Deli rebels ride into Berkeley

Last year I wrote about how the owners of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley were waging a lonely battle to bring Jewish deli food into the modern era of healthy, sustainable, artisanal cuisine.

Now they’re not quite as lonely. Reinforcements have ridden into town.

Wise Sons Deli serves up home-made bialys / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Saul’s convened a “deli summit” of fellow deli rebels (hey, try saying “fellow deli rebels” three times fast!) at the Berkeley J.C.C. Thursday evening to talk hormone-free brisket, home-cured pickles and organic rye.

Saul’s co-owner Peter Levitt was joined by Noah Bernamoff of Mile End Deli in Brooklyn, Ken Gordon of Kenny & Zukes Deli in Portland, Oregon, and Evan Bloom of Wise Sons Deli of San Francisco, a “pop up” restaurant that doesn’t have its own site but rents space in a commercial kitchen and serves customers in a Mission District cafe on Saturday mornings.

Grass-fed patty melt on organic rye / Photo by Saul's Deli

Saul’s was the grandaddy of the group with 25 years under its belt. Mile End opened just over a year ago; Kenny & Zukes and Wise Sons are similar newbies.

“We’re starting to feel a lot less isolated,” Levitt said. “We’re seeing a breakout of new delis that can get together and talk,”

So what are the topics du jour when four owners of nouvelli-delis start talking?

  • The power of memory. These deli owners are selling — sometimes reinventing — foods from people’s childhoods. So customer complaints go with the territory. “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘Your chicken soup is not like my grandma’s,” noted Gordon. “I say, ‘You’re 85, and your grandma has been dead for 50 years, how good is your memory?’”
  • The ins-and-outs of making your own pickles, cured meats and breads. “We didn’t serve pickles for our first three months until we could make our own,” said Bernamoff. “We didn’t have hot dogs for the first eight months. During those months, most of my time was spent making hot dogs until we got it right.”
  • The challenges of sourcing sustainable beef — meaning, beef that has been raised humanely and without hormones or antibiotics. There was a long and somewhat arcane discussion of different definitions of the “brisket” part of a cow. “I can’t use grass-fed beef for pastrami,” Gordon said. “It’s a little dry, it’s too expensive, and I can’t get enough of it. We are going through 8,000 pounds a month of brisket.”

Panelists discuss the brisket cut of a cow / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Throughout the evening, panel moderator Joan Nathan – the Shakespeare of Jewish cookbook writing — pointed out that change is not new to deli-dom.

The deli originally arrived in America with 19th century German immigrants, and only later  became a Jewish institution. It went through a kosher stage, a kosher-style stage (think pastrami and cheesecake on the same menu), and over time developed larger and larger portions.

“You think they had huge matzah balls in Europe?” Nathan said. “They didn’t. This is American.”

Her point: It’s totally fine for delis to branch out and experiment with things like smaller portions, Sephardic dishes, matzah kugel with wild mushrooms and leeks, and pickles made out of daikon, asparagus, green beans or butternut squash.

“The pantheon of Jewish cooking has changed,” she said.

It was a warmly familial evening, fueled by bialys and smoked fish dished out beforehand by Wise Sons. The one moment when the band of deli rebels seemed to draw their guns was an audience question about why none of them operated a kosher kitchen. Mile End and Kenny & Zukes even sell bacon.

“Portland is not exactly West Jerusalem,” said Gordon. “The number one thing in sustainability is staying in business. We can’t afford to have a kosher kitchen. There are not enough people who really care, at least in Portland.”

Levitt had a slightly more philosophical take: “The deli is a small slice of the Diaspora experience, and much of that is secular.”

Bernamoff was the bluntest, but then he lives in New York.

“Kosher food is laughable, especially the meat,” Bernamoff said. “It simply does not match the quality required to call yourself a serious restaurant. I fundamentally believe we have a responsibility as Jews to do tikkun olam (repairing the world) — which means buying meat from places that take good care of their workers and where the animals are slaughtered humanely.

“My meat is, to me, kosher.”
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2 Responses to “Deli rebels ride into Berkeley”

  1. Craig Albert Says:

    They can try as hard as they want to deconstruct Dr Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic, but even if they succeed, the absence of the Brooklyn Bridge label will make it a poor substitute indeed.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Actually… Saul’s stopped carrying bottled sodas and now makes all its own sodas in-house. I believe they got a number of responses along the lines of yours. :-)

      The brooklyn deli dude mentioned an artisan who is making “naturally fermented celery seed soda.” Whatever that is!

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