said he didn’t want another guitar player, I want him. That was, well you can imagine, it was an incredible big shot in the arm, a recording artist the caliber of Bob Dylan to validate my playing is really hard to even articulate. It meant so much. It saved me a lot of steps because Bob was nice enough throughout the years to put the players names on the back of the album. When you play on a Dylan album your name was on the album. He is the kind of artist where people actually read the lines on the back cover. It was a lot of recognition. It happened instantly basically. It did a lot for me. I don’t even know how much it did for me but it did a lot believe me.

  • Summer Travel 2020

    I am sure like all of you my summer travel plans have changed drastically. Bryan and I had planned a trip to Namibia with friends that I have wanted to do for ten years and now it is not possible. It is definitely going to be a year of alternative plans.

    I have now decided that it is the perfect year to visit places in the United States. I have traveled for years to faraway places all over the world but I have never seen so many of the amazing destinations here at home. I had always put off US travel because I felt like it would be easier to see those places when we were older and when we didn’t want to take all the long international flights.

    There are so many beautiful places to explore in the US so this will be the summer of road trips for me. I do not feel comfortable flying yet so most of my trips will be within 1-2 days driving distance where I can take the proper precautions to social distance. I started my road trip series on May 1 when many of the states started to open up. I drove to New Orleans and also visited family and friends in Tennessee en route. 

    I do not enjoy driving but I found the lack of planning and scheduling was freeing and made the trip less stressful. I feel more in control driving with the coronavirus situation. 

    So far, I have started to make my summer wish list that range from places within an hour from my house like The Ark in Kentucky to a trip out west to see Mount Rushmore and the Badlands at the end of June. 

    Other destinations for the summer include The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama and a trip back to New Orleans to see friends and tour the Whitney Plantation. I am trying to tie stories together on this blog that not only show nice photos but also tell the history of cultures and places. 

    In the late summer and Fall I plan to visit Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. I will also probably make stops at the Biltmore and Dollywood along the way.

    If work does come back, I will most likely still be driving and trying to take more time to get to and from destinations to find interesting places along the way visit and take photos. 

    I have literally worked all the time for the past 20 years so I am really trying to embrace the time off and see friends and family that I have not seen in many years to catch up and slow down. This is definitely not what was planned but I plan to make the best of the situation with Road Trip 2020.

  • Interview: Sunny Ozell

    Sunny Ozell is an Americana vocalist who splits her time between Brooklyn and LA with her husband Sir Patrick Stewart. Her latest album Overnight Lows was released in March and tells personal stories through the heartfelt lyrics that can take the listener on their own reflective journey. Her music is one of my new finds during this time at home.

    Sunny has also been doing a YouTube series exploring Medieval churches across the English countryside. She loves to do research and then visit these locations across Europe in person to experience the rich culture and ancient artwork at the sites. Her videos take the viewer on an adventure to places that they may not be able to visit in person with descriptions that tell the details of past generations with wonderful live performances inside.

    I was very happy to catch up with Sunny at home in LA to discuss the new record, favorite travel destinations and her love of medieval history.

    Where are you actually quarantined?

    We are in Los Angeles.

    At least it is clear blue skies there for the first time in a long while.

    Indeed yes. We have seen some birds in our yard, and mind you we just moved into this house so we are not that familiar with the neighborhood. I have seen some birds I have never seen before which is really fun.

    Has the virus disrupted any of your touring or performance plans?

    My whole summer, yes.

    Have you postponed yet?

    That decision is more on the festivals but I know it is not going to happen. It is such an interesting time. Other touring acts that I know say they had a gig at the 100 Club in London that has already been re-booked for the Fall or early winter of 2021. I don’t know when I am going to preform again.

    I am now questioning if any festivals are going to happen in 2020 at all.

    In the absence of any kind of leadership in the UK and the US, there is not a clear dictate for how this is going to work and this is how we are going to do this. Germany and France have had such a better response to all this.

    I have been listening to your new music. I saw some of your videos highlighting English Medieval churches. What drew you to these churches? You describe them in detail at the start of some of the videos. Are you spiritual or religious? 

    I am not religious. I definitely lean atheist. That said, I believe in the power of people coming together in a common spiritual pursuit. For me, it is not the religious aspect that draws me to these buildings but the human aspect that these buildings in the UK are these wonderful receptacles of centuries of life in that country. 

    I was also drawn to them because I am from Reno, Nevada and the oldest thing we have is maybe 100 years old but in England this church was built before the Norman Conquest. This is a Saxon church from 900 AD and that blows my mind. The amount of human lives that have passed through in 1000 years is incredible. You can mark out these different periods of religious life in the UK. You can see where the Reformation happened. You can see where there was maybe counter-protests like Catholicism and Calvinism and all the -isms of Christianity. There are several time capsules in a single building where you can see various stages of development. 

