While at law school in New York, Noah Bernamoff longed for the smoked meat of his Montreal youth and so he started smoking brisket on his Brooklyn rooftop. Those early experiments were a disaster, but he kept at it. Soon, he was brining more than studying. He had witnessed the decline of the deli – epitomized in the poorly made pastrami proliferating across New York – but Mr. Bernamoff believed that it could be saved with a return to tradition married with a farm-to-table ethos. He dropped out of school and opened Mile End in Brooklyn in 2010 with his wife, Rae.
Neither of them had any restaurant experience and their quick success hit them unprepared. They had to close temporarily soon after opening because the ravenous crowds were too big for the tiny kitchen to handle. Back on track with an off-site kitchen to prep countless briskets, they went about introducing New Yorkers to reinvigorated Jewish comfort food (and hitherto unknown Montreal smoked meat). They recently wrote The Mile End Cookbook to take Jewish cuisine out of the deli and put it back in the home. (Word of warning: Smoked meat takes two weeks to make.) The Globe and Mail spoke with Noah Bernamoff at the spun-off Mile End Sandwich Shop in Manhattan.
New York City is the mecca of deli. What made you think an outsider from Montreal could break into the culture?
Delis in New York City have departed from what they were according to tradition, so for us it was kind of easy because we were putting ourselves out there as something completely different than from what you would normally get.
Is there a difference between Montreal deli and New York’s version?
I was longing for a certain experience of going to the deli that doesn’t exist in New York. I grew up going to Schwartz’s. I grew up knowing that feeling of walking in and it just being this shrine to this one product. It’s this one little room and everyone is seated together really tight and the place reeks of smoked meat. New York doesn’t have that community.
How are you redefining traditional Jewish comfort food?
The approach we take with our food is to try to make the thing that’s the most traditional we can get to. We look through a ton of different Jewish cookbooks, we’ll go to the New York Public Library and look at really old deli menus and see what they were serving. Then we set out to actually make food as traditionally as we can. What we actually now call traditional Jewish cooking is a mid-century convenience-style Jewish cooking.
Can you give an example?
People always say, “I hate gefilte fish.” When you’re used to it coming out of a jar that’s been sitting on the shelf for four years, of course it’s going to be terrible. But when you get fish and use techniques that we’ve developed to improve the texture, it’s almost like reintroducing this food to people in such a different way that they don’t even realize they’re having gefilte fish. It’s not like we’re trying to wrap bacon around matzo balls because this is what kids want to eat these days. We avoid that at all costs. We don’t want to back the bus over tradition.
People are passionate about their deli. Have you experienced any push-back?
A lot of people have a big issue with me calling this food Jewish and having it not be kosher. Because deli is such a critical part of Jewish identity, we’re constantly battling nostalgia, battling people’s memories. People can come and look at the food and say this is blasphemy, and they can eat and say this might be blasphemy but it’s damn delicious. At the most fundamental level, we’re making really good food.
Your Nana Lee’s cooking is a big inspiration. What recipes of hers have you used?
The chicken soup is pretty much my Nana’s. The chopped liver is almost hers. We made what she did and then went beyond it. The chicken soup is perfect in its simplicity, but the chopped liver, we were, like, “We can make this better.”
You write in your introduction that she passed away before you could tell her about Mile End.
I dropped out of law school and it’s not something you really want to tell your Nana. All my cousins have professional degrees. For me to be like the black sheep, I was just so scared of it. She passed away three months after we got going.
What would she think if she ate at Mile End?
I think she would really enjoy it. Before my grandfather passed away this past year, he had been down a few times. He loved it, thought it was amazing. He had the chicken soup and he couldn’t believe it and to him it was very emotional.
Given your success, any plans to expand?
While we might slowly be expanding physically, we’re also constantly evolving within the restaurant. Right now, we just stopped shipping in bagels from St-Viateur in Montreal and we’re making amazing Montreal-style bagels right here in New York with New York water, without a wood-burning stove and we’ve been secretly serving it to people without telling them anything and they still think it’s a St-Viateur bagel.
This interview has been condensed and edited.