Wednesday, April 2, 2014

PROFILE: Jake Dell, Katz's Deli, New York

When Poppet Met Jake 

Lunch with Jake Dell 

Next time I’m out for lunch with fifth generation owner of Katz’s Deli in New York, Jake Dell, I won’t be ordering pastrami. 

“It’s good,” he said, “but it’s not pastrami.” 

If anyone knows what real pastrami is, it’s Dell. You might remember the precise moment when Katz’s Deli, famed for its giant pastrami sandwiches, was thrust into the spotlight. The year was 1989 and Meg Ryan was faking an orgasm in the deli in When Harry Met Sally. According to Dell, a customer re-enactment occurs on a weekly basis. Celebrity appearances, however, are more common. “I don’t usually recognise when there’s a celebrity in the store. Usually a customer or one of the guys are like ‘hey, that’s so-and-so’, or ‘Leonardo di Caprio is here’” said Dell before adding, “alright, maybe I’m not that bad.” Dell’s first celebrity encounter took place during a lecture given by Anthony Bourdain. A fellow student asked Bourdain where he would eat at 3am anywhere in the world. His response? Katz’s Deli. 

It doesn’t take a time machine to convince visitors that Katz’s has been the same lower East Side corner shop since it opened in 1888 as Iceland Brothers. By the time Katz’s Deli had been open for a century, the owners had exhausted the family tree. Martin and son Alan Dell bought into the business and Jake, who is Alan’s son, came on board in 2009. He’s been in charge of operations since. As someone who is responsible for a 125-year-old pastrami institution, it’s fair to assume that Dell knows good pastrami when he tastes it. 

The pastrami at Cumulus Inc., well, wasn’t pastrami. In my defence it was Dell who did the ordering. Cumulus was one of the few iconic Melbourne restaurants on a list of many Dell planned to visit during a short PR stopover. He was here for RYVITA as their sandwich expert to launch the search for the best RYVITA ‘sandwich’. Eight highly regarded Aussie restaurants are currently battling it out to win the Topped to Perfection title, as voted by the public on Facebook. 

The wafer-thin slices of house-cured meat punctuated with pickles, horseradish cream and shards of rye crackers was set before us at the bar (how very Melbourne). Unlike Katz’s Deli, Cumulus Inc. doesn’t go through 7000 kilograms of the stuff each week. Half of our pastrami returned to the kitchen, not because it wasn’t up to scratch, but because eating it seemed sacrilegious after hearing about Katz’s jaw-breaking sandwiches stuffed with 350 grams of moist, marbled meat that’s been slow smoked for 48 to 72 hours. 

Pastrami aside, the slab of foie gras parfait served with buttery triangles of toasted brioche was always going to be a winner, while the seafood – a variety of oysters (some sweet and creamy, others briny with a mineral aftertaste), glistening ruby red cubes of tuna tartare on minted peas, and John Dory juggling the sweetness of fresh mussels with acidic romesco – left a good, ol’ fashioned Aussie impression on the yankee. 

Cumulus Inc. on Urbanspoon

The Interview 

The day before I met Dell at The Windsor Hotel, one of the participants in RYVITA’s Topped to Perfection campaign.

“This is the fanciest interview I’ve ever done,” he said. 

Dell stood out against the high-tea-white-tablecloth crowd in his jeans, sneakers and maroon Katz’s tee (he has two wardrobes, one heaving with Katz’s apparel, the other without). We skipped the silver service, helping ourselves with our hands to the Windsor’s RYVITA creation of chicken liver parfait, beetroot and velvety cocoa butter. If only kids grew up on RYVITA with decadent liver pate in place of cottage cheese, the world would be a better place. Even Dell looked pleasantly surprised with the combination, later acknowledging that if he ever tried to replace bread with RYVITA in New York, “people would start throwing things at me”. 