    Definitely Europe and Asia have so much more history than the US in general. Are there any churches you would recommend, your highlights, your favorites, ones you would say if you are in England you should go visit?

    For me there are two schools of thought. There are the really big glorious churches, the cathedrals and the minsters. While those are all astonishing, they were more exposed to The Reformation, for example the Canterbury Cathedral. There is a lot that survived the Reformation and there is a lot that didn’t. 

    Whereas smaller kind of parish churches may have escaped some of those destructive forces. We lived in a region called West Oxfordshire in that central belt of England. Oxford is where the wool trade was really thriving in the 14th century. 700 years ago, there was a significant amount of wealth in that area. It shows in all the ecclesiastical buildings of that time period. A lot of them are so tucked away in these towns decimated by the Plague or 100 Years War. All of these forces were going on in that time in 13th, 14th, 15th centuries so maybe people moved away from that village and the church just sat there housing all these wonderful relics form the past. 

    There are a couple churches where I love the wall paintings, like a Fresco. In the UK, instead of calling them a Fresco, you call them a Wall Paintings because they are little. They are not a true Italian Fresco where there is a Gesso layer applied. They are more fragile unfortunately. During the Reformation, they would often throw whitewash up over the paintings. During the 17thand 18th centuries, they started picking away at the whitewash and find these unbelievable, vibrant, vivacious Medieval paintings still in place. To me it is almost like treasure hunting. It is so wonderful. It is a legitimate hobby in the UK called Church Crawling where you go look for things. Everyone has their favorites, some people like to go see Memorials, as in tombs. Some people are really into the woodwork. Some people are into the Baptismal Fonts. I love looking for graffiti. I miss it so much.

    You have an album called Overnight Lows. Where did the title come from?

    Interestingly, the title came to me even before I wrote the song. I have been a bit of an insomniac all my life. I liked that it is a double entendre. I loved overnight lows could refer to weather or the dark places we sometimes go to in the night when we can’t sleep. I like the Ray Charles lyric “The night time is the right time.” There is something sexy about it. I was pretty thrilled to land on it.

    Is there a favorite song on the album to perform live?

    That has been a moving target a bit. Surprisingly I really like singing “The Garden,” the kind of power ballad. Usually in a live setting you tend to sing the more upbeat things because people are drinking and out to have a good time. That one is more contemplative but I have found people really listen and that has been fun to be able to hold people’s attention even though it is a more somber experience.

    My two favorites are “Driving Highways” and “Not Afraid”. Are there any stories behind either of those you would like to talk about?

    “Driving Highways,” as I said I am from Reno, Nevada and it is one of the most unpopulated states. It is just big empty roads, you know? I moved to New York City in 2004 and drove the whole way there in a U-Haul and it was a very evocative experience. That kind of experience of taking a step forward not knowing where you are going to go but feeling everything you are leaving behind in the process. That is “Driving Highways.”

    You have traveled all over the world. Are there any special places that you would recommend for people or any special places you would like to go back to?

    Small Italian towns, not the big ones. Florence is absolutely amazing and Venice is amazing but I prefer the small towns. We went to Perugia recently and it was unbelievable, totally unbelievable. Perugia has a museum that has a collection that rivals anything else in Italy. Assisi is absolutely amazing. Verona is amazing outside of Venice. Oh my God, we went to Ravenna recently.

    Italy blows my goddamn mind how rich in history it is. It is just fascinating. It has to be that it is this big peninsula. As a region it has so much coastline so people would be coming and going from a maritime perspective. That has to be why, and Rome of course. Ravenna used to be this coastal town but the coastline has moved with the river that floats through the city deposited all this silt so the city no longer had access to the coastline and declined. At one point it was the capital of the Roman Empire after Rome had fallen. Before the idea of the Roman Empire was over and before the Byzantine Empire became centered in Constantinople, for a small time Ravenna was the imperial seat and there are these buildings still standing from that time period, like 380 or 410 ADS, and they are filled with mosaics and beautiful marble paneling. I am getting emotional thinking how astonishing the historic fabric in Ravenna is. I cannot recommend it enough. Go to Ravenna and have your mind blown.

    I love hearing about places that are not always well-known travel destinations.

    I think you have to be interested in that time period, coming out of the Classical time period into the early Medieval period, but it is just nuts and it is really beautiful.

    After this quarantine, do you have any dream vacation spots?

