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The reason these delis aren’t kosher is a mixture of straightforward economics and a more complicated philosophy. “A mashgiach [kosher supervisor] costs a nice chunk of change, say $70K a year to sleep in the corner, and kosher food is easily 20% more expensive,” says Noah Bernamoff, the owner of Mile End Delicatessen, who grew up in a kosher household.
Though Bernamoff receives regular requests from observant diners to open a kosher location, he calculates that a half-pound sandwich would likely end up costing $18 (currently it costs $14), essentially driving away all nonkosher business, which is the core of his market. Simply put, if a kosher deli can’t attract an overwhelmingly nonkosher clientele, it will close.
Philosophically, Bernamoff places more value on the ethics of sustainable ingredient sourcing and preparation, which he feels are more in-line with the spirit of tikkun olam, than he does on serving products that have a rabbinical stamp of approval. “Eating as a modern thinking Jew [has] to be about universal ethics,” he said, “not parochial adherence to antiquated law.”
Venasio, who is 38, and his partner, Aaron Barnath, who is 31 (Ben and Izzy are their middle names), hope to somehow reconcile those two challenges at Ben & Izzy’s, which is glatt kosher. A trained former chef from an Italian Jewish background, Venasio, who recently completed an Orthodox conversion, knows the taste of good deli from his pre-kosher days.
“There’s awesome delis smoking their own meat,” Venasio said. “Coming from a chef’s background, I just felt kosher food was lacking.”
Barnath agrees. Since Toronto’s lone kosher delicatessen, Marky’s, closed last year after decades of decline where the menu was overtaken by a smorgasbord of mediocrity, the former plumber says he has stared longingly through the window of nearby Jewish (but nonkosher) delicatessens “like a puppy.”
Last fall he went on a research trip to Montreal, and Venasio took him to the legendary deli Schwartz’s, where they didn’t eat, but inhaled the pungent scent of the smoked meat.