Just days before his kosher delicatessen, Ben & Izzy’s, opened for business in Toronto in April, Dino Venasio pulled a giant smoked brisket from his steamer and laid it on the cutting board. As vapors laden with garlic, coriander, cloves, fennel and half a dozen other spices blanketed the small space, Venasio began slicing methodically, slipping past the peppercorn crust to reveal the juicy, tender, crimson flesh.
Outside, a crowd began to gather, peering through the glass window, first with curiosity, and then, with the lunch hour upon them and a realization that the door was still locked, an increasing sense of frustration. They knocked on the glass, shook the door, mouthed queries and curses through the window and pointed at their watches, asking “When? When do you open?” as though demanding the very day and hour of messianic salvation itself.
A powerful revolution in Jewish delicatessens has occurred recently. After decades of watching delis decline, a number of visionary delicatessens, owned by secular Jews, opened around North America, with the idea to return deli to its roots.
They ditched the standard brands and sourced unique products, making as much as they could from scratch, from lox and bagels to schmaltz and pastrami. It began in the 1990s at Saul’s, in California, found a footing in Portland, Ore., at Kenny & Zuke’s, and continued quickly apace, from Caplansky’s in Toronto to Brooklyn’s Mile End, San Francisco’s Wise Sons, DGS Delicatessen, in Washington, D.C., and on and on….
These delis are the reason you see other restaurants selling homemade pastrami nowadays. Thanks to them, Jewish food is being embraced by a whole new generation and rediscovered by those who had previously left it for dead (or for the sake of cholesterol).
Up until now, however, not a single one of these new delicatessens has been kosher, and for observant Jews, the presence and popularity of these new delis, which I like to call “roots delis,” has generated every emotion, from jealousy to anger.
“My savta [grandmother] saw the family photos on our wall in an article in the L.A. Jewish Journal and called my father right away,” recalled Evan Bloom, co-owner of Wise Sons. “‘How could you let him hang those photos in the restaurant that’s not kosher? It’s disrespectful!’”
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.
“I walked in, and there was this warm electric fusion going through my body,” Barnath said, likening it to the Kotel of delis.
Ben and Izzy’s is a classic delicatessen, complete with a butcher-block counter and black-and-white floor tiles. It seats 28, and all the meats are made from scratch by Venasio. There is barrel-cured corned beef and pickled tongue, navel pastrami (a rarity in Canada) and a Montreal smoked meat made with a spice mix Venasio’s been perfecting for the past five years; it’s juicy, powerfully flavorful and every bit as good as the meat from the nonkosher roots delis he and Venasio hope to emulate.
There are gorgeously marbled rib-eye steaks, matzo ball and mushroom soups, coleslaw, potato salad, double-fried French fries and, naturally, cholent, all made with beef that they specifically import from Texas, because it’s the highest-quality kosher product they’ve found.
What you won’t find are the types of concessions to mass marketing that most kosher delis have surrendered to: wraps, salads, crappy Chinese food or other diversions. “I’d sooner close down than put sushi on the menu,” Barnath said.
The two believe that Ben & Izzy’s can succeed precisely because of their DIY approach. Barnath is a certified mashgiach, so he won’t need to employ one full time, and Venasio has calculated that it’s far cheaper to make your own kosher deli meat than to buy it from someone else.
An eight-ounce sandwich will cost around $10, a price they feel will appeal not only to their kosher clientele, but also to secular Jews and gentiles, who they predict will make up the bulk of customers.
In Austin, Texas, where Dave Rosen will open Mastman’s Kosher Delicatessen this summer, kosher Jews are just a sliver of the expected diners. The city’s entire Jewish population, hovering close to 17,000, is less than one-tenth of Toronto’s, but Rosen doesn’t imagine he’ll have any problem filling the 216 seats at his downtown delicatessen, a rebirth of his grandparent’s kosher deli in Buffalo, N.Y., which closed down in 2005.
“If I’m going to continue on with the family name, it’s very important that it’s kosher,” said Rosen, also 38, who owns a successful stage lighting company.
Unlike Ben & Izzy’s, which will close for Shabbat, Mastman’s will stay open Saturdays by turning over the store to non-Jewish staff, a technique that others, such as New York City’s 2nd Ave Deli, employ regularly. “That creates a little anxiety with some of the [Orthodox] Jewish community, but not all,” Rosen said. “When I talk with my rabbi about what we’re doing, he says, ‘The implications of what you’re doing are more important than the kosher laws.’”
Though Rosen has just begun construction on Mastman’s, he is already catering out of Chabad’s kitchen and is being inundated with orders from as far afield as Oklahoma City.
“I think I have every mitzvah this side of the Mississippi. We’re booked solid already,” he said.
The draw will be bagels and loaves of rye baked in house, slow-cooked briskets, a pastrami triple smoked for 45 days and all of his grandmother’s classic dishes. She is 91, lives in Albuquerque and, Rosen said, has no tolerance for failure: “If I screw it up, she’ll reattach my foreskin!”
David Sax is a journalist based in Toronto. He is the author of “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of the Jewish Delicatessen.”