For someone who runs and represents one of the most famous restaurants in the world, Dell is refreshingly modest and astoundingly grounded. Later, at Cumulus Inc., he confessed that if he were to open a deli in Australia, people would only come because they recognized the Katz’s name, not his own. But despite overwhelming demand for an Australian Katz’s, it isn’t on the cards. Opening another one, regardless of location, would go against the shop’s philosophy of there being only one original. Dell admitted that he would one day like to do something Down Under, perhaps inspired by Katz’s, but under a different name. He humbly believes that a press release headed “Fifth generation Katz’s Deli owner opens restaurant in Melbourne” wouldn’t have crowds snaking down the street. 

Realistically it’s only a matter of time, especially now that big names such as Heston Blumenthal are showing interest in Melbourne. He’s shipping The Fat Duck and its entire team to Crown Casino next year, relocating for a short, six months before returning The Fat Duck to the UK and opening Dinner by Heston Blumenthal in its place. Just as fans marvel at Heston’s ‘meat fruit’, so too do they crave Katz’s secret family recipes. “Of course I can’t tell you,” said Dell before I had a chance to ask him to divulge the confidential formula responsible for his superstar sandwiches. “For me it’s simple,” he said, “It’s all about the food.” It seems an heirloom recipe is only one ingredient in Katz’s recipe for success. 

Call the deli old fashioned and they’ll take it as a compliment. It’s not about shortcuts and taking chances, it’s about quality ingredients and cooking methods that take up to three days. Pastrami and corned beef are the hero fillings at Katz’s, but brisket and turkey are often overlooked. Dell eats at work two to three times a day, usually opting for the turkey sandwich. Other menu items that are stuck in the shadow of Katz’s pastrami sandwich include latkes and blintzes. Their hotdogs are also voted the best in New York each year (they go through 4000 a week), while the matzoh ball soup is a blend of recipes from two grandmas. “It turned into a matzoh ball blood bath,” joked Dell. 

"That sandwich". Photo credit: Katz's Deli Facebook page
Pastrami, “the most sensual of all the salted cured meats”, to quote George’s girlfriend in an episode of Seinfeld, is an easy sell. Gefilte fish – a traditional and pungent Jewish dish made from poached white fish – is another story. “It’s a losing proposition,” said Dell, “I personally don’t blame people that don’t want to try it because the gefilte fish you get that’s in the jar in the gelatine might be the grossest thing in the history of the world. I honestly think it’s worse than Vegemite.” But the homemade gefilte fish log at Katz’s deli is enough to convert even the most cynical. According to Dell the only problem is they’ll never be able to eat it anywhere else. “I could eat an entire log of it, which I recognise it’s disgusting,” he said. 

Talking about his sandwiches non-stop for a week was enough to make Dell homesick. “The first thing I’m going to do when I come back from Australia is have a pastrami on rye,” he said. Apparently you can never have too much of a good thing. Or at least that was my argument for Vegemite, which Dell was forced to eat on air during a couple of interviews that same morning. The verdict? “It’s somewhere between salt and tar.” He was more than mildly amused when I mentioned that an American company owns Vegemite. 

Jake Dell on Melbourne 

To think like a Melburnian, you have to drink like a Melburnian, and there’s no brew more beguiling than those little brown beans. You would think that after spending three days in Sydney and one in Melbourne, Dell would have been adept at ordering coffee by the time we met, especially now that Melbourne is officially home to the best coffee in the world

“I just keep saying ‘black’ and [the staff are] like, ‘what the hell are you talking about?’” But after a lesson on how to order flat whites, Dell was temporarily converted. But there’s more to Melbourne than drinking coffee, such as eating at restaurants and cafés that rival the best in the world And Dell knew it, too. “This is my list,” Dell said, showing me his loaned iPhone. He had done well: St. Crispin, MoVida, Pope Joan, Da Noi, Chin Chin and St. Ali were all there. Before he flew into Melbourne Dell led a media masterclass in Sydney, turning the tables on the journalists and asking them where to eat in Melbourne. The first half of our strictly timed, 30-minute interview was spent growing a to-eat list that was already unachievable given Dell’s time frame. The least I could do was lend a hand. 