    Yes, I want to go to Sicily. I am really obsessed with Medieval history if you can’t tell. It is a funny thing. It is almost like collecting. I don’t walk away with any object but it feels like I am collecting knowledge and experience every time I go. We went to Ravenna right before Christmas and it was somewhere I had wanted to go for years. It was so satisfying to finally get there and see it and it will be the same when I get to Sicily.

    What is your one must have quarantine item?

    Booze. Isn’t it insane. We had to actually get another recycling bin. It is not good. I saw this meme on Instagram of a photograph of a massively packed stadium titled Alcoholics Anonymous 2021.

    I have been talking to a lot of chefs and secretly getting their cocktail recipes through questions so I don’t think you are alone. Are there any charities or groups you guys are supporting through the pandemic?

    I lived in New York City for 15 years and a huge part of my time in New York was defined by working in restaurants and that industry has been absolutely decimated. I don’t know what I would have done if my restaurant had to close and I didn’t know when it was going to open again and if it was going to open again. I really like what the New York Hospitality Coalition is doing.

    I know you lived in New York City many years. Are there any favorite New York City activities you love to do?

    You are going to make me all nostalgic. Before I got a car in New York, I would get a Zip Car with a girlfriend and we would drive out to Jacob Riis Beach, which feels like it is at the end of the world, take a cooler and smoke a joint on the beach and swim in a dirty ocean. 

    I loved walking the high line when it first opened; it felt like magic. I basically loved walking around New York. Say you get off the F Train at 4th Street and you walk to Union Square and instead of taking the train again you decide to keep walking to Madison Square and it is so nice out and you keep walking. You get a coffee, maybe you get an ice cream, run into somebody you know. It is such a beautiful city and it is so strange not to be there right now. It feels like I am betraying my chosen city, we might have been in Brooklyn but I had a gig here in LA. 

    This is crazy, I had my record release in LA on March 10th and literally the next day it became clear holy shit we shouldn’t be going to restaurants or anything anymore. My gig was a Tuesday night, and not to toot my own horn, but it was packed. I spent the next solid two weeks taking my temperature everyday and wondering if it was allergies or Coronavirus.

    This is such an unprecedented experience. Everyday is different. I don’t see how it can be over anytime soon with anything short of a magic bullet vaccine with enough for the population of the planet. 

    I am hopeful. I feel like good things might come out of this. People will hopefully more respect for the planet and for the environment. I am hoping there are lessons to be learned out of it.

    We need better social safety nets. We need to take care of each other better.

    Do you have any messages for your fans?

    Just lean into love and read a good book.

    Photo provided by the artist

  • Tulips in City Park

    Planted in mid-January each year, 14,000 tulips bloomed at Big Lake in New Orleans City Park. It is a labor of love as The City Park Horticulture Department plants each bulb by hand and it takes the team of six over 20 hours from start to finish. Some tulips have interesting names including: Apricot Parrot, World’s Favorite, Happy Family, Purple Dream, and Blushing Lady.

    Each year I always love to visit the bloom as it often falls around the time of Mardi Gras. I try to take interesting photos of the beautiful blooms. It is a popular site for families to take photos as the flowers appear and mark the beginning of the Spring season. Springtime is a wonderful time in City Park to be out in nature for some exercise with perfect temperatures and lots of sunshine.

  • Interview: Alon Shaya

    Alon Shaya is an Israeli born chef who now calls New Orleans home. In 2017 after several launching several successful award-winning restaurants in New Orleans, Alon and his wife launched Pomegranate Hospitality Group which includes the restaurants Saba in New Orleans and Safta in Denver. 

    Shaya has been awarded multiple James Beard awards and has written an acclaimed part memoir part cookbook in 2018 that traces his roots from his childhood in Israel and Philadelphia to the present day with stories and family recipes.

    Alon has been focused on cooking at home and helping feed local frontline workers during the pandemic. I was very happy to catch up with him by phone in New Orleans to discuss food, Israel travel, and his Shaya Barnett Foundation.

    How is the transition to carryout going at Saba?

    We are not currently doing carryout and delivery at Saba anymore. (Update: Saba opened for dinner takeout May 8) We are doing it at Safta in Denver. With the rapid rise of cases in New Orleans and how quickly it is spreading here, it was best to give our team a chance to go home and take care of themselves and be safe and take a mental health break. We didn’t feel like it made sense to keep doing that. We have currently shut that down.

    But it is still going on in Denver?

    In Denver our restaurant is really big with a lot of space so our team can separate while they are working and the deliveries are going really well in Denver. It is still a fraction of the revenues we typically do, but it is a way to feed and nourish the community and keep people home and out of grocery stores. It has been as good as it can be there.

    Are you supporting any other local causes in New Orleans?

