12:59 pm Sep. 12, 2012
Among the many Yiddish words that have entered the American lexicon, the one for grandmother—bubbe, sometimes bobeshi, and on rare occasions baba—is employed with the most sentiment. Part of the reason is that Bubbes tend to have the best recipes.
On Sunday Noah Bernamoff spoke often of his bubbe. Bernamoff is the owner of Mile End, which is, at heart, just a Jewish deli in Brooklyn. But to let its description end there wouldn’t explain Bernamoff's approach, steeped in the traditions not of Brooklyn's deli heritage but those of Montreal's equally storied Jewish food history. The food is mannered yet unfussy with emphasis placed squarely on process (he cures, pickles, and bakes everything in his kitchen in Red Hook). Bernamoff is able to honor classic dishes while also experimenting with ingredients his bubbe would have never thought to use. On Sunday, he and his wife and co-owner Rae, celebrated the release of The Mile End Cookbook at BookCourt.
Rae Bernamoff arrived 45 minutes before the event, toting a case of beer and looking as if she’d been ripped out of a '60s fashion magazine in her flouncy polka dot blouse tucked neatly into red flared skirt and with her dark, blunt bangs, bouffant up-do, and cat's-eye glasses. She was slightly frazzled, negotiating our interview while setting up a spread of deli snacks—chopped liver, pickles, and lox with a shmear. Rae did not come up with the idea for starting a Montreal style Jewish deli, but she's neck-deep in it now.
Since its opening in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Mile End has never seen a slow day. And the deli’s phenomenal success can be traced back to a single photograph.
“New York magazine ran a piece in November of 2009, three months before we officially opened, and it was a full-size picture of the smoked meat sandwich,” Rae told me. “People would come clutching that ripped-up piece of the article, knocking on the newspaper-covered windows, trying to get in to get the sandwich.”
The Bernamoffs moved to Brooklyn from Montreal three years ago. Unhappy in law school, Noah started experimenting with smoked meat on his roof of his apartment building. Jewish food is decidedly regional. A heaping mound of pastrami on rye from Katz’s or the 2nd Avenue deli is not like a pastrami on rye from Montreal. For them, there is only smoked meat. As a Montreal native, Noah set out to recreate the food he’d been eating all his life.
Starting out with ten items on the menu, centered on that traditional, Montreal-style smoked meat sandwich, the smell of slowly cured smoked meat on rye has invigorated Jews and non-Jews alike. People are clamoring for it. The deli goes through 400 pounds of meat each day. The scent of meticulously-tended meat hangs in the air the minute you walk in. The 400 square-foot restaurant—with a small bar area, three communal butcher blocks and a miniature table nestled in the window—can accommodate around twenty-five people (“with the seating we tried to hedge our bets a little,” Noah admitted.) At the bar, the meat is pulled out and sliced in front of you. That meat sandwich has enabled the Bernamoffs (along with business partner Max Levine) to expand the deli menu and open a sandwich shop in Noho.
A cookbook seemed like the natural next step, and the Bernamoffs treated the opportunity as one not to show off their culinary imaginations so much as to preserve a vanishing food tradition.
“Noah’s grandma passed away right before we opened the restaurant and that’s what really changed our approach,” Rae explained, “it very much shifted the focus to this food that is sort of being lost.
A lot of the recipes were inspired by Noah’s grandmother.” Rae continued, “But there are others, particularly the deli items which never made it in most Jewish homes. For us, it was looking back on the food that Noah’s grandmother always made and foods that we used to enjoy in delis around the city around Montreal.”
At the book launch fans of the restaurant dug in to the spread. Rae's mother seemed surprised that so many people were there. She asked Mile End’s baker if all their desserts are kosher (much of the menu is not exactly kosher). She plans on making a big catering order for the High holidays.
Chef, food critic, and author Peter Kaminsky led the Q&A. Recently Kaminsky, who has written about his struggles with being overweight, chose to change his diet and eat more wisely). Yet his diet isn’t free of indulgences, one of which is Mile End’s sandwich.
"The foods that I grew up with and what made me want to become a food writer were getting really old and tired,“ Kamisky began, “and that’s why I was so excited, and remain so, with Mile End, because I don’t know if you call it resuscitated or reinvented…. They just did something magnificent with the food.”
Kaminsky and the Bernamoffs talked about how they’ve tinkered with traditional Jewish dishes. Kasha Varnishkes—kasha (a grain with a buckwheat quality) combined with egg noodles—was one Noah saw fit to reimagine.
“I added chanterelle mushrooms to it,” he said, in a decidedly no-nonsense way, “and making the noodles yourselves is definitely something bubbe would do." But for the Bernamoffs, the journey has also been about what bubbe didn't do, what they now have a chance to do, and that's move the cuisine forward.
“When it came to thinking and traditional Jewish cooking you start with the most obvious bare-bones traditions and see how it can improve, see how we can infuse it with some of the things that we know now that maybe our grandmas didn’t know back then."
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