Preparing traditional Jewish deli meats is no easy process. Though a bright red slice of pastrami or dark, moist piece of tongue might look simple by the time it’s served on rye, meats like these have already spent up to several weeks soaking in brine, curing in a chilly walk-in, hanging up to dry or smoking in a precisely-tuned machine.
Noah Bermanoff, chef and co-owner of Mile End Deli in Brooklyn and Mile End Sandwich shop in Manhattan, is intimately familiar with this labor-intensive practice. He’s been serving up exemplary cured and smoked meats at his Brooklyn flagship since 2010.
“It’s not like making a hamburger,” Bermanoff said of his product. “It doesn’t just happen overnight,” he added.
So when Hurricane Sandy wiped out the restaurant’s custom-tailored production kitchen located on Red Hook’s Pier 41 last October, Bermanoff and his team had to make some tough decisions, fast: how were they going to prepare their signature pastrami without a working smoker? Where were they going to hang and cure their meats without access to the kitchen’s 6,500 square feet? How were they going to continue baking bread and bagels now that their oven was destroyed?
Solutions didn’t come easy. The best option for preparing the meat turned out to be trucking it upstate to Kingston, N.Y., where Bermanoff’s friend Josh Applestone operates the butcher shop Fleischer’s. After curing and smoking in the Hudson Valley, the meat was hauled back to the city to be steamed and sliced at the restaurant’s two locations. To keep production going, Bermanoff had to close his restaurants early and bring in a night team of prep cooks to slice cabbage, boil stock and cut cucumbers until one or two in the morning. And for now, Mile End is getting its baked goods from New York bakeries Orwasher’s and Hot Bread Kitchen.
Bermanoff said his team has been working nonstop since the storm to clean and repair its Red Hook commissary, and that with one working smoker, meats are being prepared in Brooklyn again. The Forward caught up with Bermanoff on the restaurant’s progress.
Tell us about your losses after Sandy.
Well, we lost five weeks worth of product. Our inventory was just sitting in muck in the flooded Red Hook space. We had to throw everything out. That was worth well over $50,000. I’m talking about food, dry goods, paper containers, stuff was just flipped over and floating around.
In terms of damage to the facility, it was in the tens of thousands. The carpentry, the walls, the floors, the electricity, the plumbing was all shot. And we haven’t qualified for any significant insurance coverage.
How did you handle the cleanup?
For eight weeks following the storm, we just cleaned and cleaned seven days a week. I did a lot of it myself, and it was exhausting. We filled dumpster after dumpster with spoiled product, sodden sheetrock.
When we bought the space, we renovated it from the ground up. At that time, we decided to pay about seven percent more for mold-resistant sheetrock, since we knew there would be a lot of steam in the kitchen and everything. To a certain degree, that minimized our damage.
What’s the status of the kitchen now?
We’re in a lot better shape than we were a few weeks ago. We lost most of our equipment to the storm, most importantly our two smokers, but we’ve been able to make small repairs that have helped us get a start on production again. We were able to fix one smoker, and also did some work on the space’s plumbing, electric and hot water. Our head commissary cook, Jerome Petitgard, is back here doing some production on his own.
And how are things going at the restaurant?
For several weeks after Sandy, we weren’t able to serve dinner at all. In the last week of November, we were able to open for dinner four nights a week. That’s down from seven. And our dinner menu is narrower than before. But as of this week, we’ve added a fifth night of dinner, so we’re really excited about that. We’re still limping along a little bit, but we’re getting there.
Do you have anything special planned?
We’re also running a bunch of specials that we’re really excited about. Every Wednesday night is burger night. $19 gets you a burger topped with smoked meat, fries, and a drink.
We’re also doing family-style Shabbat dinner on Fridays. Challah, matzo ball soup, chopped liver, assorted pickles, braised brisket or smoked chicken with side veggies and dessert for $45 (whole table needs to participate).
Chinese on Sunday nights is going to be awesome. We started it on Sunday. It’s a tradition my family always practiced. Chinese food is the closest thing to Jewish food after schmaltzy Ashkenazi foods and, stemming from our success serving it for the last three Christmases, we’re doing it again. It’s $35 per person and the menu will change weekly. Last week we had bamboo shoots with chili oil, marinated cucumber with garlic, pan-fried oxtail dumplings with scallions and broth, BBQ lamb belly “char siu” with Chinese greens and rice, and almond cookies and oranges.
Mile End Delicatessen; 97A Hoyt Street, Brooklyn; 718-852-7510
Mile End Sandwich Shop; 53 Bond St, Manhattan; 212-529-2990