    I have been cooking out of my house for medical professionals. I helped with meals for 27 people today at Tulane University Medical Center. i made Hummus and Pita Bread yesterday and we sent out 77 portions of Red Beans and Rice to doctors and nurses. I feel like at my house I can really focus on cooking food and trying to help people has been working out really well.

    Is there a way people can help support that?

    Yes, there is a group of people called the Red Beans Krewe, a Mardi Gras Krewe, they organized a great cause. They have been reaching out to chefs and bakers and people that have been supplying them with food and they are taking the food and distributing it to different hospitals throughout the city. It is a great initiative. It is called Feeding the Front Lines and part of Krewe of Red Beans. I think it is a good grassroots way of helping out the community and giving us something to do. It is what we love to do. It is in my nature to try to heal people’s feelings and emotions through a meal. They have done a good job helping me with that and possibly a lot of different people in New Orleans.

    You have lived in New Orleans for a long time now. What do you love most about the city?

    I love the people here. I love the excitement and life, the cultural aspects and the music. I love the city so much. I love fishing and being outdoors. I feel like New Orleans was always meant to be my home.

    When you opened up your two new restaurants, Saba and Safta, you made it a mission to have a team approach in everything you are doing in the business and bring the team along. Why was this important to you?

    I thought the most important thing we could do as a company is be good to our team and create a safe and comfortable work environment for the people we work with. In some past work experiences, I have seen some horrible business owners do some horrible things to their colleagues and team members and felt like things could be better and should be better. 

    When my wife Emily and I started Pomegranate Hospitality, we created core values of empowerment and respect and communication and equality. We have worked very hard on making sure those core values are important every single day. During this whole Coronavirus outbreak and disaster, we have looked to our core values as a company and that’s helped us to make the best decisions at the time on behalf of our team for their safety and mental health.

    As a company, we have tried to do what we could to take care of them, whether it be paying people extra paid time off or other efforts. We started a team relief fund. We are able to disperse the money we made among all of our team members. We have been cooking family meals for them at the restaurant for them to pick-up and have a meal at home, all the little things we can do to try to make it as easy on everyone as possible is our duty and responsibility. 

    Can you tell us about the Shaya Barnett Foundation?

    I started the Shaya Barnett Foundation a few years ago with my Home Economics teacher from high school Donna Barnett and Seth Schran who was also my instructors in high school. Together we try to help vocational programs in New Orleans. We work with the New Orleans Career Center. In Denver, we work with the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus. I feel my life was saved by Donna and Seth. They helped me to forge a path for my life to believe in myself and realize my potential. I feel like there are a lot of young adults in the same position always trying to find something to inspire them. The Shaya Barnett Foundation will help assist those culinary programs at the New Orleans Career Center and the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus so that hopefully can make a difference in someone’s life like Donna and Seth made in mine.

    I actually took a trip to Israel two years ago around Christmas. I know that is where you are from originally and you have gone back several times. What are your favorite places to visit when you go back?

    I love Tel Aviv so much. I love how vibrant it is. Jaffa is the town where my Mom and Dad and my grandparents lived and where I was born. I have such fond memories of being a kid and going back to Jaffa to visit my grandparents and eat incredible food. I really like spending time in Tel Aviv and Jaffa and hanging out on the beach and eating at the restaurants and cafes and living life out there. It is a magical place.

    They have amazing restaurants in Tel Aviv. I was surprised about the food culture there. You famously used your grandmother’s recipes when you opened Shaya. When you left and started Saba and Safta, how have you re-created the recipes or changed it up? What has been the process to create the menus in those places?

    I don’t feel like I had to change or adjust anything. I try to stay true to my family’s recipes and what I have cooked throughout my career has shaped the way I cook food and think about food. It comes more organically. I work with my chefs and teams at both restaurants and it is very collaborative. We were able to take our whole management team to Israel a year ago. That trip was meant to give everyone a chance to build their own memories and their own stories and taste foods for the first time in Israel. 

    We got to cook with people in their homes. We got to cook with a Bolivian woman and a Druze woman and a Yeminite woman and learn recipes from them. That is the way menus is created through that collaborative organic process of our collective experiences together along with food stemmed from my childhood and my grandmother’s recipes and my Mom’s recipes. Over the years we continue to build on all of that and it all has to do with that collaborative effort with the chefs.

    I was able to go to a Druze village while I was there and had the best bread of my entire life.

    The Druze are incredible cooks and amazing people. We were invited into their homes and shared stories of their families’ recipes. It was a very inspiring experience for all of us.

    You also have a huge influence from Italy. You have gone to Italy and lived in that country for a period of time. What are your favorite destinations in Italy? How do your Israeli roots influence your Italian cooking style?