We met the next day at Federation Square, where we walked up Degraves Street avoiding city slickers sipping lattes in the street while discussing the lack of poached eggs on American breakfast menus. I forced him to stop and sniff the Gerwurzhaus’ Aussie spice mix in Block Arcade, taking in the historical architecture and pointing out Hopetoun Tearooms before strolling up China Town. I felt it was my duty as a Melburnian to direct him to the source of our city’s best soup dumplings (xiao long bao), Hutong Dumpling Bar. Dell, a fan of the juicy little parcels, once visited as many New York dumpling joints as conceivably possible in a single night in an attempt to uncover the city’s best. 

We took a right on Spring Street and stopped at Spring Street Grocer. I dragged Dell down the orange spiral staircase into the cheese cellar, the cavernous space straight out of Europe with its shiny green and white tiles, industrial lighting and piquant perfume. I had visited the day before, unable to resist ordering pastrami on rye at the Grocer’s sandwich bar post interview. Back on street level we were destined for Gelato Primavera, the artisan gelato shop connected to the Grocer. I was gladly talked into ordering velvety hazelnut while Dell scoffed a more subtle ‘coco nana’. They were finished by the time we arrived at Cumulus Inc. Life’s too short not to eat dessert first.

Spring St Grocer on Urbanspoon

Jake Dell on Trends 

With dessert always on my mind, I was keen to hear Dell’s thoughts on the biggest food fad of 2013, the half-crossaint-half-doughnut pastry created (and trademarked) “the cronut” by Dominique Ansel Bakery in Soho. “The cronut is the stupidest thing in the world.” Dell's words, not mine. I knew I liked him. 

“Who gives a shit? I’m all for doughnuts. I’m all for croissants. I’m all for fusion but it has to be creative fusion. The fusions that I like are foods that are so inherently different in every way, shape and form and you put them together and you’re like, ‘whoa, this is amazing.’” 

Dell referenced RedFarm in New York, a Chinese restaurant that buys pastrami from Katz’s to cook up in pastrami egg rolls. “Now that’s cool,” said Dell. But ask him what he thinks of vegetarians and he’ll hesitate. An awkward laugh is likely to precede the truth: “Once you go down the road of being a vegetarian it’s hard to then switch back to the meat-eating world, or as I like to call it, the common-sense world.” I pointed out that vegetarianism has also become trendy. “That’s stupid,” says Dell again, who was then quick to point out that Katz’s have plenty of vegetarian-friendly options such as knishes, latkes, blintzes and split pea soup. 

Growing up in a Jewish household, it was unlikely that Dell would ever succumb to vegetarianism. He celebrated every birthday party at Katz’s Deli and fondly recalls each one. A neon sign reading “Jake’s bar mitzvah” still hangs in the restaurant today. Dell spends his days working at the Deli and spends his nights studying for his MBA around the corner at New York University. The business Masters is just one way he quenches his thirst for learning (taking Chinese lessons is another). Dell knows the Deli inside out, but acknowledged that there is more to be gained by learning about how the rest of the world does business. With such a packed schedule, spare time is a luxury for Dell. “I will have some Jake time at the end of next year, I believe. And then I will let you know what Jake does in his spare time,” he said after I asked him what he does for fun. 

I was also curious to know what Dell’s single, most important piece of advice would be to others about to join the family business or start their own. “Don’t do it, become a doctor,” he joked. His modesty shone once again when he said, “I don’t know, I’m not that interesting. I don’t have any sage wisdom yet. Ask me in 30 years when I’ve been doing this for a while.” I reminded him with a wink that he was on a publicity tour and he changed his tune. 

“The message? The message is ‘come to New York and eat at Katz’s!’” Dell glanced across the table at his public relations host, before cheekily adding, “And eat RYVITA!”

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