    I feel like Italian food and Israeli food are based on tradition and history and really great ingredients and vegetables. It felt natural to cook both those cuisines. The olive oils and the eggplants and the goat cheeses and the tomatoes, all the great ingredients you see on Israeli menus, you see all over Italy. All of that combines together inside my brain and from there flavor profiles happen. When I was in Italy, I lived with a family and cured meats and rolled pastas and baked breads. I felt really at home there. 

    I would say that Parma is my go to place because that is where I spent most of my time and developed great relationships with families there that I worked for. Anytime I go to Italy I try to get back to Parma and visit everyone and eat lots of prosciutto and parmesan.

    Well I have to tell you, Domenica’s Lasagna is one of my favorite things in the entire world.

    I learned that recipe from an 83 year old woman in Parma, Lasagna Bolognese.

    I can’t even describe it to others. I just tell them to go and try it. I think it is the mix of the pork and beef together. Thank you for that.

    Now that I am not in Dominica anymore, I make it at home now for my family a lot. They love it.

    I just had Saba for the first time catered. I am in Krewe du Kanaval. You catered the ball. That was my first experience with Saba.

    We were there and watched the Krewe.

    Obviously Mardi Gras is a really special thing for people in New Orleans. Did you have a standout moment this year at Mardi Gras?

    The standout moment at Mardi Gras this year was being in the Krewe du Kanaval and walking the uptown route. That was the first time doing that. I was surrounded by so many of my friends. It was such a beautiful day and we marched from uptown all the way to downtown. It was an incredible experience. Gosh that seems like a whole world away now.

    Do you have an item you can’t live without during quarantine?

    My Dutch Oven at my house. It has gotten a great workout. I think I have cooked in it, washed it, and cooked in it again a hundred times in the last few days. I have a whole gallon of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which won’t last me too long in my quarantine. I’m going to go pickup another gallon once I have a chance. I go through a lot of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

    Do you have a dream vacation spot to go to once this is all over?

    I haven’t even thought about it. I have been so busy trying to take care of our team and feed people in the community. I think I just want it to be over. I want to be in New Orleans. I want to be in Denver. I want to be with the people I love. That is the vacation I need. 

    Your book, An Odyssey of Food, My Journey Back to Israel: A Cookbook, is a combination of autobiographical stories and cookbook all together. It is beautifully crafted. Have you thought about doing another book?

    I have. The right time hasn’t come along to do it. Eventually I will. I have thrown around so many ideas I am not quite sure the direction I will go yet. The moment it hits me I will know it and I will begin working on it.

    Was it hard or emotional to write all the memories, from your childhood through recent times?

    It was definitely an emotional experience and I learned so much about myself and I learned so much more about my family than I ever knew in the past. It was very hard because there were so many feelings built up in all of that. I found it to be very challenging to balance the stories of my life with how people can relate to those stories now in a cookbook. 

    I tried not to sugarcoat anything and be transparent with stories throughout my life and my family’s history. Tina Antolini and I worked together on those narratives and shaping those into chronological order for the book. It was an amazing experience. I laughed and cried so many times throughout the process. I really poured my heart into it. I hope that when people do read the book they can find stories or moments they can relate to and it inspires them to cook the recipes.

    Photo provided by the Chef

  • New Orleans Architecture

    One of the joys I have gotten during this stay at home time in New Orleans has been walking around New Orleans taking pictures of beautiful homes all around the city. Many people would say that the mansions in the Garden District are the most beautiful homes but I love the colorful shotgun houses that dot the streets of the entire city.

    Shotgun homes are characteristically long, narrow houses that are a single room wide and several rooms deep. Popular folklore says that the homes’ design allows a shotgun to fire a bullet through the open front door, straight through each room and out the back door unscathed. 

    Structures of this type originated in West Africa, were then introduced to Haiti, and eventually made their way to New Orleans through Haitian and West African refugees, immigrants, and slaves. They were traditionally lower-class housing but now these homes are sought after by everyone and many have breathtaking remodels inside that highlight the past but also bring in modern elements. 

    These homes often do not provide much privacy as many do not have hallways and they require you to walk through rooms to get from the front to the back of the house. The kitchens are often in the rear of the home. The homes also have high ceilings to promote better air flow in the hot and humid climate.

    In New Orleans, they are often painted vibrant colors and as Marie Kondo would say, “Spark Joy” as you drive through the neighborhoods all over town. In some neighborhoods the color of the homes is controlled through the historic preservation societies and the color scheme must be approved to maintain historical accuracy. Anytime I see this type of home in my travels I think about New Orleans traditions.